Saturday, January 16, 2010

Wounded B's Come Home

After the Bruins were defeated by the Anaheim Ducks this past Wednesday, I tweeted that the prospect of writing about the beleaguered B's was too depressing a task. I speculated that maybe I'd write something after they finished 0-3 on their West Coast road trip.

Things didn't turn out so bad, as the B's ended the Pacific swing 1-1-1 after beating San Jose 2-1 in a shootout Thursday and losing a shootout with Los Angeles Saturday 4-3. It's about as neutral an outcome as possible for the road trip. Three points while leaving another three on the table, made all the more frustrating because Boston had third period leads in both losses.

But given the circumstances, it's hard to be upset with the three points they earned. The Bruins are quite literally stretched to their limit in terms of competent, healthy bodies. With Marc Savard and Andrew Ference likely sidelined until after the Olympics, Patrice Bergeron unavailable until next week at the earliest, and nagging injuries causing missed games for David Krejci, Dennis Wideman and Marco Sturm, Claude Julien was forced to rely on a ragtag crew of warriors for this crucial road trip.

They did a damn good job. The effort against San Jose (a team neck-and-neck with Chicago for the finest of this season's first half) was tremendous, perhaps the best performance by the Bruins this year. Without Savard, Bergeron or Krejci, Mark Recchi stepped up and played center for the first time in many years, and while he was effectively murdered all night in the face-off circle, he still displayed his amazing playmaking skills and set a selfless example for the rest of his team. The offensively-challenged Daniel Paille mustered seven shots on net and scored the B's only regulation goal. And Tim Thomas was positively sensational with 41 saves while stoning Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau in the shootout.

The good news going into Saturday's tilt with the Kings: Mark Stuart would be returning from a cracked sternum and a 17-game hiatus, and Krejci would also be returning. Awesome! But then there was the bad news: Both Sturm (leg) and Wideman (illness) would be scratched. Decidedly not awesome! It was another tremendous effort, with recent addition Miroslav Satan potting a first period tally, and Blake Wheeler and Michael Ryder scoring 11 seconds apart in the second period. But it wasn't enough, and the injury list grew longer, with Steve Begin missing the third period with a leg injury.

While some resentment has crept up amongst Black and Gold followers the last few weeks (since winning the Winter Classic the B's have gone 2-4-1), I saw plenty of good things during this road trip that told me it's far too early to give up on the Bruins. Being shorthanded on so many occasions has forced this team to play with renewed focus, intensity and attention to detail, and I give Julien all the credit in the world for coaxing the absolute best effort over these past three games.

Behind veteran leaders like Recchi, Sturm, Thomas, Begin and Zdeno Chara, the Bruins are staying strong despite so much weakness in their lineup. I can't say enough about Satan, who was literally sitting on his couch waiting for a phone call as recently as New Year's Day. Begin and Shawn Thornton haven't been short on energy, and Providence call-ups Adam McQuaid and Trent Whitfield are proving they belong. It's also refreshing to see younger players like Paille, Matt Hunwick and Johnny Boychuk play with confidence and emerge as leaders themselves.

I still have plenty of concerns. Wheeler and Ryder must be more productive, especially if this leg injury sidelines Sturm beyond the weekend. Wheeler's been a wildly frustrating player this season. Sometimes I wish I could turn into Don Corleone and do this to him. Whenever I see him turn his shoulder into a defender, I smile a little before realizing I probably won't see it again for a while. Blake, you have the perfect body for a power forward. Now be a power forward, please. As for Ryder, if he isn't scoring, he can't hide his other deficiencies because he's not a complete player. He scored Saturday, but 19 points in 47 games isn't cutting it.

I'd also like to see Milan Lucic be more aggressive, which isn't something I ever expected to say. He scored his first point of 2010 on Saturday, but in his four previous games since returning from an ankle injury he was a minus-five with just three shots on goal. Maybe he misses playing with Savard, but Lucic isn't close to the star he was supposed to become this year. I'll have more on Looch in the Bullet Points.

With the offense lacking, the B's have benefited from excellent defense and goaltending. Going into Saturday's game, Thomas and Tuukka Rask have combined for the second-best save percentage (.923) and fourth-best GAA (2.18) in the NHL. They continue to harbor the best penalty kill unit in the NHL with a 87.7 percent success rate (and that percentage will rise after five successful kills against L.A. Saturday).

That's what this team must rally around going forward. The B's have played fewer than ten games in the '09-'10 season with the full team they expected to have after bringing Paille aboard. They find themselves fifth in the Eastern Conference, which is extremely admirable considering their tumultuous ride to this point. Hopefully that full team will be ready to go after the Olympic break. At the trade deadline they can get that sniper they badly need, and go forward with what they have.

There's simply no reason to lose faith yet.

Onto Around Hockey Bullet Points:
  • Based on my opportunity to watch both teams against the Bruins over the last 10 days, I don't think there's much doubt that between Chicago and San Jose the better team is Chicago. The Blackhawks came to the Garden and got down two goals early. Deciding they'd had enough of that, they went on to score five consecutive goals before yielding a meaningless Bruins third period tally. They are presently rolling four terrific lines, featuring eight players who've already tallied double-digit goals, sporting the best defensive pairing in hockey in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, and getting extremely solid goaltending from Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi. There's a lot of season left, and it's always hard to tell in January who's going to be playing strongly in the spring. But the Hawks are a friggin' juggernaut. There's no use in denying it.
  • If you haven't seen Zach Parise's incredible overtime winner from Jan. 9, and the equally incredible sequence that led to the goal, check it out. And if you have seen it, you should probably watch it again. You should also watch to hear Doc Emerick's voice crack about seven different times after Parise beats Jaroslav Halak. One of my favorite things about the upcoming Olympics will be the exposing of NHL stars to the entire country in a way the league's current abhorrent TV deal doesn't allow. Parise is one player who will benefit greatly from this. I can't wait for America to see how awesome Parise is in every conceivable way. It's going to be love at first sight. Believe me.
  • A couple days after my last blog post, I was in Boston for the WFNX Miracle on Tremont Street concert at the Orpheum. I got to Boston around 12:30, so I spent most of the afternoon wandering around town. Late in the day, I was crossing the street between Government Center and Faneuil Hall when something caught my eye. A tallish man with a familiar face was approaching me while clutching the hand of a young female. It took me a second, but I soon figured out I was looking at Milan Lucic. This was about a week after he'd injured his ankle, and was in Boston while the B's were doing battle with Montreal that night. In that moment, I froze. I was crossing a busy street at rush hour in Boston, plus I had my earbuds in trying to better familiarize myself with that night's headliner Spoon. I just stared at him as he walked by me. At the very least I should have mustered up a hearty "LOOOOOCH!" but it didn't happen. Maybe our paths will cross again someday.
  • Is it shocking to anyone else that Henrik Sedin is leading the NHL in points nearly 50 games into the season? Not Daniel, but Henrik? And it's even more shocking that Henrik earned many of those 64 points when Daniel was out of the lineup for 18 games with a broken foot. For all the chatter during the summer that one twin couldn't sustain solid production without the other, we now see Henrik setting the world on fire. It's a legitimate debate between Henrik and Sidney Crosby over who's been the best center in the league so far. Again, that would have been very hard to predict coming into the season, especially with Daniel missing so much time.
  • Finally, a belated congrats to Brian McCloskey and the prolific UNH women's hockey team for winning their leg of the Jan. 8 Hockey East Frozen Fenway extravaganza. They came back from a late deficit to beat the Northeastern Huskies on the biggest of possible stages for women's college hockey. It was without a doubt one of the proudest moments in not just the decorated history of the program, but a great moment for UNH itself not soon to be forgotten. And McCloskey looked pretty sharp, too. Check out some highlights here.
Maybe I won't wait six weeks before my next post. No promises. Take care.