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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
Neely: A Pronger/Kessel deal “was not on the table” at 2:55 am ET
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Bruins Vice-President Cam Neely said that a much-rumored trade with the Anaheim Ducks — that would have sent a package including 21-year-old sniper Phil Kessel, defenseman Mark Stuart, first round pick Joe Colborne and a draft pick to the Ducks in exchange for defenseman Chris Pronger — was “not on the the table” prior to Wednesday’s trade deadline.

“We couldn’t gut our lineup to add a player that we thought was going to help us, and then take away in another area it was going to hurt us,” said Neely during a Wednesday interview with the Big Show. “It didn’t make sense. We have a very young group of players. Even though we feel like we have a good opportunity this year, we feel like we have good opportunities next year and the year after with our core group of guys. We were very cautious about the players that we weren’t going to give up.

“We understand other teams. We’d ask and it makes sense for other teams to ask for our best players in return,” added Neely.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Cam Neely, Chris Pronger, Phil Kessel
Tkachuk decision won’t come until deadline day 02.26.09 at 5:01 pm ET
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With all of the Pronger-mania taking place at the Boston Garden now that the Ducks have dealt for Pittsburgh defenseman Ryan Whitney — and presumably will flip monster-sized defenseman Chris Pronger prior to the Wednesday trade deadline for salary cap purposes — St. Louis Blues forward Keith Tkachuk has been lost in the shuffle a bit.

While Pronger would easily cost the Bruins an integral part of this year’s team (think Phil Kessel or any of the other young and talented B’s), Tkachuk would likely cost a young player in the organization system and a draft pick. In other words, nothing from this year’s Cup-seeking squad.

Don’t expect any deals for the 36-year-old Medford homeboy over the weekend, as Blues President John Davidson said that he will take the three games leading up to the March 4 deadline to decide whether or not to deal “Walt” — a nickname that Tkachuk goes by in old St. Looeeey.

The Blues will face the Dallas Stars, Phoenix Coyotes and the Detroit Red Wings prior to next Wednesday, and Davidson feels like he’ll have a better grasp depending on how many points the Blues take from their trio of games. The Blues are at 60 points and currently sit five points behind a quartet of teams including the Wild, Stars, Oilers and Ducks.

“Our concept here was let’s take these four games and see where it goes. If we win four, we feel strong about it. If we lose four, that tells us something,” said Davidson. “The big question mark is if we get four games played and get four points, in other words, .500 through there, we have to take a real serious look at everything. We know the job ahead of us to get in, knowing there’s teams ahead of us, that some of them are playing very well.

It’s going to be very difficult. But we want to at least now make sure we send a message to our players and fans that we want to make the playoffs,” added Davidson. “Now, regarding Keith, we’ve had discussions with his representative Bob Murray. We’re all on the same page. Let’s just talk about making the playoffs right now.”

If the Blues drop any further back in the standings, however, that could mean that the 6-foot-3, 230-pound left-handed shot with 11 power play strikes could be available for regular duty on Boston’s PP team and on their third line. It’s a scenario that Davidson, Tkachuk and his agent, Bob Murray, have already discussed in detail as it would require the former BU star to waive his “no movement” clause.

“When it gets down to crunch time, which is on the trade deadline day, that’s when we’ll probably make a final decision. Right now we haven’t,” said Davidson. “We’ve had some calls, but nothing serious has been talked about because we still have this concept as an organization that’s wanting to make the playoffs.

Keith wants to be on a club that makes the playoffs this season. Keith doesn’t even want to talk about (not making the playoffs). His rep came in (Tuesday) and we chatted,” added Davidson. “Both sides have a pretty good understanding of where we’re going, what we’re thinking of doing, even though a lot of it is still in the air regarding our club, how they play the next three games.”

There seems to be a pair of consistent knocks against Tkachuk, and the Bruins pursuit of the 36-year-old: A) he’s always been viewed as something of a “Me” guy that’s struggled in his past trips to the playoffs and B) his offensive play has tailed off in the second half of the season after a red-hot start. Davidson threw cold water on the statistical downturn by painting a picture of a player that willingly took on a third line role that’s affected his offensive numbers — and a player that clearly now “gets it” after early years where perhaps he didn’t.

“The thing about Keith is, he’s been through it. We respect what he’s done this year. He’s been a really good player for us on the ice,” said Davidson. “He’s been terrific with our young players off the ice. He started the season scoring like crazy, but then with all our injuries we asked him to become a checking center for us.

“He’s done a great job with that, which takes away from some of his scoring. He hasn’t complained. He’s been a real pure player for us this season. He’s also to the point in his career where he’s mature.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Chris Pronger, Keith Tkachuk, Phil Kessel
Horton hears a post during scoreless first 02.21.09 at 7:41 pm ET
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Close call for the Panthers toward the end of the first as Florida forward Nathan Horton wheeled right in from the left faceoff circle and rang the outside of the left post, but ultimately couldn’t finish things off for the Panthers.

The Bruins have had some decent offensive chances, but Chuck Kobasew couldn’t finish off a pair of chances in close, and Tomas Vokoun stuck by the post and made a sound stop when snake-bitten Phil Kessel tried to sneak a puck by him.

Two power plays in the first period for the Black and Gold and no sign of Phil Kessel on either unit.

The B’s and Panthers are locked in a scoreless tie at the BankAtlantic Center after one full period of play.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Chuck Kobasew, Florida Panthers, Phil Kessel
Julien: Kessel shouldn’t be afraid “to do extra” while in slump 02.20.09 at 5:00 pm ET
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The last 13 games have been pretty damned unlucky for Phil Kessel.

The last 13 games have been pretty damned unlucky for Phil Kessel.

It’s pretty clear that one of Bruins head coach Claude Julien’s famous messages is being extended out to winger Phil Kessel, who hasn’t scored a goal in his last 13 games — including 10 since returning from mononucleosis in late January.

The streak is the longest since he had a pair of 15-game goal-scoring droughts back in his rookie season of 2006-07.

The 22-year-old was pulled off the power play in Boston’s win against Carolina on Tuesday night, and Julien indicated he wants to see something out of his skilled winger before he’s placed back on the unit. The man advantage scored two goals without Kessel buzzing around at his normal position, so it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the youngster’s immediate return to the special teams’ squad.

It’s not exactl akin to benching Kessel in the playoffs as he did last season against the Montreal Canadiens, but it’s another example of some tough hockey love from a coach imploring he see more out of his budding superstars. The Bruins will need Kessel’s firepower with the playoffs on the horizon, and — reading between the lines — they’d like to see him work a little harder at lighting the lamp.

Skating with playmaking David Krejci — who appears to have turned the corner earlier this week against the Hurricanes – and the gritty, aggravating Vladmir Sobotka could be just what the doctor ordered for Kessel. But the B’s bench boss clearly wants to see more oomph and effort out of his ice-cold forward with whichever linemates he finds himself with. 

“The message you’ve got to give to any young player that’s (not scoring) is to work your way through it,” said B’s coach Claude Julien following this morning’s practice at Incredible Ice in Coral Spring, Fla. “That’s the biggest thing. Some people wait for it to happen again, and some people work to make it happen again. That’s that the message that we’re giving him. Don’t stop doing things or don’t be afraid to do extra stuff to get yourself going. If you can shoot 100 extra pucks at the end of practice, then you go and do it.”

The additional work extends out to his work in the shootout, where Kessel has gained a slight air of predictability while continuing to employ his his favorite “deke and drive” move during the shootouts. Maybe it’s just me, but the whole thing sounded quite a bit like a parent telling a young child that they’ll get a better grade if they start doing a little more studying.

“Even in the shootouts it’s about trying to use different moves for him as well and to expand his different types moves,” added Julien. “Nowadays everybody has those scouting reports on both the goalies and the shooters for the shootouts.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, David Krejci, Phil Kessel
Phil Kessel looking to put an end to “frustrating” scoring drought 02.11.09 at 7:37 pm ET
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WILMINGTON — Phil Kessel is quick to admit that he’s frustrated after going a season-high 10 long games without lighting the goal lamp.

For a 21-year-old that was on pace to score 50 goals during a white hot first half of the hockey season, it’s a pretty stunning cold stretch for a young sniper that had seemed to be putting it all together. During those aforementioned 10 games Kessel has managed only four assists and is sitting at a -1 amid a battlefield of hockey games against playoff teams across the Eastern and Western Conference.

It should be noted that Kessel — who missed a handful of January games with mononucleosis and has been mired in the goal-less stretch in games sandwiched around the illness — said he’s only felt 100 percent himself on the ice in the last few games. But it’s clear that Kessel has been among the stick-wielding culprits in a Boston offensive slowdown since the All-Star break that’s seen them average only 2.6 goals per game over their last eight games.

The B’s right winger has already set career highs in virtually every offensive category this year as he heads into restricted free agency, but that doesn’t stop this current slump from bugging the Bruin.

“Obviously you get a little frustrated, but you’ve got to go out there and keep doing your job until things change,” said Kessel, of the longest goal-scoring drought of what’s been a pretty charmed season for the third-year skater. “I’ve had some good opportunities, but they’re not going in. You’ve got to keep going and try to get back into it.

It’s gonna come…stuff changes,” added Kessel. “It’s a funny game like that. You go through little stretches and stuff won’t go in. You get a little frustrated, but things will turn.”

Some of it has been an inability to get to the spots and creases he found so plentiful in the first half of the season, and some of it has simply been getting back into the flow with linemates Marc Savard and Milan Lucic. Kessel has averaged 3.3 shots per game over the course of the season, but he’s dropped down to 2.4 shots per game since coming back from mono on Jan. 29. 

Bruins coach Claude Julien pointed to some progress in Kessel’s game, but there’s still improvement to be made in getting to the grimy areas of the ice and “digging deeper” after the coaching staff went through video work with the young forward last week.

“He’s gotten some chances,” said Julien. “Sometimes you can work at creating more as well. But it’s never a one-sided thing. The fact that he’s getting some chances is a good sign, but you’ve also got to find a way to bury those and dig deeper to score goals. That’s what good goal scorers do.” 

–B’s coach Claude Julien didn’t have anything to add to the conditions of injured players Petteri Nokelainen (eye) and Chuck Kobasew (upper body, lower body, knee), and said they will both be evaluated and perhaps an update will be available on Thursday. Kobasew was at the B’s practice rink to receive treatment on Wednesday morning, but didn’t get out on the ice.

Read More: Boston Bruins, Chuck Kobasew, Claude Julien, Petteri Nokelainen
Chiarelli: Kessel a “good bet” to play tomorrow night 01.28.09 at 4:50 pm ET
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Bruins General Peter Chiarelli confirmed to WEEI.com this afternoon what winger Phil Kessel and coach Claude Julien both alluded to after Bruins practice this morning: Kessel is likely to make his return to the B’s lineup tomorrow night against the New Jersey Devils at the TD Banknorth Garden. Kessel has been out since Jan. 10 with a case of mono, but was cleared by team doctors yesterday to play in game action.

“I’m hoping. I think there’s a good bet that he’s going to play,” said Chiarelli. “It may be a game time decision, but I’m hoping that he’ll play.”

Read More: Boston Bruins, Claude Julien, Peter Chiarelli, Phil Kessel
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