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Playing four-on-four

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff  April 20, 2012 01:13 PM

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Four is an integer of interest these days on the Boston sports scene.

The Bruins are tied, 2-2, after four games of their playoff series with the Washington Capitals, thanks to a 44-save performance Thursday night by Washington goalie Braden Holtby, playing in just his fourth NHL playoff game. Four is the number of wins the Red Sox have in their first 12 games under manager Bobby Valentine headed into Friday's Fenway Park centennial celebration. The Celtics are set up as the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, and the Patriots have four picks in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft, which will take place next week.

So, here are four sports musings for Friday:

1. The Bruins are being beaten at their own game -- No one from Washington has blocked this many attempts at passage since last year's polarizing debt-ceiling budget debate. The Bruins, who tied for second in the NHL in goals during the regular season, have scored just seven in four games in a series that is tighter than a pair of skinny jeans. The Capitals have found hockey religion in the form of defensive-minded play, and a stingy netminder in Holtby.

Before the series, the feeling was a low-scoring, tight-checking, goal-starved series would benefit the Bruins with Tim Thomas in net and coach Claude Julien's dedication to defensively responsible hockey. But that grinding style of play, coupled with the Bruins usual playoff power-play ineptitude (0-12), has allowed a team with lesser overall talent and depth than the Bruins to turn a first-round formality into a hard-fought series.

The only way for the Bruins to shake off the Capitals is to get some of their big guns to stop shooting blanks. None of the Bruins' top five goal-scorers during the regular season -- Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron -- has found the back of the net yet. The quiet quintet has one measly point in the playoffs, an assist belonging to Bergeron. That's an express ticket to an unwanted and unexpected tee time.

2. Ray Allen's ankle situation is concerning -- Allen didn't make the trip to Atlanta, and Friday night will miss his seventh straight game and 13th out of the last 18 due to a balky right ankle. The Celtics' resurgence has been a feel-good story, and with Dwight Howard hors de hoops for the season thanks to a back injury, Boston's path to another NBA Finals got even clearer.

But Allen's condition is worrisome. Either the ankle is not coming around and has reached a stage where it's a chronic ailment that could affect him in the playoffs, or Allen, a free agent after this season, is making a business decision to protect himself and his marketability this summer by not playing hurt. Neither Allen injury scenario bodes well for Banner No. 18.

The former is the dreaded and anticipated breakdown of one of the Celtics' vaunted Big Three. The latter is Allen being miffed about nearly being traded by the Celtics to Memphis at the trade deadline and confirming the rumblings that he's not in love with his new role as a sixth man. In the last two days both the Globe and Herald have had stories implying that Allen feels slighted by the organization and hinting that he could be playing elsewhere once he hits free-agency.

3. The Red Sox' unsettled bullpen is contributing to the hysteria surrounding the team -- The most disconcerting thing about the Red Sox -- besides the fact they would play "Sweet Caroline" in the eighth inning even if Fenway were engulfed in flames -- is the bullpen, a unit that is a conflagration in the making.

Here are the relievers with corresponding ERAs that the Yankees used on Thursday night in a 7-6 win over the Minnesota Twins after starter Phil Hughes was tagged for six runs in 5 1/3 innings: Boone Logan (1.23), Rafael Soriano (1.80), David Robertson (0.00) and Mariano Rivera (4.15). There is a better chance of Terry Francona returning as Red Sox manager this season than Rivera finishing the season with an ERA above 4.00.

The Sox' farraginous bullpen simply can't compete with the arms the Yankees have. It's a complete mismatch and the lack of proven, reliable options undermines Valentine far more than any careless words he utters to the media.

It may be unfair to Daniel Bard, but to give Valentine and this team a reasonable chance to succeed the Sox will have to consider moving him back to the bullpen at some point.

4. Likes and dislikes of the 2012 NFL schedule -- What any Patriots fan has to like about the schedule is the paucity of high-end quarterbacks on the team's slate. Three of the Patriots' four losses last season came at the hands of Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger. Their porous pass defense struggled against elite QBs. The two best quarterbacks on the schedule this year are Peyton Manning (Denver) and Joe Flacco (Baltimore). Houston's Matt Schaub would also be on the list, but he's recovering from a Lisfranc fracture in his right foot, an injury that can have long-term effects.

What I don't like about the schedule is the placement of the two Jets games. Everyone is talking about how easy the Patriots schedule appears, but the difficulty of their slate will be determined in large part by whether the Jets resemble the dysfunctional, bickering bunch from last season that missed the playoffs or the team that advanced to two straight AFC title games.

The first Jets game comes on Oct. 21 at Gillette Stadium. The week before the Jets have a nice cushy 1 p.m. home game against the rebuilding Colts. The Patriots meanwhile have to fly to Seattle and play the Seahawks in a 4:15 game, ensuring jet lag and a wee-hours of the morning arrival home, which could mean losing a half-day or more of preparation time. The second clash with the Jets comes on Thanksgiving and is on the road, which means already limited time to prepare, truncated even more by a travel day. Granted, both teams are playing the prior Sunday at 1 p.m., and the Jets are on the road (Rams) while the Patriots are home (Colts). But such a pivotal divisional game shouldn't have its game-planning compromised.

My biggest issue with the NFL schedule overall is the expansion of the Thursday night television package. It seems hypocritical for commissioner Roger Goodell to go on a player safety crusade and then have the league increase the number of games that are played on Thursday nights without building in byes.

How is this for player safety? The Ravens will host the Patriots on Sunday night football on Sept. 23, and then turn around and host the Cleveland Browns the following Thursday. Inexplicably, not a single one of the 14 Thursday night games this season features a team coming off a bye week. That could do more damage than Gregg Williams and his bounties.

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The word

Christopher L. Gasper riffs on the news

Dearth

...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.

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