|A Bruins Five-Point plan for taking down the Habs||04.14.09 at 11:53 pm ET|
If hockey was played on a simple sheet of lined paper, the Bruins would wipe the frozen ice floor with the eighth-seeded Canadiens in a four- or five-game laugher of a series. The high-powered B’s have seven players with at least 20 goals, the best shutdown defenseman in the NHL, a likely Vezina Trophy winner between the pipes that feels like he’s got something to prove in the postseason and — last, but not least — they have a home ice advantage that gives them a Game 7 in the Bear’s Den otherwise known as the TD Banknorth Garden.
That might not be essential or that big an advantage in the early games, but it’s pretty close to everything in a Game 7 as Boston saw firsthand at the Bell Centre last season.
The Black and Gold have been the class of the Eastern Conference for nearly the entire season, and they’ve easily handled the hated Habs to the tune of a 5-0-1 regular-season record. More than the results on the scoreboard, the B’s have repeatedly pounded the Canadiens with their penchant for the physical play, and fans will remember this season’s indellible images for years to come: Milan Lucic tangling with Mike Komisarek at center ice and completely manhandling the Habs defenseman before raising his hands and smacking them against the penalty box glass in Gladiator-like victory; Tim Thomas exploding from his crease and decking Andrei Kostitsyn in front of the net after a questionable collision with Aaron Ward in the corner; Georges Laraque chasing Lucic all over the Bell Centre frozen sheet amid catcalls and boos from the partisan crowd of Habs fans, and Lucic turning around and scoring a game-changing goal amid the fury.
It’s been an eventful six-game regular season set after a memorable playoff series last spring, and the upcoming series is one the Big Bad Bruins could and should win.
But the Canadiens shouldn’t be underestimated and simply waved off with a “Bah, they’ll fold in five games” type attitude. This series won’t be played out on paper.
Bruins players and coaches got a good glimpse at how the Canadiens are going to attack this series during that fist-filled visit to Boston last Thursday, and the upcoming series will involve embellishing, diving, turtling and invoking any and all thespian skills that will put the Bleu, Blanc and Rouge on the PP.
Over the last six week, Alex Kovalev has decided to start playing, and he makes the Montreal man advantage deadly. Carey Price has regained some of the confidence that he lost midway through the season, and won’t be the liability that some believe him to be in a playoff series. Andrei Markov, a 60-point defenseman during the regular season, could be back midway through a series from a knee injury, and would give the Habs a big momentum push if they’re hanging in the series.
The Habs aren’t as bad as the eighth seed would indicate them to be (after all this is a good portion of the same hockey club that earned the No. 1 seed the year before and looked to be the class of the Eastern Conference), and this series will be a bit too close for comfort. With that in mind, here are five keys to victory if the Bruins hope to take care of business, knock the playoff futility monkey off the organization’s back that’s been growing big and strong over the last 10 years and retain the goodwill that’s been built up through such a noteworthy regular season.
1. Win Game One. At all costs. With the No. 1 seed and a fan base that’s come to expect the worst when the postseason is involved, it’s vital the Bruins get on top of the Habs early and refuse to let the slippery skaters out from under their grasp. If the Bruins drop a bomb in Game One — or even lose a tight, well-played one-goal game — then uncomfortable questions begin to crop up. Questions about the fact that the B’s haven’t been able to advance to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs since 1998-99. Questions about how badly it will set a resurgent franchise back if they stumble again in the first round this season.
Questions that nobody wearing a Spoked B sweater wants to start answering, and questions that will start building pressure within the Bruins dressing room. All of that potential toil and trouble can be completely wiped off the plane of existence if the B’s do something in Game One that they’ve already done 53 times this season — and done with regularity against anybody donning a CCH sweater this winter: simply play well and win.
2.Milan Lucic, a guy who will clearly be tested by Montreal Public Enemy No. 1 Mike Komisarek during the upcoming series, probably put the next “key to victory” best when I asked him about how different a playoff-style game will be from last Thursday night’s donnybrook-filled homage to “Slapshot.” In short, Big Looch won’t be chasing his defenseman nemesis down from behind and slapping the sleeper hold on Komisarek while rag-dolling him to the ice.
“For us, we need to play toward our strength and our advantages if we want to have success,” said Lucic. “It’s difficult, but for me personally it’s easier (to reign) it in because there’s more at stake. When something happens that you didn’t like, it’s easier to bite your lip and take it like a man (in the playoffs). There’s more at stake and there are times you’re going to have to take one for the team to give your team the advantage.
“It’s hard because the fans go up a notch, the game goes up a notch and everything else goes up a notch (when there’s a fight), but then again it’s easier because there’s more at stake. You could be hurting your team taking a stupid, retaliatory penalty.”
So that’s a big check next to the box marked “Turn the other cheek and refuse to retaliate when Messrs. Komisarek, O’Byrne and Kostoupolos come calling and looking for power play opportunities”.
3. One of the biggest keys to victory in the entire series will be stopping Kovalev, the moody Russian superstar who absolutely killed the Bruins last season with power-play score after power-play score. This season, perhaps pouting on the ice due to philosophical differences with Guy Carbonneau, Kovalev seemed to be asleep at the switch for much of the season — a situation that got so bad that GM/interim coach Bob Gainey told Kovalev to take a two-game hike at mid-season to find his game. But the highly-skilled sniper has come alive over the last six weeks. Kovalev has 11 goals in 15 games since the beginning of March, and has an eye-opening eight power-play strikes over that time period.
The Habs have surged from the bottom of the league to middle of the pack in terms of power play efficiency over the second-half of the season, and that’s all about, A) the acquisition of Mathieu Schneider at the trade deadline and, B) Kovalev playing with more physical and mental involvement as the playoffs have inched closer. The B’s will need to keep Kovalev’s PP unit off the ice at all costs, and Zdeno Chara will have to play the shutdown game that left Kovalev with two goals and a -4 in four games against the B’s this season.
4.In Timmy They Trust. Tim Thomas was good in last season’s seven-game series against the Habs, but the 35-year-old netminder enters this postseason extremely motivated on several different fronts. Of course, Thomas has never been the winning goaltender in an NHL playoff series and that slight little bit of doubt serves as motivational fuel in Thomas the Tank’s ever-burning engine. Thomas is also out to prove that B’s GM Peter Chiarelli made the right choice in signing four-year, $20 million extension, and that great hockey players earn their money by raising their game in April and May.
Thomas needs to be at least as good as he was during the season when he led in the NHL in the two real “Gold Standard” goaltender statistics, and perhaps even better when the competition gets tougher and more skilled with each rung on the playoff ladder. Thomas struggled in the second period of last Thursday’s game against Montreal and looked as shaky as he has all season, but he rebounded in the third period and OT and will need to harness that through an entire postseason that’s riding on his shoulders.
“I think there was a lot of pressure on us as the eighth seed last year just because it was Boston/Montreal. Hopefully that will help us this year,” said Thomas. “We haven’t had too many easy nights this year. Teams didn’t roll over on us. Sometimes when you’re the third or fourth seed you can catch a team a little bit unaware, but when you’re the Top Dog you don’t sneak up on anybody. Hopefully that will help us.
“The pressure is definitely on to win this series and win in the playoffs, but you can’t look past this series and you can’t look past Thursday,” said Thomas. “You guys (in the media) are big picture and we’re little picture. I want to prove Peter (Chiarelli) right. I want to do well to prove that this organization made the right decision (signing me). I want to use that fuel.”
5.Krejci scores and the Bruins win. It’s as simple as that. Marc Savard and Phil Kessel have been a dynamic, dangerous duo on the top line and the Chuck Kobasew/Patrice Bergeron/Mark Recchi line has done serious damage in since the trade deadline, but there aren’t many — or perhaps any teams — that can hang with the highly-skilled Bruins when David Krejci is clicking with Michael Ryder and Lucic and racking up enough points to give Boston scoring threats on all three top lines. The B’s are 19-0-1 when Krejci scores a goal and an amazing 38-2-5 when the puck magician registers even a single point. Pretty simple formula: Krejci ends up on the scoresheet and the B’s are a Pete Sheppard-lock for victory.
|Bergeron puts Bruins up by one after one||04.09.09 at 6:49 pm ET|
2:02: After a first period that should have you jacked and pumped for the Stanley Cup playoffs unless you’re heart has stopped beating, the B’s draw first blood with a Patrice Bergeron goal right in front. The Bergeron score was the end of some tic-tac passing with Mark Recchi flipping it cross-ice to Matt Hunwick bombing down the right side. Hunwick picked his head up and found Bergeorn all alone at the right post, and fed a sweet tape-to-tape pass for the tap-in. Canadiens defenseman Josh Gorges cross-checked Bergeron from behind after the puck was in the net, and set off an extended pushing and shoving scrum.
0:00: All heck broke loose at the end of the first period as Mike Komisarek, who has been active all period, went in after David Krejci in the corner. The two pushed and shoved, and then Zdeno Chara arrived and started throwing elbows and jobs at Komisarek. The entanglement started a team-wide donnybrook in the corner, and both Chara and Komisarek were whistled off for penalties. Komisarek was hit with a two-minute penalty (roughing) and Chara got four minutes (double minor for roughing) after coming in late to stand up for Krejci.
The Bruins are leading the Canadiens by a 1-o score after one full period at the TD Banknorth Garden.
|A good day for Thomas, but what about the B’s?||04.03.09 at 10:04 am ET|
So Tim Thomas is now in the fold for four more years at roughly $5 million per season.
It’s certainly more than justified on several levels after two straight All-Star seasons and a likely Vezina Trophy-worthy piece of work this winter that’s primed the Killer B’s for a run at the Cup. The 34-year-old goaltender is, after all, a rousing success story after kicking around anonymous hockey spots like the unforgettable Detroit Vipers of the IHL and Karpat in the Finnish Elite League. Thomas spent more than five years riding buses and team-hopping before finally getting his “shot” with a Boston Bruins club that wasn’t much more than a pile of hockey wreckage in 2005-06. Thomas flourished amid a generally lousy situation, though, and he hasn’t looked back while entertaining Bruins Nation with his athletic, unyielding , original style between the pipes. Thomas is a blue collar Flint, Michigan product through and through, and he fits the Big, Bad B’s mold to a ‘T’.
But there’s obviously a big ”but” in there, and we ain’t talkin’ the Larry Fitzgerald kind either.
In the brave new salary cap world of the NHL it is dangerous to dole out big cap numbers to players based primarily on past performance rather than future yield, and Thomas is approaching his 35th birthday this month. That seems to have been the impetus behind the deal, as inking it before his April 15 birthday allows the Bruins to potentially buy out the pact if Thomas suffers a serious decline in performance over the next three seasons – or suffers a chronic injury that saps away at his ability to function as the franchise-type goaltender he’s now being paid to be.
Many ”hockey pundits”, myself included, thought that something in the $3-4 million range was reasonable and good value for a soon-to-be 35-year netminder that’s finally found a home — and a payday — after essentially serving as the posterboy for the “Have Pads, Will Travel” set over the last decade. But a three-year deal in the $5 mill per annum range blows that “good value” figure out of the water, and puts Thomas in some pretty rarefied air within the world of goaltenders. Thomas will have to continue performing at an elite level until he’s 38 years-old to “earn” the cap hit.
Thomas is now much more than a simple rousing underdog story after packing up and moving into the same neighborhood as puckstopping elite like 32-year-old Mikka Kiprusoff ($5.8 per year), 33-year-old Marty Turco ($5.7 per year). 32-year-old Tomas Vokoun ($5.7 per year), 36-year-old Martin Brodeur ($5.2 per year) and 33-year-old Evgeny Nabokov ($5.3 per year). All perennial All-Star goaltenders in their thirties, and all of them without highly-paid, touted backups like Tuukka Rask waiting in the wings. $5 million goalies don’t need highly paid backups and certainly don’t split time with their understudy, and a hockey team really can’t function fiscally with two moneybag netminders clogging up the cash flow.
So while Thomas now has the fiscal security and job guarantee that he’s never before enjoyed in his multi-uniformed hockey career, the contact extension raises as many questions as it does answers with regard to the post-playoff run Bruins of next year.
Thomas and Manny Fernandez combined to earn roughly $5.3 million this season as a goaltending duo, and it was expected that the B’s might be able to save and scrimp on their goaltending account going forward with so many pivotal contract questions heading into the offseason. The current $56.7 salary cap is expected to decrease by more than $2 million next season, and now the Bruins potentially have as much as $8 million plus tied up into goaltenders next season if both Thomas and Rask ($3.25 million if he hits all contract bonuses) are suited up in Spoked B sweaters and on the books.
Simply put, you can’t sink that kind of money into goaltending and then hope to sign restricted free agents like Phil Kessel, David Krejci and Matt Hunwick — and keep the current Cup-worthy team intact for another run at it again next season.
Something has to give.
This is why Phil Kessel’s name was mentioned in trade discussions prior to the March trade deadline, and this is why you’ll hear some shocking names — those of Patrice Bergeron and Chuck Kobasew most assuredly — available this summer before salary cap hell commences over the next two seasons. It’s also why you may hear Rask’s name enter the trade talk fray with restricted free agency approaching after next season, and the B’s now making a pretty ironclad commitment to Thomas.
It’s not a given that — given the salary cap climate and the current state of both the American and Canadian economy — Thomas would have received a three-year, $5 million plus offer out on the open market — a place where it appears that a market correction may be in the offing as it was in the world of baseball this offseason. If the B’s had waited until this summer, it’s possible that they could have saved themselves as much as a million on the all-important salary cap hit.
Instead the Bruins locked in the Tank and have chosen their franchise goaltender for the foreseeable future. The question now is: What is the team around him going to look like beginning next season follwing this spring’s blissful playoff run?
It ultimately might not be an answer that Bruins Nation wants to hear.
|Chuck Kobasew returns to practice ice after “maintenance” days||03.26.09 at 11:01 am ET|
WILMINGTON — Chuck Kobasew was back on the practice ice, and taking part along with Byron Bitz, Manny Fernandez, Tim Thomas, Dennis Wideman and David Krejci (who skated on Wednesday) in a limited ice at Ristucca Arena. Kobasew had missed the last two days of practice with “maintenance” issues, but was back on the ice and ready to go this morning. Kobasew leads the team with 10 goals scored since the All-Star break and has been a gritty contributor to the B’s stretch drive.
The Bruins have one more practice day tomorrow before heading on the road for a weekend return to game mode in Toronto (Saturday) and Philadelphia (Sunday) before heading back to Boston.
|Kessel and Krejci offer hope for B’s fortunes||03.12.09 at 10:44 pm ET|
The dynamic duo is intrinsically linked to the Bruins’ ultimate playoff hopes once the regular season curtain drops, and the grinding dress rehearsal ramps up into the operatic Stanley Cup playoff production.
Just call it the ballet of banging bodies and broken blades.
Kessel the finisher and Krejci the creator, as they might be known once playoff glory is potentially theirs this spring, have been knee-deep in the malaise that seems to have plagued the Black and Gold hockey club over the last five weeks.
But things changed last night after B’s coach Claude Julien played the mixed and match game with the skating lines, and both finisher and creator factored heavily into a 5-3 Boston win over the Ottawa Senators at the TD Banknorth Garden last night.
Kessel banged in his 28th and 29th goals of the season, including the game-winner on an excellent use of his blazing speed up the right side of the ice and an empty-netter that finally iced the game with a little less than a minute to go in the third period.
Sure the Bruins looked sloppy and perhaps even a bit timid in portions of the second and third period against a Sens team scheduled to be teeing it on the links once the playoff gauntlet begins, but the triumph once again banks the B’s some valuable points at a time when they’re desperately needed.
For Kessel, his mere presence on the frozen sheet in the waning minutes of a one-goal game speaks to the reservoir of confidence that the 21-year-old winger is again building up with Bruins bench boss Claude Julien. The former first round pick’s compete level has elevated to a higher ground over the last three games, he’s doggedly battling for pucks and playing tougher along the wall, and last night his effort was rewarded with a pair of good, old-fashioned lamp-lighters.
“I feel like I’ve had a lot of chances over the last little bit that I haven’t finished,” said Kessel. “The breakaway vs. Columbus (on Tuesday) and stuff like that. I just need to bear down on my chances and starting finishing them.
“It means something that when you’re out there at the end of the game,” added Kessel, who used his turbo skating speed to pot the empty-netter at the 19:04 mark of the third. “It means that the [coaching staff] trusts you out there. When the coach has that trust in you, it’s always a good thing.”
Linemate Marc Savard (two assists) freed up Kessel for his first goal with a head’s up passing play off the boards out of the D-zone, and then credited his right wing for the way he’s pulled his game together over the last week — a time when the Bruins need to be fine-tuning for future battles against playoff-style competition.
“It’s nice to see him get rewarded,” said Savard. “As a team we want to come to the rink with some smiles on our faces. Around the rink it’s been pretty dull. (Kessel) got that wide speed and that’s part of what gets our line going. I don’t want him to change. He made some defensive plays and (Kessel) was a lot stronger on the wall, and that’s going to get us out (on the ice) more. He did the job, he battled and that’s a credit to him.”
For Krejci, a new linemate in Milan Lucic paired with longtime winger Michael Ryder gave Krejci a bookend set of physically tough shotgun partners with the willingness to mix it up and create a bit of working room for the 22-year centerman to wave his magic stick. After going five straight games without a point, Krejci grabbed an assist on Boston’s second goal when he executed a perfect give-and-go with P.J. Axelsson that ended with Krejci serving up a one-timer at the right faceoff circle for the grizzled Swede.
“Today I felt awesome and I was ready,” said Krejci. “(Skating with Lucic) was a little different. He’s a good player, he’s a big body and he can find me in the middle. He did that a couple of times. When he’s going out there the defenseman get scared and they turn the puck away. He can get it , he can protect it and he can find you. He’s got good vision and I actually liked playing with him.”
It was a simple play for an elite puck talent like Krejci, but it allowed him to start building that confidence up and work toward again becoming the difference-maker Boston is going to need once the playoff bullets start flying overhead. Julien and his staff had a sit-down with Krejci recently to reinforce simplifying his at-times electric game, and the results — along with placing the brawling, bruising Lucic by his side to open up a little real estate on the frozen sheet — had him looking again like the offensive catalyst on pace to score 90 points in the first half of the year.
“I thought Krejci played pretty well tonight,” said Julien. “We’ve seen him have some tough outings lately, and tonight was one of his better games.
“I think the one thing we talked about with him was to just maybe take a step back and not look all those real fancy plays that he was capable of making earlier when his confidence was at its best,” added Julien. “Just take a step back, make good, strong plays and passes. As the game went on, I found him to be a little more confident and he started to find those kind of plays working for him again.”
Speaking of Looch, here’s a look at the first period brawl with Ottawa tough guy Chris Neil that seemed to spark the Senators after falling behind 2-0. This is perhaps one of the best examples of why fighting is necessary and still a vital part of the NHL game: the fight clearly changed momentum for Ottawa in the game and was immediately finished once Lucic was put in an exposed position with his jersey pulled over his head.
While the B’s clearly dropped back on their skating heels for a time in the second half of the game and let the Senators back into the proceedings in a flawed — but much-needed and important nonetheless — victory, the sign of both Kessel and Krejci confidently raising their arms during a B’s game in mid-March was exactly what the hockey doctor ordered.
The finisher and the creator both had solid performances in last night’s isolated win, but now it’s up to the dynamic duo to nail down the consistent excellence that seemed a B’s birthright just a few months ago.
Injury Ward: Phil Kessel and David Krejci both played extensively after getting Wednesday’s practice off. There didn’t appear to be any other Bruins injuries.
Player of the Game: Phil Kessel had a pair of goals, which marks his fourth two-goal game of the season — but his first since Dec. 18 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. Kessel’s presence on the ice in the final minute was a direct sign of the confidence Julien has in the way he’s skated over the last handful of games.
Goat Horns: Andrew Ference. The normally rock-solid and reliable defensemanwas saddled with a -3 on the evening, and struggled to break the puck out of the zone in the latter half of the game. Ference has been effective enough, but not nearly as good as he was in the first month of the season prior to breaking a bone in his leg.
Turning Point: The perfect pairing of Savard’s heady passing and unteachable instincts and Kessel’s blazing speed and true shot teamed together for the B’s fourth score — the eventual game-winner. Give a big bit of props to Milan Lucic as well, as he drew some of the defense away from Kessel by rushing up the left side of the ice opposite Phil the Thrill.
|B’s still hold to a 3-1 lead over Senators||at 7:16 pm ET|
15:05: Great net front presence here in the second period as both Krejci and Bitz had rebound/tips that nearly snuck past Auld. Really like the room that rugged skaters Lucic and Ryder are creating for Krejci.
11:07: Dany Heatley camped out in front with a great pass from the sideboards, but Thomas stops the initial bid that was fumbled a bit by the Ottawa sniper and then Heatley misses wide left with a second poke at it.
6:50: Big hit by Wheeler on Ottawa defenseman Brendan Bell behind the Senators net. Wheeler has been involved physically and backchecking a bit more than the last time I saw playing in this building last week. The hit opened up a shot on net for Byron Bitz that Auld was able to stop.
4:06: Outstretched pad save by Auld on Krejci, set up by Krejci’s aggressive move toward the net through an Ottawa defender. Krejck dusted himself off and went to the net and Ryder found him with pass from the corner, but Auld swing out the quick pad. Krejci has looked energized tonight.
Bruins still lead the Senators by a 3-1 score at the end of the second period.
|Kessel and Krejci are in tonight’s lineup, Yelle out||at 11:08 am ET|
David Krejci and Phil Kessel both missed Wednesday’s practice with minor bumps and bruises, but will be in the lineup against the Ottawa Senators tonight at the TD Banknorth Garden. Kessel appeared to injure his left arm during Tuesday night’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets while Krejci took a shot off the foot during the game as well. Stephane Yelle will miss his third straight game with an “upper body injury” after tumbling back against the boards versus the Blackhawks.
“They should be good to go,” said Julien of Krejci and Kessel. “Stephane won’t go.
Rookie Byron Bitz will again center the fourth line with PJ Axelsson and Shawn Thornton, a spot that he manned during the majority of his collegiate career at Cornell University prior to signing with the Bruins. So it’s not exactly unfamiliar territory for the unusually composed young guy.
The 6-foot-5, 215-pounder certainly gives the Black and Gold a bit more of a size and strength package up the middle with smaller centers like Marc Savard, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron holding up the other pivot positions.
“I think he’s done a pretty good job there,” said Julien of “Bitz Cat”. “He’s done a good job because he’s played (at center) most of his career, and he played there a lot when he was Providence last year as well. This was the first year where they utilized him more at a wing and we wanted to see him play that game as well.
“It’s not much of an adjustment when you’ve played (center) most of your career,” added Julien.
–Julien also said that he doesn’t feel that his Bruins club is that far off after watching a solid win over the Chicago Blackhawks and tight, competitive losses to highly motivated hockey clubs in New York and Columbus over their last two games.
“Anybody who has watched us closely knows that the effort has been there the last three games,” said Julien. “It takes timely goals and timely saves that you hope to get along the way. We’re working on those situations and creating them, and our goaltender is trying to make that extra save we need.
“It doesn’t mean because we’ve lot a game that we’re playing bad hockey,” added Julien. “I don’t know that we’ve lost a game 8-0 or 8-2 like some of the teams at the top of the standings have done this year, so we can’t be that bad.”
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