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Amid second-half slide, B’s searching for answers 03.05.09 at 11:37 pm ET
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Frustration appears to be bubbling over in the Bruins dressing room as the inconsistent performances stack upon each other, and those immediately chasing the Spoked B in the Eastern Conference standings keep gaining ground in disconcerting clumps.

Things hit a new low last night, as the Bruins clearly got back to their difficult-to-play-against ways but couldn’t muster up enough lunchpail offense in a 2-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes at the TD Banknorth Garden.

The straggling, struggling Black and Gold sit mired in a 3-6-2 slump over their last 11 games, and have degenerated into a mystified hockey team searching for answers amid a series of passionless periods, 80-foot fluke goals and bang-bang shots at open nets that inexplicably sail over the inviting crease.

The catalyst for the current 11-game slide back to the pack? Travel back to a Feb. 10 loss to the San Jose Sharks on their home ice where Jumbo Joe Thornton and Co. clearly turned on the jets in the third period and left the B’s scrambling for confidence after getting beaten down by the Western Conference powerhouse.

It was a national Versus game billed as a potential Stanley Cup Finals matchup between the Beast of the East and the Best of the West, and it ended with a stunning collapse from which the Bruins still haven’t fully recovered. Instead of a crowning moment punctuated by the triumphant Bruins leaving the arena with NHL bragging rights, Claude Julien’s boys have dropped into an undeniable rut that has some in the hockey world wondering whether this team was truly as good as its nearly letter-perfect first half.

Perhaps the overwhelming nature of that third period simply humbled a young, fearless puck bunch and splashed a bit of doubt into the minds of a group of brash young hockey players.

Boston has flashed glimpses of the dominant squad that simply slammed the hammer down on opponents during the first three months of the year, but it’s becoming apparent the San Jose defeat damaged the exposed psyche of a young, talented team attempting to make their first big statement.

Despite their current freefall, the Bruins have maintained the top spot in the East and have blowout wins over the Ducks and Panthers within the erratic stretch. But even Boston’s best players are starting to search for answers just out of their reach. The New Jersey Devils remain six points behind the B’s in the East, and they’ve won 8 of their last 10 and regained their Hall of Fame goaltender in the same breath.

Is it time to worry yet?

“What’s frustrating is that we know how we can play, and we can dominate when we’re at our best,” said center Marc Savard. “We didn’t put any pucks in the net and maybe we’re being a little too cute at times. We’ve got to try to nip this in the butt right now. We’ve got a big weekend ahead of us and we all know that. We’ve got to start pulling points out of games, and we all know that.

“It’s not for the lack of effort,” added Savard. “We’re trying. I know the fans come out all year. We heard the boos off the second, and we don’t want that. We want to go and show them what we can do, and want it to be a long run here. It was frustrating for us too.”

The Big, Bad hockey club put forth a grating, physical brand of hockey, outhitting the young Desert Dogs by a 31-10 margin during last night’s defeat, and Milan Lucic, Mark Recchi and Chuck Kobasew were all — at different times — camped out in the middle of the high-traffic zones attempting to redirect pucks, screen the goaltender and manufacture any kind of goal. There just wasn’t enough of it happening to make a difference.

It was exactly the kind of things that hockey purists preach to escape a rut, but nothing worked for a club that’s clearly squeezing the daylights out of their hockey sticks.

“I wish I had the magical answer for what’s going on, but it’s simple things right down to plain effort from every single player,” said blueliner Aaron Ward, who was part of an aggressive corps of defensemen that time and again pinched and crashed into the offensive zone without ultimately cashing in. “You’re out there and you hear the fans booing, and it’s justified right now to express displeasure for our performance. You watch video postgame and that’s simply not the way we need to be playing the game.

“I’m laughing, but it’s pretty (discouraging) to sit here and wonder what’s going on,” added Ward.

Several players talked afterward about “being too cute with the puck” and “not playing a full 60 minutes of hockey,” but they also appeared frustrated to hear boos cascading down to the ice from the 16,818 in attendance in the closing seconds of a flatter-than-flapjacks second period.

The worst part?

The B’s knew they deserved the Garden catcalls after seizing control of the game early on the strength of Chuck Kobasew’s goal, and then simply allowed things to slip out of their fingers later in the first — and then stumbled right on into an uninspired second period.

The B’s have become a shadow of their first-half selves as the postseason pressure cooker looms closer with every passing day, and the time has come to pack away the rookie walls, nagging injuries, and line chemistry questions into the excuse box in the Garden attic.

The time has come for the Bruins to regain the confident identity of the season’s first half and simply start willing themselves to goals and wins against whatever lines up across the ice from them. The time has come for the B’s to heal up the damage of month-old wounds and protect what they’ve worked so very hard for over the course of a long hockey season.

If they don’t — and fast — then things will get far worse than they were against the Coyotes on a random Thursday night in March.

“I just feel that talk is cheap,” said Julien. “The same thing with standing up front here and trying to explain to (the media). Talk is cheap right now. We have to go up there and then execute. I can stand here and give you all of the excuses. There shouldn’t be excuses. There’s got to be reasons to want to turn this thing around.”

Injury Ward: Milan Lucic came through with flying colors in his first game back from an “upper body injury” and was a physical presence with six crunching body blows against the Coyotes. Other than Looch, everyone else appeared to come through okay.

Player of the Game: Zdeno Chara. After the rare off-game on Tuesday night, Chara responded by playing with some snarl and absolutely beating down Coyotes all over the ice with punishing checks and intimidation tactics. A good rebound game for Big Z.

Goat Horns: Dennis Wideman. It was a bad night for Wideman, who turned a puck over in the D-zone during the Phoenix power play that quickly led to Scottie Upshall’s first Coyotes goal. The score deflated the team for a bit, and Wideman was on the ice for both of the Coyotes’ goals on the evening. Blake Wheeler has also continued to struggle in the final months, and was limited to little more than 10 minutes of ice time on a night when backchecking seemed optional among many of Boston’s forwards.

Turning Point: The Bruins basically crawled up and died for the next 30 minutes of play once Scottie Upshall banged home the Coyotes’ first goal — a power play score — off a bad Dennis Wideman turnoever. A hockey team simply can’t do that anymore in March and April.

Read More: Aaron Ward, Claude Julien, Dennis Wideman, Marc Savard
Lucic, Montador and Recchi all in lineup against Coyotes at 11:54 am ET
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New trade acquisitions Mark Recchi and Steve Montador will both be in tonight’s Bruins lineup against the Phoenix Coyotes, and bruising left winger Milan Lucic will also be back in the hockey swing after missing two games with an “upper body injury” believed to be a concussion.

Julien preached patience with some new elements being introduced to the lineup, but it was clear that a message has been sent to the team by the number of players on the ice for a voluntary practice. Play with 100 intensity and tenacity and a spot will be dusted off in the lineup, but slackers and soft hockey players might just be headed for a healthy scratch or two in the future.

In short, it’s the kind of depth that can be a coach’s dream when a player’s most prized possession, ice time, hangs in the balance. 

“Hopefully our whole team can give us the energy we need, but we think those two guys can bring some life to our hockey club,” said B’s coach Claude Julien. “Now we’ve got competition. It’s important for the guys to understand that we’re at a stage where it’s going to be who is playing best.”

Recchi also revealed that he’ll be manning the post down low opposite play maker Marc Savard on the first power play unit — ostensibly supplanting P.J. Axelsson in the left-handed shooting role — and the 41-year-old will be able to utilize some of the skills that allowed him to pile up 19 PP points for the Tampa Bay Lightning this season.

“I’m not sure who I’m playing with yet, but I’m ready to play with and do whatever role they put me in,” said Recchi. “I do know that I’m playing with Savvy on the power play down low. I’m excited to be on that unit. I’ve played down low and on the point most of my career. I’ll be playing down low because we’ve got some great guys here on the point, and I’ve been playing down low by the post for most of my career on a traditional power play.

“When you’ve got a guy like Savvy you’ve got to be ready for him to pass the puck at all times, so that’s going to be neat for me,” added Recchi. “You get to the front of the net, and hopefully I’ll get some ugly goals.”

Byron Bitz expressed a level of disappointment with the assumption that Recchi’s arrival may relegate him to a healthy scratch status tonight, but Bitz — along with Shane Hnidy and Matt Hunwick — was saying all the right things after playing such effective hockey lately.

For all the uniform afficianados out there, Recchi will be wearing #28 and Montador #23 for the Spoked B tonight.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Marc Savard, Mark Recchi
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
Vladimir Sobotka called back up to Boston 02.27.09 at 4:56 pm ET
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 With Marc Savard and Milan Lucic both questionable for Saturday afternoon’s tilt against the Washington Capitals, the Bruins recalled forward Vladimir Sobotka from the Providence Bruins on an emergency basis and placed Petteri Nokelainen on injured reserve this afternoon.

The move seems to be an indication that Lucic or Savard, or perhaps both, will be out of the lineup tomorrow afternoon, and Sobotka is expected to be available for Saturday’€™s game against the Washington Capitals at 1:00 p.m. Lucic had a bruised and bloodied right hand following a brawl that escalated once Looch got popped in the chin by Mike Brown before he could throw his gloves off.

Lucic promptly went berserk on Brown and his hand looked, to put it in medical terms, pretty messed up after the passionate beatdown. Savard took several hard hits from the physical Ducks bunch during Thursday night’s game, and the dynamic first line center could be dealing with a shoulder injury.

 Sobotka has played in 23 games for Boston during the 2008-2009 season and recorded 1-3=4 totals.

Nokelainen was scheduled to meet with doctors today and was hoping to be cleared for contact in practice, but it’s unclear whether his placement on IR was strictly a move to free up a roster spot or an indication that his injury isn’t healed enough for the next step. Out since Feb. 10 after getting a high stick in his right eye, Nokelainen will be out of game action through a March 5 tilt against the Phoenix Coyotes per terms of injured reserve that require he be out for at least 10 games or 30 days of action.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Petteri Nokelainen
Both goalies up to the task in scoreless match 02.21.09 at 8:17 pm ET
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SUNRISE, Fl. — Florida Panthers goaltender Tomas Vokoun leads the NHL with a .946 save percentage over the last 30 days, and he’s been showing tonight why exactly he’s been such a hot goalie as of late. He made a couple of solid standout saves in the first period, but he had an absolute stunner midway through the second when he slammed the door on a Blake Wheeler/Milan Lucic rush up the ice.

Wheeler was carrying the puck and flipped toward the net with a fire-breathing Looch storming toward the cage.  Lucic put a good tip on the puck, but Vokoun stretched out the pads and made the nice leg save. He was able to subsequently smother the puck despite both Lucic and Florida defenseman Karlis Skrastins bearing down on him.

B’s goalie Tim Thomas has been equally good on the other end, alternately turning away Radek Dvorak in the first period and kicking away a Nick Tarnasky redirect in the second period.

The B’s and Panthers are still scoreless at the end of two periods, and Vokoun has looked immense in making 26 saves through two periods.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins, Milan Lucic, Tim Thomas
Jumbo Joe Thornton gets the last laugh in Boston 02.10.09 at 11:20 pm ET
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The script had a deliciously Boston flavor to it after the first two periods of play last night, but Jumbo Joe Thornton got the last surfer boy chuckle in a 5-2 loss to the San Jose Sharks at a jazzed up TD Banknorth Garden.

Milan Lucic banked himself a pair of blue-collar goals in the first period to push the Bruins out to a 2-1 lead, and the Bruins had their new punch ‘em out/light ‘em up face on the franchise staring down their old hockey hero in the NHL “Best of the Best” showdown. Looch had two goals, four bone-shattering hits and a +2 after two periods of play, and Thornton was doing his best “vintage 2003-04 big game no-show” impression with a -1, one measly shot on net and a generally invisible game in this second Hub homecoming.

But everything turned in the fateful third period. Up became down, and down became up. The Bruins, normally dominant in the final period, coughed up four goals over the final 20 minutes and looked like a weary and beaten team with the rest of the hockey world watching. 

A B’s team that has prided itself on being tough to play against suddenly lost a pair of forwards (Petteri Nokelainen, Chuck Kobasew) to injury and their hockey mojo — as the inimitable Dave Lewis would put it — seemed to shrink back before San Jose’s challenge. The Bruins managed only seven shots despite a pair of power play opportunities during a limp third period performance, and watched as the Sharks poured it on with four unanswered goals en route to Boston’s worst defeat of the season.

“Our third period has been our best period most of the year,” said Marc Savard. “It’s really frustrating. It’s almost…I’m mad right now. I’m really mad right now because we had a chance to set a statement tonight here, and we let it slip in 20 minutes of play. It’s frustrating, I think, to all of us.”

The backbreaker in this frozen sheet horror show, you ask?

That would the insurance marker scored by the once-invisible Jumbo Joe, who picked the exact opportune time to drop his 6-foot-4, 235-pound body right in front of the net with 9:48 to go in the third period. Devin Setoguchi whistled a pass from the corner that simply deflected off Thornton’s shimmering skate blade and then slipped between Tim Thomas‘ pads.

“I think midway through the game we kind of turned it on and when we do that team can’t handle us,” said Thornton in perfect bulletin board form. “That’s what you saw tonight. Just our size, our speed, everything. You can’t handle the Sharks for 60 minutes.”

It was the perfect storm of absurdity for the Boston hockey fan. They watched their former No. 1 draft pick and Bruins poster boy venture to the treacherous middle — a place where he would never set up as a member of the Black and Gold — and get rewarded with the fickle bounce of a puck that both cinched the game and gave the Big Lug his cathartic Boston moment — a cherry on top of the puck sundae that he had surely always craved while surfing along the Pacific Ocean in lovely San Jose.

While the goal clearly brought a smile to the happy-go-lucky face of the former Bruins star, it probably brought a good faction of the B’s fandom running for some Puck Pepto-Bismol with the familiar sinking feeling in their collective stomachs. Instead of the deja vu appearance of Thornton prepping for his next playoff no-show, the Bruins are instead a team that’s beginning to show cracks and weakness where once they appeared young, strong and invincible.

The numbers don’t lie and younger players like David Krejci, Blake Wheeler and Phil Kessel are continuing to recede to the background as the NHL seasons turns into the final stretch — and the hockey-playing men go out hunting for playoff spots. Boston’s power play has been sapped of its energy over the nine-game stretch they just completed against playoff-caliber opponents, and they’ve been held without a power play score in six of their last seven games. The B’s man advantage has gone 2-for-30 during that seven-game stretch, which gives them a 6.7 percent success rate and has seen them drop from a 25 percent success rate to 23.3 in just nine games. 

So much for Jack Edwards’ “Peach Fuzz” power play that shocked and amazed over the first four months of the NHL season.

“I don’t think we’re moving the puck with enough authority, we’re not moving it quick enough and we’re definitely not strong enough on the puck,” said Julien. “You’ve got to work the PK. Those three things aren’t happening right now.”

The numbers weren’t too pretty for the young players that have looked altogether too invisible and timid on the puck as the physicality has increased. To wit:

*David Krejci — 17:01 of ice time, no points, -1 for the game, and zero shots on net.

*Blake Wheeler — 13:07 of ice time, no points, and four shots on net.

*Phil Kessel — 19:43 of ice time, no points, and three shots on net.

That trio certainly weren’t the only players that couldn’t distinguish themselves in the ultimate “statement  game” the Bruins will play during the regular season — Patrice Bergeron, P.J. Axelsson and Stephane Yelle had a pretty rough ride of it as well — but they simply appeared overmatched amongst the tall trees within the big-bodied Sharks lineup. It’s a stark contrast to a first half that saw them set the NHL world on their ear, and it’s something that will need to change before the ultimate hockey tournament begins in April. 

“I think obviously with our youth that we’re still learning,” said defenseman Aaron Ward. “With our team, we’ve obviously got some lessons to learn with our competition. Big game against Jersey coming up, and we have to realize that every game is important whether or not it’s in a national level like it was today or it’s a game against a conference foe that means a lot more in the standings.”

Medical Ward: Petteri Nokelainen was hit in the eye with a high stick by Sharks D-man Dan Boyle at the end of the first period, and many of his teammates and coaches were voicing concern after the game while the Finnish forward was getting treatment at a nearby hospital. “It’s an eye injury and I don’t think it looks very good right now,” said B’s coach Claude Julien.

Chuck Kobasew managed to play 14:35, but suffered both a lower body and upper body injury in the second and third periods.

B’s Player of the Game: Milan Lucic had nothing to hang his head about after the game as he made himself a physical presence during the game and scored both of Boston’s goals in the first period. Looch would have been hailed as a hero had the Bruins answered San Jose’s call to hockey arms in the third period.

Goat Horns:  Patrice Bergeron took Boston’s only penalty, which led to a power play goal, was a -2 for the evening, wasn’t a factor while running the point on the first power play, lost 8 of 11 faceoffs in a forgettable night for the B’s from the dot and just didn’t look strong on the puck amidst the playoff intensity. There was plenty to go around in this category, however.

Turning Point: Both referees Chris Rooney Don Van Massenhoven missed a high sticking call on Dan Boyle that ripped open a cut around Petteri Nokelainen’s right eye at the end of the first period — an injury that sent Nokelainen to the hospital. The B’s missed out an obvious four minute power play for the high-stick that drew blood, and the Sharks began stealing momentum away from a B’s team with a shortened bench.

Read More: Blake Wheeler, Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, David Krejci
Jumbo Joe Thornton comes calling in third period at 9:15 pm ET
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Jumbo Joe Thornton finally showed up in the third period of his second homecoming as a Devin Setoguchi pass from behind the net glance off his right skate and snuck between Tim Thomas‘ pads midway through the period. The goal gives the Sharks a two-goal lead as the Bruins have been held off the scoreboard since Milan Lucic’s two scores in the third period.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Devin Setoguchi, Joe Thornton, Milan Lucic
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