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Bruins turn things around in “biggest game of the year” 03.22.09 at 7:00 pm ET
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In hindsight, the challenge of the New Jersey Devils was exactly what the Bruins pined for during their uninspired March hibernation.

To find their respective games, to prod each of the 2o individuals on board the same Bruins’ bus headed in the proper direction, to capture the elusive 60 minutes of focus in a hockey game, they needed two significant things to happen.

First they needed an on-ice challenge that would bring out the team’s best and recapture the winning combination of hard work and swagger the team exhibited all through the first half of the season — and will keep needing if the playoffs are expected to be anything more than tribute to “what might have been”.

Second, they needed a coaching staff that was both A) able to conjure up something to alleviate the pressure pulling away from the team’s preparation and chipping away at the team’s overall confidence levels and B) able to be bold in their game strategy.

Both things happened this week following a frustrating defeat against the Los Angeles Kings, and both things played directly into the B’s convincing 4-1 win over the New Jersey Devils at the TD Banknorth Garden on Sunday afternoon.

“We didn’t have any passengers at all,” said Marc Savard, who finished with a goal and an assist and nearly as much ice time (22:41) as both Zdeno Chara (23:21) and Dennis Wideman (22:43) on Sunday. “Everybody had a good game for us, and that’s what we need from here on in. We really wanted this game. We put this up there as the biggest game of the year for us.”

The first part was apparent the day following the Kings defeat, when Bruins’ coach Claude Julien — who had spent some late night postgame hours thinking about the next day’s practice — didn’t reach for the punitive “bag skate” or the fearsome Herbies (named after Herb Brooks and the grueling skating drills that became an unforgettable movie scene in Miracle) on Friday morning. Instead he had the team face each other in a passionate scrimmage and then engage in a breakaway contest that injected some fun back into the game.

Rather than playing the role of hard line taskmaster coach with whip in hand, Julien recognized a hockey club that was clearly pressing and fighting off the building pressure of expectation. He preached for his players to go out and enjoy themselves, and bring some plain old puck joy back into the game.

“I’m not in the habit of calling a coach a genius, but (Julien) surprised us two days ago when he said we’re going to go out and have some fun, play some hockey and — as long as you do it the right way — we’re going to get some fun back into this game,” said B’s defenseman Aaron Ward. “It was apparent in (Saturday’s) practice. Guys executed well and there was some pep in our step. It showed on the ice (Sunday).

“The message was pretty simple,” added Ward. “Everybody’s thinking deep, reaching deep for some momentous answer and, really, what it was was finding some fun in the game. We don’t want to start making proclamations that (the rough patch) is all over, but it’s a step in the right direction.”

All of it worked perfectly for a team squeezing the daylights out of their sticks. The Bruins skaters were gritting their teeth and attempting to slog their way out of the doldrums, but all that seemed to go away once Mark Recchi shoveled a puck off Paul Martin’s right skate and potted Boston’s first power-play strike of the game. Michael Ryder was credited with the goal when Recchi’s shot ticked off Ryder’s stick before hitting Martin’s skate and bouncing in the net.

The effort was remarkable in its similarity to so many solid, physical, concentrated 60-minute efforts during the first three months of the season, and should give assurances that this team is capable of great things. Losses to hockey lowlifes like the Coyotes and Kings can shake optimism and tarnish those December memories, but a late-season win against a motivated, experienced Devils unit — with home ice on the line — trumps them all.

The key now is to maximize the benefit of five days off, and then return with the very same famished intensity for the regular season’s final nine games.  

“Tonight was something that both teams were trying to make a statement,” said Zdeno Chara. “Both teams were playing really hard. We were really desperate. You could see it in the first minute, and the mindset was really unbelievable. You could see that everybody was on the same page. Those are the games that you really enjoy playing in when everybody is doing their job and sacrificing so that the team can win.

“We have nine games left and it’s going to be very important for us to continue to play very hard and very competitive like we did tonight going into the playoffs,” added Chara.

The Black and Gold Skating Co. played physical edgy hockey against a big, bruising Devils unit and a reconfigured power play — with the he-better-not-be-a-healthy-scratch-again-anytime-soon Matt Hunwick and Dennis Wideman manning the points on the top PP unit and Patrice Bergeron playing down low by the net — banged home a pair of power-play strikes in victory. 

A victory that clinched the Northeast Divsion title for the Bruins — their first since Jumbo Joe’s Bruins took home the crown back in 2003-04 — and also shoved away the doubters and naysayers that had been gaining in volume during a substandard month of March.

This time it was the Devils — winners of 8 of their previous 10 games coming into Sunday — that were answering postgame questions about too many men on the ice penalties in each of their last two games and a failure to play gritty, focused hockey for an entire 60 minutes. Instead the Bruins took advantage of a number of fortuitous bounces and an uncharacteristically off-night from goaltender Martin Brodeur, and put themselves back on course for a long, healthy, bountiful trip through Lord Stanley’s tourney.

All, it seems, would appear to be well again in the Land of the Spoked B.

Injury Ward: Byron Bitz, Steve Montador and Shane Hnidy were all healthy scratches for the Bruins, and it appeared that every player escaped the scrappy battle without injury.

Player of the Game: When Julien talks about “his best players not being his best players” on a given night, fair or unfair, people assume that he’s speaking about center Marc Savard. Well, Savvy was certainly one of Boston’s best players in a huge game. He collected a goal and an assist, and was a big part of the big power play unit revival that took place against the Devils. Credit Chara with also doing his shutdown act on Zach Parise during the game, and helping limit the Devils to one goal.

Goat Horns: Nobody in this one. Brodeur might have given up one that he’d like to have back, but this was as complete a game played by the Bruins as any in recent memory. As both Thornton and Savard said, there were no “passengers” in this one.

Turning Point: After a mediocre first 10 minutes of the game when the Bruins didn’t seem to have their legs under them, Michael Ryder was credited with a goal that appeared to be a Mark Recchi shot from the right faceoff circle. The shot caromed off New Jersey defenseman Paul Martin’s right skate and ended up in the back of Jersey’s net. The goal was one of several good bounces enjoyed by the Bruins — normally a smile and a nod from the hockey gods toward the team that’s working harder around the net.

Read More: Aaron Ward, Matt Hunwick, Zdeno Chara,
Hunwick sniper shot puts Bruins up on the board 03.19.09 at 6:33 pm ET
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6:35: Both goaltenders look sharp early with local boy done good Jonathan Quick representing UMass hockey well between the pipes for the Kings. Quick just made a great sprawling glove save on a Blake Wheeler breakaway. Big Wheels came bombing straight down the slot without a defender in sight after a great takeaway and dish from Marc Savard. Wheeler made a few “quick hands” moves with the stick and then attempted to tuck a forehand inside the right post. Quick stayed strong to the pipe, however, and stopped the puck’s momentum until the whistle blew. Great save.

Tonight also marks the fifth start in a row for Tim Thomas dating back to the Manny Fernandez MSG meltdown against the New York Rangers on March 8. It’s a good bet that Man-Fern could do one of those “Not going anywhere for a while” commercials from the Bruins bench.

5:18: Matt Hunwick has certainly made an impression after being scratched the last few games. He was in the box for a hook in the first few minutes and then just put the B’s on the board with a snipe from the slot. Michael Ryder fed Hunwick a perfect pass from behind the net, and Hunny rushed in from his D-man spot and went to a knee while blasting away from the slot. Every Bruins player touched the puck on the play in a nice display of puck movement.

The B’s have a 1-0 lead over the Kings after one period of play at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Read More: Jonathan Quick, Matt Hunwick, Michael Ryder,
Steve Montador doubtful for Saturday’s matinee 03.06.09 at 1:13 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — A spirited Bruins practice this morning with a good deal of skating and only one Bruins player missing: Steve Montador. The newly acquired defenseman was suffering from some flu-like symptoms and wasn’t able to make it to practice at Ristuccia Arena after traveling to Boston late Wednesday night to make it for Thursday’s morning skate prior to last night’s loss.

“Because he’s got that flu today and there’s the one o’clock game tomorrow (against the Blackhawks) I’d be very surprised if he’d be ready to go,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “We’ve got some healthy guys. I don’t think there’s any reason to be a guy out there that isn’t 100 percent tomorrow. I’d put him as doubtful.”

In the first of the many competitions for ice time that Julien will have at his disposal with the depth provided by both Mark Recchi and Montador, Matt Hunwick and Blake Wheeler were splitting time on the left wing of David Krejci’s line — and there’s a possibility that Wheeler could be headed for a Saturday scratch in favor of the hustling, hump-busting Hunwick.

“We’ve looked at different scenarios and we’ll continue to expierament with that going forward,” said Julien. “Today we have Hunny, who we can use at forward and at defense, and we made lines of four for the last couple of lines. I think you’ll see (Hunwick) practicing at both position and we’ll use him at both positions as well.

“Certain players are struggling a little bit and somehow you have to create that competition from within,” added Julien. “I’m just hoping our team can play more like we did in the third period (Thursday) night. The fact that we’re struggling to win games and that every game seems to such a big challenge has taken away a bit from that energy and enthusiasm. If we can bring what we had (in the third period) for 60 minutes, then you’re going to start getting positive results and the emotion and everything else will start to come back.”

Hunwick impressed with his speed and physical intensity during his short stint at forward over the last week. Wheeler finished with 10:35 of ice time in last night’s loss, his lowest total of time on ice since he hit the bench in the second period against the Philadelphia Flyers back on Feb. 7.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Claude Julien, Matt Hunwick, Steve Montador
Lucic a “possibility” for Tuesday night vs. the Flyers 03.02.09 at 12:55 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — With the trade deadline approaching on Wednesday afternoon at 3 p.m., much of the discussion at practice this morning centered around the Bruins names bandied about in trade rumors and purported proposals.

More on that later, but B’s coach Claude Julien did announce after practice that Milan Lucic, out with an “upper body injury” suffered against the Anaheim Ducks on Thursday night, is a possibility for Tuesday night’s tilt against the Philadelphia Flyers at the TD Banknorth Garden.  Speculation has been pushed out there that Lucic either injured his right hand pounding the living daylights of Ducks forward Mike Brown’s helmet, or perhaps suffered a jaw injury/minor concussion when Brown snuck in a quick first punch on the chin of the Big Looch.

Lucic was wearing the red non-contact jersey at practice, but did take part in some pretty rigorous skating drills designed to get the heart rate up — a sign that the injury might not be related to his banged up right hand.

Matt Hunwick again skated in Looch’s place along the first line with Marc Savard and Phil Kessel during practice, and could play forward again tomorrow if Looch isn’t ready to go.

–Petteri Nokelainen also donned the red non-contact sweater for the snowy afternoon practice, and Julien indicated that the Finnish forward will be meeting with doctors on Tuesday to get clearance for contact during practice. Nokelainen has been out nearly a month after suffering a high stick to the right eye against the San Jose Sharks back on Feb. 10.

Read More: Claude Julien, Matt Hunwick, Milan Lucic, Petteri Nokelainen
Capitals capture season series with another win over B’s 02.28.09 at 6:37 pm ET
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Watching the Washington Capitals take three of four games from the Bruins during their season series — albeit all of them except for the first being one-goal games — has to have the Black and Gold concerned about getting past the high-wattage Caps in any potential playoff series.

The Washington bunch once again played the B’s with the right amount of grittiness, used their dazzlingly high-powered PP unit to pop in a pair of power play strikes and then took advantage of a rare Tim Thomas softie in a 4-3 overtime defeat of the Spoked B in a battle of Eastern Conference titans. The game was played before a playoff-style atmosphere at the TD Banknorth Garden on Saturday afternoon, but left Bruins Nation what might happen when/if the two teams find their fates intertwined a few months from now.

The Caps’ victory highlighted their three wins in four games against the Bruins this season, and — while it wasn’t quite the dominant fashion that the Montreal Canadiens used to hand out losses to the B’s during last year’s torture chamber of a season series — the visiting hockey club exited Boston’s frozen sheet with the logical reasoning that they could take down the first place B’s in a potential winner-take-all playoff series.

Alex Ovechkin finished with one goal on the day — a typical whistling wrister that he snapped off quickly to beat Tim Thomas in the second period — and brazenly proclaimed after the game that “we can beat the (Bruins)”. In Ovechkin, Washington has that one dynamic, hard-hitting superstar capable of either completely destroying a skater in the treacherous corner or rifling a wrist shot top shelf against a snoozing defense. He’s the kind of player that could easily be a difference-maker in a seven games playoff series once the puck tournament begins.

The Caps also offer a bevy of talented, top-shelf offensive talent around their Russian superstar with the likes of record-breaking D-man Mike Green, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Victor Kozlov all chipping in offensively, and making up perhaps the star-studded PP unit in the NHL.

It’s exactly the kind of hockey squad that will test the discipline, mettle and defensive will limits of the Bruins should both Eastern Conference top seeds win out and face each other in a late May ice war for Stanley Cup Finals rights. It was easy to spot the on-ice focus of both teams, hear the frothy booing of Ovechkin each time he touched the puck and then close your eyes and envision these two teams tangling again in a late spring battle royale on the frozen sheet — a series that the B’s will have to tighten up and fly right in if they hope to improve on losing 3-of-4 and getting outscored 11-8 by the Caps.

“Every game against them we got a point, so it’s good for us,” said Ovechkin. “It’s good for us because we can tell that we can beat them. It doesn’t matter if you’re first or second (place in the Eastern Conference). They still play great. I think it’s all about us. We just need to play our game, our system and we can beat everybody.”

B’s coach Claude Julien has obviously taken a front row seat to this production before, and watched the Black and Gold snap Montreal’s spell last year once the postseason began. The young and hungry B’s pushed the top-rated Habs to the brink of elimination in a hard-fought seven game series that truly forged this year’s edition of the Spoked B. So rather than fearing a potent Washington group that seems to own their regular season number, the B’s bench boss sees a pair of closely matched teams that simply played four extremely tight hockey games during the season. If they meet again in the playoffs, all bets are off and Julien flatly states that the Capitals are far from “in their heads”.

“We’re the top two teams in our conference,” said Julien. “I’ve heard them say that they think they’re in our heads, and they do a lot of talking. They obviously don’t do a lot of research, because as I mentioned, I don’t think they really rattled us last year against Montreal when it came to playoff time. Totally different things. They were one goal games and could have gone either way. If anything, it’s two good teams going at each other, but by all means I don’t think they scare us at this point.”

Both teams are a long way off from punching up the conference finals tickets, but it could be one hell of a series if Ovechkin comes calling again with his gap-filled smile during the merry hockey month of May.

Injury Ward: Milan Lucic sat out the game with an upper body injury suffered against the Anaheim Ducks. Marc Savard and Blake Wheeler both played through injuries also suffered during that physical grudge match against the Ducks, and Savard said he’s okay “but not 100 percent”.

Player of the Game: Matt Hunwick, in a brilliant move by Julien, was pushed up to the first line wing in place of Lucic, and responded with a speedy skating presence that produced a goal and an assist. Hunwick had the aforementioned goal and an assist, was a +2 for the afternoon and provided an offensive spark along with defensive responsibility. Not bad for a natural defenseman pushed into an emergency role for the day. Savard said that skating on the same line with Hunwick reminded him of playing with the smooth-skating and skilled Marco Sturm.

“I thought there was a chance I might play forward but obviously the last time I did I was playing on the fourth line and tonight I was playing on Savvy’€™s line,” said Hunwick. “It wasn’€™t something I was expecting coming in here today, but it was a lot of fun to be out there with those guys.”

Goat Horns: It’s too bad because Tim Thomas was brilliant in many portions of the hockey game and stoned the Caps on several breakaway bids, but losing in overtime on an 80-foot dump-in shot by Alexander Semin is pretty tough to wrap the hockey brain around. Thomas said that the puck sailed a bit on him as it approached the net, but he didn’t offer any excuses for simply not stopping the long shot.

“That last goal was a bad goal, and he can say all the things that happened with the puck, but the bottom line is, you should tell yourself, ‘€˜I should have had it, I didn’€™t have it, turn the page, and let’€™s move on,’ said Julien. “He’€™s given us too much to be worried about the negatives, and he’€™s been far much better than he’€™s been the other way.”

Turning Point: So many to choose from, but the Bruins undisciplined play led the high-powered Capitals PP attack to tally a pair of power play strikes in the first and third periods. That would be culprit number one when a big portion of Boston’s game plan was to stay out of the box against the Caps. Washington entered the game ranked third in the NHL in terms of power play success and are 13 for 25 in first period PP opportunities over their last 14 games.

“We kept going in the box.  Like I said they’€™ve got too many skilled guys there to let them be on the power play,” said Savard, who took a hooking penalty that led to Washington’s first goal. “Their power play stays out there for two minutes and they move the puck pretty well.  You know, if we see these guys down the road, we’€™ll have to take that into account again.”

Read More: Alex Ovechkin, Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Marc Savard
Matt Hunwick, Vladimir Sobotka sent down to Providence 02.24.09 at 9:43 am ET
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Rookie defenseman Matt Hunwick and forward Vladimir Sobotka, both healthy scratches in Sunday’s game against Tampa Bay, were sent down to the Providence Bruins on Tuesday morning.

Hunwick and Sobotka will both play in Providence’s game tonight, and Hunwick is expected to be called back up to Boston on Wednesday to rejoin the team. Hunwick has only played one game during the month of February, and hasn’t played since Feb. 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers. The B’s were looking for a spark from both David Krejci and Vladimir Sobotka when they put the two forwards together for a series of games, but his play didn’t warrant him staying with Michael Ryder returning to the lineup.

Here’s the official release from the Bruins:

Boston Bruins General Manager Peter Chiarelli announced today that the club has assigned defenseman Matt Hunwick and forward Vladimir Sobotka to the Providence Bruins (American Hockey League). Both are expected to play in Providence’s game tonight against the Manchester Monarchs at 7:00 p.m. ET, while Hunwick is expected to be recalled and rejoin the Boston Bruins on Wednesday.

Hunwick saw action in 38 games this year for Boston and has recorded 3-12=15 totals and a +9 plus/minus rating. He was a healthy scratch in the Bruins’ last six games. Hunwick appeared in two games for the P-Bruins this season, registering two assists.

Spending the majority of the 2007-2008 season in Providence, Hunwick posted 2-21-23 totals in 55 games.  He was recalled to Boston on four separate occasions last year and tallied one assist in 13 games.  The University of Michigan graduate was drafted by the Bruins in the seventh round (224th overall) in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

Sobotka has played in 23 games for Boston during the 2008-2009 season and recorded 1-3=4 totals. In 25 games with the P-Bruins this year, Sobotka tallied 12 goals and 15 assists. He split the 2007-2008 season between Boston and Providence. With Boston, he saw action in 48 regular season games and contributed one goal and six assists and added two goals in six postseason games. With Providence last year, he had 10-10=20 totals in 18 regular season games and added four assists over six postseason games.

Sobotka was originally drafted by the Bruins in the 4th round (106th overall) in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

The Bruins begin a six-game homestand when they host the Florida Panthers tonight, February 24, at 7:00 p.m. ET at the TD Banknorth Garden.

Fans interested in learning more about Boston Bruins players, or ticket options, should visit the team website at www.bostonbruins.com or call 617.624.BEAR.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Matt Hunwick, Michael Ryder, Peter Chiarelli
Hunwick didn’t make trip to Montreal 02.01.09 at 1:33 pm ET
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MONTREAL — Greetings from the Bell Centre where the Canadiens players are donning sweaters that must be 100th Anniversary edition uniforms, but — if you asked this puck philistine — look more like pajamas than hockey jerseys.

Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick didn’t make the trip to Montreal for this afternoon’s matinee against the Habs, and will miss his second straight game with flu-like symptoms. B’ s coach Claude Julien also revealed that, as expected, Tim Thomas will get the start in net this afternoon against the arch-rival Canadiens at the Bell Centre. That essentially means it’s the same lineup as yesterday for the Black and Gold with Thomas instead between the pipes. 

Today is Boston’s last regular season trip to Montreal, with only an April 9 tilt at the Garden remaining on the schedule.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Matt Hunwick,
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