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Kessel on the Big Show 12.18.08 at 11:21 am ET
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Among a team of young Bruins breathing life into a previously moribund franchise, Phil Kessel has been the brightest constellation in the Bruins hockey universe. The 21-year-old winger has become a dynamic scoring force in his third year in the league, and has paired with Marc Savard to become one of the top scoring duos in the NHL this season. People keep looking for a specific turning point for Kessel, and he surely has stepped up his intensity and two-way play. But don’t overlook that this is the first time in his NHL career that young Kessel has played an extended amount of time with a legit playmaker in Marc Savard at the center position.

Kessel keeps on doing that biscuit/basket thing...

Kessel keeps on doing that biscuit/basket thing...

They had always played together in short bursts through their careers in Boston, but this 30 game stretch is the longest period of time that their two intertwining skills have been married on the frozen sheet. (Just look at last season’s early box scores when Savard was skating with Peter Schaefer and Brandon Bochenski…my how times have changed.)

Kessel was recently named the Top Star in last week’s NHL Three Stars competition, and was a guest of WEEI’s Big Show yesterday afternoon. Here’s the transcript:

What’s the difference? What light went on? PK: You know, I don’t know. I think I’m getting some better chances skating with Savard and Lucic. You play with those two and we have pretty good chemistry together. They find me in good spots and I’m getting some good chances.

It’s got to be reassuring that Lucic is one of the top policeman in the league right now and he can also put the puck in the net. PK: Obviously it’s nice and he clears a lot of room for me and Savvy out there. He’s a skilled player too and he can really make things happen out there.

What’s it like being a Bruin now as opposed to two years ago? PK: It’s way different. My first year you could really just tell there wasn’t as much support for the Bruins. You would go to the games and there weren’t as many fans. It’s way different now. There’s much more hype now. We’re getting big crowds and people are into it, and it feels much different to be a Bruin right now.

What has Claude Julien meant to you personally? PK: Well, ah I think he’s helped me mature as a hockey player and helped my two-way game improve. He always tells me that if you play good defense then the offense will come.

You guys have an 11 game win streak at home. How much do you feed off playing at a full house? PK: It’s been a big factor when it’s a packed house and the fans are excited and loud. We get fired up and want to play that much harder to get a win in our own building.

Blake Wheeler…you guys were teammates in Minnesota. Have you been surprised by how quickly he’s developed at such a young age? PK: Well, he’s a great player. Obviously he was a high draft pick and he’s one of my buddies. Playing with him at Minnesota, I knew what kind of player he is and what kind of skill he brings. Overall, I wasn’t overly surprised that he’s having a good year and playing really well for us.

Phil, did you help recruit him at all to the Bruins? PK: No. I stayed out of it. He’s one of my good friends, but that was his decision. He has to make his choice that’s best for him. Obviously, he’s chosen Boston and its worked out pretty well for him.

We saw the highlights when Chara went out and protected you. What does that mean in the locker room? PK: It means a lot. It means that he’s a great leader. It means guys care for each other. When a guy will scrap for another guy I think it says a lot for the guy. Obviously he’s our Captain and he’s a great leader in the locker room. It means a lot to our team.

Do you buy him a watch or anything? PK: Yeah, right. Obviously I said thank you for that. It means a lot for a teammate to step up and defend you.

After the series with the Canadiens the team was definitely headed in the right direction. But could you have dreamed the team would have this much success? PK: Well, you always have to believe that. You’ve always got to go out and work hard on your game, and get better with each game and with each practice. You just keep going and moving forward.

Phil, you seem to really take advantage of your speed. Sometimes it can take a while for a young player to find ways to create space, though. Was there a turning point for you where you found a way to create more space? PK: Obviously it took a little bit. I think this year has been a little different because I’ve been skating with Savvy and Looch, and we just have good chemistry out there. Looch gives us a lot of space and Savvy will find you with the puck wherever you’re at. You just have to get open. When you’re open it’s better because he’s going to get the puck around to you pretty much all the time.

There also seems to be a big difference with this team, particularly in the power play this year. What’s been the difference? PK: I think that we’re getting more shots and making more plays getting pucks to the net. I think we’ve got more screens going on in front of the net, and guys are willing to pay the price to score goals.

Can you talk about the nice mix of young guys and veterans on this Bruins team? PK: Well, I think it’s really important. We’ve got a good mix of young guys, older guys and rookies. I think everybody cares about each other on this team and would do anything for the other guys. When you have that in the locker room, it makes it much easier to go out on the ice and do whatever it takes to win hockey games.

Tim Thomas established himself last year. Manny Fernandez has played well this season. Can you talk about the play of the goalies this year? PK: Yeah, it’s comforting for our team. No matter who’s in net, we’re confident they’re going to play well for us. We’ve got two really elite goaltenders that can go in between the pipes for us. They’re going to stop the puck and play great for us every night.

How important has it been to play through some of the injuries this season, particularly on the blue line? PK: You just look at it like we’ve got a lot of good young guys in Providence and whoever gets called up is going to step in right away and contribute. [Matt] Hunwick has been having a great season for us, and the other night I thought Marty Karsums came up and did really well for us. He did all of the little things right. We’re just confident we can put anybody in the lineup and they’ll do great for us.

For the first time in a long time, this team has three really great lines. It’s very refreshing to see that. PK: We can roll all of our lines and be confident that they’re going to do the job. If you look at Krejci, Wheeler and Ryder’s line they’re playing great right now and scoring a lot of goals. Bergie’s line is doing well too, but they’ve just got to get going. I think they’re playing good hockey and it’ll eventually show up more on the offensive end.

Is there any one guy you kind of lean on in the locker room for advice and things like that? PK: I don’t think anyone in particular. I think we’re a pretty close-knit group and every guy looks out for each other and will help any of the other guys.

Read More: Boston Bruins, David Krejci, Marc Savard, Marty Karsums Print  |  Email   | Bark It Up!  |  Digg It
Bruins’ pace of scoring 12.15.08 at 8:18 am ET
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The Bruins have taken their share of thunderous hits and injuries as of late...

The Bruins have taken their share of thunderous hits and injuries as of late...

Though it’s starting to seem more like a MASH unit than a hockey team, injuries haven’t stopped the brazen Bruins from streaking on a number of different fronts. The Back in Black B’s have won 11 straight games within the friendly confines of the TD Banknorth Garden, Phil Kessel has grown into one of the most dangerous scorers in all of the NHL and posted  at least one point in an NHL-best 15 straight games, and veteran netminder Manny Fernandez has emerged from Tim Thomas’ shadow to win eight straight games.

One has to wonder when some of the myriad injuries will seriously affect a B’s train that just keeps on rollin’, but — in the even better news department — coach Claude Julien is optimistic that Marco Sturm might be available later on this week.

“[Aaron] Ward, lower body, he’s still day-to-day.  [Marco] Sturm, upper body, he’s actually, yeah, we know about Sturm, but again, my comment with him would be ‘cautiously optimistic’ because it was very good [Saturday]. It was even better than [Friday], and you’ve heard me say that many times, but unfortunately with those injuries there’s sometimes setbacks, but I’m going to say cautiously optimistic and he’s heading in the right direction,” said Julien. ”[He’s on the LTIR right now] because, dating it back to when it happened, he’s still good for Thursday.  It’s the month.  It’s just the, I guess you’ll call it paperwork.  Nokie [Petteri Nokelainen], upper body.”

The Nokelainen injury could keep the Finnish forward out of the lineup for a week or longer, according to Bruins coach Claude Julien, but Spoked B keeps turning and winning.

Since the Bruins continue to win and ring up points on an incredibly consistent basis, I figured now would be a good time to project some of the current offensive numbers over the course of an entire 82-game regular season. Here it goes along with a brief note for each player that’s been a major factor this season:

Marc Savard (22 goals, 71 assists for 93 points): Savard was on a pace to top 100 points for the first time in his career until going through a bit of a quiet stretch as of late. His current pace is right in line with the rest of his assist-crazy career, but the whopping +46 he’s on pace for would be the stat to focus on when it comes to the nifty centerman.

Phil Kessel (52 goals, 33 assists for 85 points): By far the biggest jump on the team for the Bruins, as he went from solid 40 point threat to bona fide sniper in his third NHL season. Kessel has been deadly on the power play and is on pace to bank 16 power play tallies this season. Would be the first 50 goal scorer for Boston since a guy named Cam Neely if he can stay consistent.

David Krejci has blossomed into a No. 2 center in his second NHL season

David Krejci has blossomed into a No. 2 center in his second NHL season

David Krejci (22 goals, 57 assists for 79 points): Krejci has stepped up to give the Black and Gold the kind of strength up the middle at the center position that teams can only dream of. As good as he’s been through the first portion of the season, there’s always the back-of-your-mind feeling that he can be even better than he’s already been. When he unleashes it, the young center has a blistering shot to go along with his keen instincts.

Michael Ryder (27 goals, 30 assists for 57 points): Wasn’t it just a few weeks ago that the Greek Chorus was bemoaning Ryder’s inability to live up the free agent contract he signed before the season because he is…like…here to score goals. Well, the critics have curbed their song of woe as Ryder continues to score goals in a big bunch. In seemingly no time at all Ryder has risen to second on the team with 10 goals scored this season.

Milan Lucic (25 goals, 33 assists for 58 points): Looch had stated that his offensive goal this season was to score between 20-30 goals in addition to his typical game of intimidation and rough stuff. For a 20-year-old left winger still learning his craft, a 50 plus point season would represent a quantum leap forward for the big left winger.

Dennis Wideman (19 goals, 30 assists for 49 points): The 25-year-old blueliner has finally arrived at a development spot where people aren’t bringing up Brad Boyes anymore. Many now realize that a legit puck-moving defenseman is worth the same as a potential 40 goal scorer. Wideman is on pace for career-highs in nearly every category while Boyes is on his way to a big minus number with the Blues this season.

Patrice Bergeron (11 goals, 36 assists for 47 points): Bergeron has definitely started out of gate slowly for the Bruins after missing nearly all of last season with a horrific concussion, but he still brings value with his hockey smarts, faceoff ability and defensive responsibility. If he ever gets it going circa 2005-06, this team will be extremely tough to stop.

Blake Wheeler (25 goals, 22 assists for 47 points): The rookie is already ahead of schedule, so numbers like these would be gravy. It isn’t unrealistic to expect his scoring pace to improve as the season goes on — provided he can sidestep the rookie wall he’s sure to run head-long into – if he keeps developing and keeps it in his mind to shoot the puck more.  He’s on a pace for a +49 this season, which is a testament to the responsible two-way hockey he’s played as a 22-year-old rookie.

I must break you!

I must break you!

Zdeno Chara (16 goals and 25 assists for 41 points): Big Z is another player like Bergeron that hasn’t had the best start to his season despite the team’s success, and his slow beginning is also attributable to injury: Chara had surgery to repair a torn labrum after last season. Despite all of the injury talk with Chara, however, the towering blueliner is still averaging a team-best 25:50 of ice time.

Chuck Kobasew (14 goals and 25 assists for 39 points): Kobasew missed the first part of the season after taking a shot off the leg, but has averaged nearly a point per game since his return. Kobasew should easily surpass his projected numbers if he can remain injury-free — a question mark given the rugged way he plays the game of hockey at a relatively small 6-foot and 195 pounds.

Matt Hunwick (8 goals and 30 assists for 38 points): 14 points and a +14 in only 18 games played? Things are looking very promising for the 23-year-old Michigan native, and the quick-skating, puck-moving defenseman could be a member of the Bruins blueline corps for a good long time. What a revelation…he saved this team once injuries hit the blueline.

Marco Sturm (16 goals and 16 assists for 32 points): Sturm got off to a slow start and is now being slowed by a concussion/neck injury that’s caused him to miss 11 straight games. It’s beginning to look like a bit of a lost season for the 30-year-old German winger, but that can certainly change with a healthy, happy second half of the season.

Stephane Yelle (11 goals and 14 assists for 25 points): The 34-year-old center has been a perfect addition at a bargain basement price by GM Peter Chiarelli. Solid on faceoffs once he read the tendencies of his Eastern Conference opponents and invaluable on a much-improved PK unit, Yelle — while no threat for the Hart Trophy – and the intangibles he brings to the table have been everything the Bruins were hoping for.

P.J. Axelsson (3 goals and 19 assists for 22 points): While Axelsson is known for his defensive game and skating ability, the 33-year-old Swede has also potted double-digit goal totals over the last three seasons. It’s been an uncharacteristic slow start for Axy and he’s on pace to be a -14 for the season, but he did register a huge shootout goal against the Blackhawks earlier this season. Amazing that it took 24 games for Axelsson to register his first goal.

Andrew Ference (0 goals and 19 assists for 19 points): The 29-year-old was on pace for his best NHL season when he went down with a broken tibia and he won’t be back until January. Ference’s veteran savvy, grit and experience will be beneficial when the Bruins get to the playoffs. Hunwick has stepped in ably when injuries mounted, but the Bruins will need Ference when the going gets tough.

Shane Hnidy (3 goals and 11 assists for 14 points): The 33-year-old is another Bruins player that is in line to have a career year, and the +30 pace that he’s on would blow away his career-best. Hnidy may see his minutes dwindle once both Ference and Ward return to the fold, but he’s been a solid cog in the blueline corps.

Mark Stuart (8 goals and 5 assists for 13 points): A true stay-at-home defenseman that’s perfected the art of the forearm shiver in his own zone. The 24-year-old has a good, hard shot from the point when he has a chance to utilize it and brings a unique skill set and physical bent to the B’s blueline corps.

Shawn Thornton (3 goals and 8 assists for 11 points): Thornton’s value is in areas that can’t be measured by statistics, but the 31-year-old has never reached double-digit totals in any season during his five-year career. The fearless winger gives the Bruins team much of its courage and sets the tone by always watching the backs of his teammates. He’s on a pace for 169 penalty minutes, which would easily be a career-high.

Aaron Ward (0 goals and 8 assists for 8 points): Ward and Stuart have many of the same skills, but the 35-year-old also obviously brings a degree of leadership and Stanley Cup experience that many on this young team simply don’t have. Ward is another vital cog once this team reaches the “tournament”

Petteri Nokelainen (0 goals and 3 assists for 3 points): The 22-year-old would like to score some goals to go along with his fourth line duties, but he’s a solid energy forward with excellent faceoff abilities if/when Yelle is tossed out of the dot. One other little tidbit: Nokie leads the Bruins in penalties drawn this season with an amazing 10 in his limited playing time on the fourth line. A testament to how much grit and smarts the youngster plays with.

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Sounds of the game… Bruins 4, Thrashers 2 12.14.08 at 9:38 am ET
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The Bruins made it 11 straight home wins with a 4-2 win over the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday night at the Garden. The Bruins roll into four straight off days as the club with the second-highest point total in the NHL. Only San Jose, with a remarkable 24-3-2 record and 50 points, can boast a better mark than Boston’s 21-5-4 mark. With Phil Kessel collecting his 19th goal and Michael Ryder scoring twice, David Krejci continues to fly under the radar of some. But he won’t for long if he continues to pile up the points like he did on Saturday. Three more assists give him a team-leading 21 helpers.

David Krejci is enjoying the roll the team is on right now.

Michael Ryder appreciated the support from another electric crowd at the Garden Saturday night.

Phil Kessel on his scoring streak, which reached 15 games on Saturday night.

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Chara to the rescue… 12.13.08 at 8:58 pm ET
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One thing a captain does is stand up for his teammates, under any and all circumstances. When Boris Valabik tried to intimidate Phil Kessel in front of the Thrashers net in the second period Saturday night, Zdeno Chara came in like a raging bull and made sure that his countryman knew that wasn’t acceptable.

“It’s the number one thing to be playing as a team and stick up for each other,” Chara explained. “That’s one of the main things on this team, to stick up for each other.”

Kessel certainly appreciated it.

“I just think it says a lot about him, coming to my defense like that,” Kessel said. “He’s a great captain, a great guy and shows what type of team guy he really is.”

Chara may have taken 17 minutes in penalties, but coach Claude Julien didn’t just give Chara a pass, he applauded the message he delivered.

“It was the right thing to do. It was for the right reasons,” Julien said.

“That was good by Z,” added David Krejci, who aided the Bruins cause with three assists on the night. “I was actually pretty surprised because Valabik, I’m pretty sure they know each other from Slovakia. It was nice to see Z stick up for Phil.”

That’s what happens when your team is 21-5-4, winners of 11 straight on home ice.

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B’s are too legit to quit 11.29.08 at 6:11 pm ET
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Proving that they’re completely undaunted by the Four Stanley Cup titles captured since 1997, the Bruins weathered the first period storm by the Red Wings and came away with a decisive 4-1 victory over the reigning champs from the Motor City.

The Bruins coaching staff and players stressed before the game that it was important not to stray too distantly from their system — whether they’re playing a gritty, dump-and-chase Eastern Conference also-ran like the New York Islanders or a roster full of puck possession players with otherworldly skills like the Detroit Red Wings — and that the name-of-the-game is to make teams adjust to the Black and Gold Way.

Not the other way around.

The 21st Century Big, Bad B’s can drop the gloves and pound away with the strongest and most ruthless goon-filled opponents; they can play the speed and precision passing games with the European-style teams that favor puck possession and dangle over simply duking it out; and they can be effective against any other style of hockey in between those disparate puck poles. The Bruins finished the month of November with an 11-1-1 record and 23 points, which marks their best month of hockey since they piled up 24 points in December of 1978 with an 11-2-2 record for that month. That, my friends, is the return of Old Time Hockey in Boston.

“It was a great challenge for us, that’s for sure,” said Zdeno Chara. “We know that they’re one of the best teams on the West side and that this would be a good measuring stick for us. We want to play our game, we want to play hard and we did that for most of the game.”

What did Big Z learn about his Bruins team tonight as he wore the Captain’s ‘C’ in the intimidating Back-in-Black third jersey, collected his 7th assist of the season and laid out a pair of hits while constantly reinforcing a pounding, physical presence around the skilled, dainty Wings playmakers?

“That we can beat anybody in this league, and that we can play anybody in this league,” said Chara. “We haven’t done anything and we’ve just beat a few teams. We need to keep pushing forward and we can’t get satisfied with the results we have. We need to keep playing our game and the results will take care of themselves.

“The most important thing for us is that the other team is adjusting to us rather than our team adjusting to them,” added Chara. “Sometimes in a game you make small adjustments, but most of the game we’re playing the system and not changing a whole lot. It’s just a matter of being disciplined and playing your game.”

Above and beyond the time-honored system chatter, the Bruins offense has also become Public Enemy Number One in the upside-down world of goaltending, as they’ve banished two straight starting goaltenders (Joey MacDonald, Ty Conklin) from their comfortable crease during blowout victories at the Garden.

What does that mean?

It means that the Bruins finally proved last night that this nice little 24-game run to start the season isn’t a phase, a hot streak or anything temporary — this edition of the Black and Gold is deep, dangerous and deadly and, barring any injuries, is likely to keep scoring wins and hockey TKOs this season. Having both Andrew Ference and potentially Aaron Ward out with injuries – in addition to post-concussion difficulties that currently have Marco Sturm on the shelf – are certainly posing a legit test of the Bruins and their impressive depth, but it’s hard to imagine anything derailing this hockey train headed for good things. 

They’re Deep and they’re spectacular

Once again the scoresheet was dotted with seven players that enjoyed multiple point games, and featured another banner game from the trio of Michael Ryder, David Krejci and Blake Wheeler.

Ryder showed determination, strength on the puck and plain old offensive chutzpah when he dangled through a pair of defenders with the puck, blazed down the right side of the ice and slid a pass back to a wide open Blake Wheeler for Boston’s initial score. The entire left half of the net was wide open and Wheeler buried a shot in the top left corner for the eighth goal of a banner rookie campaign. The two helpers give Ryder four points in two games since joining up with Krejci and Wheeler — a trend that will likely keep the forwards together if things stay bountiful for the B’s.

“[Ryder] just won two battles, and that’s the name of the game: winning battles,” said Wheeler. “He gave us a 2-on-1 and that’s how you score goals in this league…by winning battles. The last two games Rydes has been awesome and hopefully for the rest of the season this is the guy that you see. Because he’s been really, really, really good.”

Each member of the Krejci/Ryder/Wheeler combo finished the night with a +2 and once again proved that any of the Bruins’ top three lines can strike at any time. Apparently Ryder will have to do some work to make more of an impression on Wings head coach Mike Babcock, however, as the Wings bench boss couldn’t remember the oh-so-anonymous guy that finished with a pair of assists and a +2 against his club when all the ice chips had settled. 

“[The Bruins] have good players.  I think they are starting to come of age.  They have been drafting high for a long time and it starts to show after a period of time,” said Babcock. “That Kessel kid can really fly.  Savard is more committed than he has been in the past.  Lucic is a big body and really skates. 

“I thought that the Krejci line with Wheeler and who was the other guy there on the line tonight?  It doesn’t matter any way I thought they were effective against us tonight.  Bergeron is a great two-way player, with Axelsson.  Oh and Ryder was with them mostly.  That’s three good lines.”

The single hottest Bruins’ offensive player doesn’t reside on that red-hot line, however. That honor goes to Phil Kessel, who scored Boston’s second goal on a screaming wrist shot from the top of the point in the first period, and marked his ninth consecutive game with at least one point.

That gives Kessel the longest active streak currently going in the NHL, and marks the third-longest point streak in the league this season. Kessel was on a pace to finish with 41 goals and 24 assists before heading into Saturday night’s statement victory, and the lightning-legged youngster continues to give Boston the sniper they’ve longed for since rigor mortis set in on Glen Murray.

Making due without Ward

The Bruins have displayed a breathtaking show of depth over the16-4-4 start, and that’s going to have to continue holding true after another injury hit Saturday night.  Veteran defenseman Aaron Ward exited the game with a leg injury after only three shifts and 3:43 of ice time in the first period. Ward had skated in hard and laid a physical check on Detroit defenseman Derek Meech, and he didn’t return after immediately skating off the ice.

“It’s a leg injury,” said Julien. “You guys all saw when he hit the boards there that he came out limping. There’s not much we can do here. He’ll be evaluated tomorrow and hopefully when we practice on Monday we can give you a better assessment of his injury.”

Ward’s injury forced the Bruins blueline corps to play Iron Man hockey for roughly the last 50 minutes of the hockey game, and — in the words of Dennis Wideman — Claude Julien was basically pairing ‘D’ according to “who was sucking the least amount of wind on the bench.”

It’s too early to speculate on the seriousness of Ward’s leg problem, but another Matt Lashoff call-up seems almost automatic after practicing with the team and acting as a healthy scratch up until last Thursday. With Andrew Ference out with a broken right tibia and now Ward potentially gone with a leg injury, the B’s backliners will have to each step up and fill the shot-blocking bravery, physical persona and off-ice leadership that Ward provides on a daily basis.

“[Ward] eats a lot of minutes up and he plays against the other team’s top line,” said Dennis Wideman, who played a Herculean 28:36 of ice time in the win over the cooked Wings. “He’s a good defender and he’s a guy that shuts teams down. He finishes a lot of checks in his own zone and he blocks a ton of shots, and he’s tough to play against. He does a really good job of shutting other team’s down, so obviously somebody else is going to have to step up and do that.

“Of course there’s a challenge if we’re down another D,” added Wideman. “Somebody will be coming up from the minors. Last year we had a lot of injury problems on defense, and Providence does a really good job of getting guys ready to come up here. There’s a lot of skill, and just like when [Matt] Hunwick stepped in when Ference got hurt and did a great job…we expect whoever they call up will do the same.

Manny, Manny, Manny

It seemed somewhat out of place to hear the “Manny, Manny, Manny” chants cascading through the sellout crowd of 17, 565 at the Garden on Saturday night, but Bruins goaltender Manny Fernandez is beginning to feel the same kind of fan affection that’s been showered on Tim Thomas over the last three years. Fernandez made 29 saves and won both ends of back-to-back games — the first time this season that the veteran netminder has been entrusted with both ends of a back-to-backer.

Julien noted how well Fernandez has been playing in giving the former Minnesota Wild ‘tender the start against the Red Wings, but the Boston bench jockey also wanted to give Thomas some time to recover from an illness that bothered him this week. 

“Well me personally, again my teammates the way they’ve been playing, I can’t say enough- the way they’ve been putting it in the net, getting the outside shot, I mean anyone who gets to play on a team like that – it’s amazing it’s an easy game to play,” said Fernandez. ”You just concentrate on the first shot and they clear the rebounds and they’ve been really effective and they came out really strong tonight.”

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First blood at the Gahden 11.21.08 at 9:30 pm ET
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The B's are streaking...through the quad...then to the gymnasium

The B's are streaking...through the quad...then to the gymnasium

There’s a reason they call it drawing first blood.

The Bruins have scored the first goal an amazing 15 times in their 20 games thus far this season, and it’s allowed the Black and Gold to truly go on the offensive and attack other teams with previously unseen aplomb. In those 15 games the Bruins have built up an impressive 10-3-2 record. 

So during a rare Friday evening tilt in the Hub — the first in over 30 years for the Bruins – when a first place hockey team easily could have been caught sleepwalking through an anti-climactic match against the lowly Florida Panthers — with perhaps a wandering eye cast toward the Montreal Canadiens tomorrow night at the Bell Centre — the Big Bad B’s simply took care of business in a tidy 4-2 win. A victory so convincing that it saw restless B’s fans doing the wave in the third period of a blowout win that registers as Boston’s seventh straight at the TD Banknorth Garden.

The attention to detail is part of a mantra that Bruins coach Claude Julien obviously stressed to his team prior to the game, with an eye toward an Ottawa Senators team that bounded purposefully out of the gate last season before collapsing and crawling into the playoffs. While there aren’t any Ray Emery-style problem children in the Boston dressing room to spark turmoil, the staunch marching orders to avoid any ”fat cat” syndrome were clearly understood, processed and performed to a ‘T’ on the ice last night.

The B’s players are so intent on the nightly task at hand that veteran and past Stanley Cup winner Aaron Ward is now simply refusing to mention the dreaded ‘P’ word (playoffs) in relation to the Black and Gold. You won’t hear the words “NHL” and “playoffs” coming out of Ward’s mouth until April or so…Ward refused to utter “playoffs” last night in context with the Bruins, and said he’d only be talking about “the NBA or the NFL playoffs” for a nice long time.

Ward obviously has been around long enough to know that something pretty special is starting to take place on Causeway Street.

“One of the things they preached at the beginning of the year was positioning,” said Ward. ”Teams that have really positioned themselves well by Thanksgiving have a tendency to really…uh….put themselves in a favorable position with…uh…I don’t want to use the word. You can fill it in. Put themselves in good position for…it’s kind of an omen, I can’t say it…for the end of the year. I don’t want to say the ‘P’ word.

“For us [Friday night's win] was a job we talked about from the top down. Claude talked about it and the players talked about it,” added Ward. “We had a discussion about it at the pregame skate amongst the players. About where we are and our state of being. We can’t rest on our laurels at any point this season. We’ve got to think about the here and now. The ‘P’ word is not going to be mentioned…at least not in this [locker room] stall.”

Ward’s words — minus any onerous ‘P’ words – seemed to be right in line with the message that Julien delivered to the esteemed Fourth Estate after the game. It was something about staying inside the warm, welcoming and comfortable bubble the Bruins have built for themselves while setting the standard of excellence in the Eastern Conference with 30 points through 20 games.

“I don’t think we feel too good about ourselves, and the one thing we do realize, and, you’ve got to remember guys, we can start reading what you guys are writing, and we can believe everything. Or we can stay in our little bubble and understand what got us to where we are and realize that those kinds of things are what’s going to keep us there,” said Julien. “I’m saying that because our team has not had to face this kind of situation for a long time, and we have to learn to be able to handle this. 

“Being in first place is great, but the minute you get comfortable – and I can use the Ottawa Senators, 15-2 last year, and I can use other examples as well – this is a humbling game, and we just have to make sure that we understand what it takes every night,” added Julien “That’s the kind of message we keep giving our team: don’t get too high, don’t get too low, but don’t start believing everything you read.

The Bruins effectively outshot, outlasted and outclassed an underwhelming Panthers hockey club. They also won the inevitable game of fisticuffs that appeared once the game got out of hand in the second period. Milan Lucic and old friend Nick Boynton engaged in a tough guy scrum at center ice that spilled plenty of blood from both sides.

Both players got a few shots in, but Boynton left the ice after Lucic opened up a cut along the former Bruins defenseman’s forehead following a series of vicious right and left-handed mixture of jabs and haymakers. Boynton’s face was a bloody mess by the end of the brawl. That decision easily went to the Big Looch, which makes him 2-0 in fights on the season after bloodying Boynton and knocking Mike Komisarek out of the Habs lineup with a shoulder injury. There has to be, however, some extra credit given to the steely Boynton for hanging in and getting a few licks of his own in amid the flurry of Lucic fists, which were also red with blood by the end of the exchange.

 

 

Aaron Ward also tangled with Keith Ballard after the veteran defenseman came in hard — and perhaps a bit low — on Marc Savard in the middle of the second period. It was business as usual for Ward, who again showed that this Bruins team isn’t going to timidly back down or fail to protect a teammate when something isn’t sitting well with the B’s bench.

“I thought the hit was late, and then not only was it late but I also thought the hit was low,” said Ward. “It was my first reaction.”

Hunwick continuing to improve

The blueline education of Matt Hunwick continued last night, and the young defenseman kept impressing with an assist and an eye-opening +3 on the evening. That makes it three straight games Hunwick has registered at last one point with a goal and three assists over that short span. While the man he was replacing on the rearguard, Andrew Ference, was playing the best hockey of his career by his own admission, “Huddy” hasn’t been too shabby either as the puck-moving, offensive interim solution along the blue line.

Hunwick’s performance continues to exemplify the impressive organizational depth that the Bruins have built up for themselves. Their roster goes well past the 20 skaters dressing on a nightly basis and extends to another 3-5 players capable of stepping in without a beat when the inevitable injury bug beckons. All told, Hunwick has a goal and three assists along with a +7 in eight games this season and was given a bit of time on the power play unit Friday night as a reward for his consistent efforts.

“We talk about confidence and the experience. He’s getting better and a lot of has to do with because he’s playing. A lot of it starts in practice and he’s been patient and working hard,” said Julien. ”Now he’s got a chance to play and when you’ve got some games where you’ve got a lead you can use him even more. That’s the way that you develop players. He’ll be getting those opportunities if he responds, and lately he’s been responding.”

The Kids are all right

The impressive early returns on David Krejci continue to pour in, and no solitary play was more indicative of the 22-year-old’s patience, stick-handling and creativity than his second period goal which pushed the B’s lead to 3-1. Krejci found the puck on his stick along the right side with a good deal of open ice in front of

Here is my hockey stick...there are many like it, but this one is mine

Here is my hockey stick...there are many like it, but this one is mine

him, but — rather than make a mad impetuous dash toward the net as many NHL youngsters might in that frantic situation — the young centerman instinctively pulled the puck back, slowed the throbbing tempo to a hockey crawl and then deftly slid a cross-ice pass over to Chuck Kobasew.

Kobasew fired at the net and the loose puck promptly kicked right back to Krejci for the easy putback goal — a simple, elegant, dare I say nifty hockey play that continues to scratch away at what’s promising to be a great surface for the young Czech Republic skater.

“That’s David Krejci,” said Julien. “He controls the play so well and he controls the pace of it too. I’ve seen players in the past that were so good at that. I remember J.F. Sauve from the Quebec Nordiques was one of those guys that would make those plays to slow things down.  John Chabot, who’s an assistant coach with the Islanders was one of those players too. They’re gifted with the stick and they find seams. Savvy does it a bit for us too. He’s a good players and he’s just starting to grow into the player that we all expected him to be.”

While Krejci has impressed with the way he’s conjured up magic tricks with the puck, Kessel continues to simply burn away hapless defenders with his rare combination of speed and dead-eye shot. Kessel got behind the Panthers ‘D’ after a great tape-to-tape pass by Savard, and beat Tomas Vokoun with a forehand for the game’s first goal — an easy-as-pie pseudo penalty shot for the sniping scorer.

“I’m not doing anything different,” said Kessel, when asked what’s improved for him this season. “The pucks are finding the back of the net now, and they weren’t before. That’s about it. There’s no magic formula.”

With Friday night’s score, Kessel has a team-high 10 goals in only 20 games and seems well on his way to becoming Boston’s first 40-goal scorer since Glen Murray sniped 44 tallies for the Black and Gold way back in 2002-2003 en route to a 92 point season.

Hard to believe it’s been that long since the Bruins had a 40-goal scorer. Or maybe it isn’t given the recent history of the Bruins Crew.

“It seems like he and Savvy are feeding off each other,” said Ward. “It’s the old [University of Michigan hockey coach] Red Berenson thing, If you have speed you’ve got to use it. Especially now with the rule changes we as defenseman can do nothing about it.”

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Versteeg is the one that got away 11.11.08 at 1:48 pm ET
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Versteeg has perfected the art of the dangle in the Windy City

Versteeg has perfected the art of the dangle in the Windy City

Sometimes the deals that stand out like a blinking neon marquee in the minds of NHL executives across the NHL landscape are the ones that simply got away from them. A potentially successful deal that was passed over due to prohibitive cost or concerns about how much an older player still has in his career tank, or frittering away a young asset on the verge of development into a bone fide NHL maker of plays.

Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli has stayed the course with the vast majority of young players that are now flourishing within a rising Boston Bruins organization, but Chicago Blackhawks right wing Kris Versteeg easily qualifies as “the one that got away” for a B’s GM that’s been coming up aces lately. The 22-year-old Versteeg was the Bruins prospect sacrificed in a forgettable deal — along with a draft pick – for minor league journeyman Brandon Bochenski, who totalled 11 goals and 17 assists in 51 games over two seasons for the Bruins before plummeting off the Black and Gold landscape. At the time of the trade, Versteeg — a B’s fifth round pick in the 2004 draft – had 22 goals and 27 assists in 41 games for the Baby B’s and was another in a long and winding line of bright light B’s talent that’s now filling up the roster in the Hub.

Ultimatelly Bochenski was spun off to the Anaheim Ducks for “Sheriff” Shane Hnidy and a sixth round draft pick last season, so currently Hnidy stands as the only remaining remnant from a trade that netted the Blackhawks one of the top rookies in the NHL this season.

Bochenski appears more and more like a career AHL player with each passing period while Versteeg enters Thursday night’s game among the NHL rookie scoring leaders with 3 goals and 9 assists through Chicago’s first 13 games — a stretch that’s also seen him earn PK minutes and impress the Chicago coaching staff with all-around game. 

“Kris has got a ton of skill and its always been National Hockey League level,” said Blackhawks assistant coach Mike Haviland between periods of Sunday night’s Blackhawks/Flames telecast. “The other parts of the game I really had to get through to him…turning pucks over and when not to turn pucks. He’s playing with some real skill guys and he’s a skill guy. He’s getting a chance to show what he can and he’s a competitive kid. I think he’s really matured on and off the ice.”

Former P-Bruins teammates Mark Stuart and David Krejci each remember Versteeg as a crafty, slick offensive playmaker that was among the youngest players in the AHL during his time in Providence, and he’s only grown more dangerous since getting paired with fellow ”Young Guns” skaters Pat Kane and Jonathan Toews in Chicago.

“He’s a good player and when I heard that he had a chance to play with Kane and Toews I knew he was going to make it,” said Krejci, who lit up the P-Bruins scoreboard in 2006-07 when they both skated on the same line together. “We had a good time. On the ice and off the ice he was a good guy. We played most of the year together.  He was actually kind of like me as a player: he can handle the puck and he was patient with it to make plays, and he could shoot it. He’s good.

“I guess it was good for him to be able to go out to Chicago and make the team,” added Versteeg.

Stuart qualifies as a willingly physical member of a B’s blueline corps that will be under a good deal of heavy pressure from a young, skilled Chicago attack. Its expected Stuart and Co. will up the physical ante against the young ‘Hawks to slow down the skating speedsters racing up and down the United Center ice before a packed house. 

“I’ve heard he’s doing pretty well,” said Stuart. “But I’m not very surprised at what he’s doing. He’s a really young guy and he’s skilled enough to play with anybody. They definitely have the talent there for him to play with some highly skilled guys.

“He’s able to find guys [out on the ice], he’s got really good hands and is good with the puck and he’s also very shifty,” added Stuart. “He’s good around the net too, so we’ll try to slow him down a little bit and shut him down. Off the ice he’s a nice kid. He was a young kid [during his time in Providence] and he still is…really fun to be around too.”

Apparently he’s also got a devastating singing voice somewhere between Fergie and Jesus…an ear-piercing gift that his teammates in Chicago recently discovered. Here’s the damning video evidence:

 

 –Shane Hnidy skated at practice on Tuesday morning for the first time since suffering a lower body injury against the Dallas Stars 10 days ago, but head coach Claude Julien cautioned that the veteran D-man likely wouldn’t return to the lineup until Thursday night’s much-anticipated home tilt with the Canadiens.

“I don’t think I’m going to dress him [Wednesday night] because it’s been a while, but is he a possibility for Thursday? Yeah,” said Julien.

Speaking of the Habs, Thursday night’s game against the Canadiens at the Garden represents the first of three different Habs/Bruins matchups this season taking place in the second game of back-to-back efforts for the B’s. Thursday night at the Garden is the first, a Nov. 22 Saturday night game at the Bell Centre after a Friday night game against the Florida Panthers is the second and a Feb. 1 Sunday matinee in Montreal following a Saturday afternoon game against the Rangers pulls off the scheduling hat trick.

The Cigarette Smoking Man may be behind the NHL schedule...

The Cigarette Smoking Man may be behind the NHL schedule...

For the consiracy theorists out there, the first two aforementioned games between the two Northeast Division rivals also allows the Habs to enjoy a full day off against a potentially weary B’s team fighting through back-to-back games.

Julien apparently doesn’t believe in the grassy knoll or Area 51, and definitely doesn’t believe that “The Truth is Out There.”

“I guess unfortunately we don’t have much control over the schedule and it’s ironic that its always [Montreal] waiting for us at home, but so be it,” said Julien. “I think the best way to handle it is to have all 19 of your guys going and being able to stretch your bench as much as you can to get the results you want. Then try to get home as quick as possible and get your rest for the following night.”

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