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Bruins' Cup isn't empty

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 26, 2012 12:29 PM
By Christopher L. Gasper, Globe columnist

The end was swift and stunning. Suddenly, the puck was behind Tim Thomas and the Washington Capitals were hugging the TD Garden boards and each other in celebration. A moment later the Bruins were in the handshake line, sent home empty-handed without a Game 7 victory, a playoff series win, or Lord Stanley's Cup.

A captivating and charmed 12-month span of hockey came to an unexpected conclusion. Joel Ward's backhanded sweeper at 2:57 of overtime put the defending Stanley Cup champs into a state of pucks repose. No need to get the Duck Boats ready this year, just the golf clubs, thanks to a first-round exit courtesy of the Caps.

There will be a rush to do a postmortem and try to detail the reasons the Bruins bowed out in the first round after suffering a 2-1 overtime loss to the Capitals in Game 7 of their first-round Eastern Conference playoff series. You can blame the power play (0 for 3 last night and 2 for 23 in the series), the play of Washington's playoff neophyte netminder Braden Holtby (2.00 goals against, .940 save percentage), or the lack of production from the Bruins' best players -- Rich Peverley (3 goals, 2 assists) and Andrew Ference (a goal and 3 assists) ended up as the Bruins two leading point producers in the series.

But what last night's loss provided is a greater appreciation for just how special last year's Stanley Cup run was, because this year's edition of the Black and Gold had largely the same cast of characters and got a much different result.

Last year's club was truly remarkable -- and blessed. It was the first in NHL history to win three Game 7s in one playoff year. It was also the first Bruins team in 27 tries to win a series after trailing 0-2, as the Spoked-Bs did to Montreal in last year's first-round. It had a goaltender in Tim Thomas who repelled more rubber than any goalie in Stanley Cup playoff history (798 saves). It overcame an inept power play.

Still, any number of unfavorable bounces or missed opportunities last year could have derailed the Bruins' Stanley Cup run, as it did this year.

The series with the Capitals was thisclose. After seven games, all decided by one goal -- an NHL first -- the cumulative count for the series was Capitals 16, Bruins 15. A solitary goal, triggered by an unlucky Benoit Pouliot dump-in, the difference between going on and going home.

That's not to ascribe the Bruins' success last year strictly to great goaltending and good fortune. It was much more than that. Last year's team was a model of resiliency, finely-tuned team play, and clutch individual efforts. They rose to the occasion and never shrank from the moment.

The short summer, a long, grinding regular season, the absence of Nathan Horton, and a recusant Capitals club that got a style makeover from coach Dale Hunter made it difficult for the Bruins to recapture that playoff magic, the 13th successive champions who failed to retain their Cup holder status.

That doesn't dull the disappointment of a first-round exit or provide underperforming Bruins like Milan Lucic, David Krejic and Brad Marchand with an alibi. But it illustrates that exultation and lamentation are separated by a margin as narrow as a skate blade this time of year.

Thomas never would have become a Conn Smythe-winning icon if the Bruins hadn't escaped against Montreal in the first round last year.

"We're not going to sit here and pick at our team," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "When I look at this hockey club and what it went through last year and you look at teams that have been through that situation and how they've struggled throughout the year...we had to really grind it out. It was a challenging year for our guys, and it was a challenging series as well.

"They made it tough on us. They deserve a lot of credit for the way they played and the number of shots they blocked. They helped their goaltender, but the young goaltender played extremely well. Let's not forget to give them a lot of credit for the way they handled us.

"At the end of the day when you look at your team, the team wasn't playing its best hockey in the series. Before this day started you just hoped you could get through this Game 7 and then hope to pick some momentum up as you moved forward in the playoffs. But you had to get through this game and we weren't able to."

The good news is that the core of this club figures to return intact, unless general manager Peter Chiarelli decides now is the time to sell off Thomas. The most prominent free agent is Chris Kelly, a versatile forward the Bruins should do their best to retain. The Bruins should get a boost with the addition of blue-chip blue line prospect Dougie Hamilton.

Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the Bruins in defeat was the coming of age of Tyler Seguin. No. 19 was the Bruins' best forward in the last three games of this series. He scored the Boston's lone goal last night, knotting the game, 1-1, in the second.

That goal, even more than the Renoir game-winner he scored in overtime in Game 6, was a sign of Seguin's maturation. Noticeably contact-averse early in the series, Seguin crashed the net and battled with Washington's shut-down defense pair, Karl Alzner and John Carlson, before diving and poking a loose puck past Holtby.

It was the type of no-guts, no-glory goal you would associate with Lucic or Bergeron. It's the type of goal that earns the respect of your teammates and lets them know that you grasp what being a Bruin is about.

Hockey is over this season in Boston, but the Bruins run of success isn't. It has merely paused to allow them to catch their breath.

Playing four-on-four

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

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.

Bruins need to go on the offensive against the Capitals

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 16, 2012 02:49 PM

It could be worse for the Bruins.

Fellow Stanley Cup aspirants the Vancouver Canucks and Pittsburgh Penguins, both trailing 3-0 in their playoffs series, would gladly trade places with the goal-starved Black and Gold, who have found the Washington net dead-bolted and their series with the Capitals deadlocked, 1-1, heading into Game 3 Monday night in the nation's capital.

There is a bit of unease about the Bruins' first-round series with the Capitals. The series has turned a wee bit worrisome after Washington squeezed out a 2-1 double-overtime victory on Sunday at TD Garden to even the proceedings.

Obstructionist policy, all the rage in Washington these days, has been translated to the rink by coach Dale Hunter and the Capitals, who have limited the Bruins to two goals in two games. Washington newbie netminder Braden Holtby has stopped 72 of 74 shots in 144 minutes and 14 seconds of action. A big goalie clad in red, white and blue derailing a Bruins Stanley Cup title defense is too familiar a story.

Where did the goals go? That is the question the Bruins, a team that scored 260 goals during the regular season, tied for second in the NHL with Philadelphia and only trailing the Penguins, have to answer before they take the ice for Game 3.

Games in which teams scrounge around for goals like they're trying to dig up loose change in their couch cushions would seemingly play into hands of the Bruins, with their penchant for defensive responsibility and the presence of Tim Thomas in net. However, if they let Holtby continue to gain confidence and the Capitals to continue to believe they're engaged in a winnable series then goal-gridlock could backfire on the Bruins.

It might be time for Bruins coach Claude Julien to start tacking up flyers around the Bruins' locker room. They could read: "Missing: Scoring Touch of Top Two Lines. Last seen during the regular season. Please return to 100 Legends Way, Boston, MA as soon as possible. If found contact 1-888-GOAL or backofthenet@bostonbruins.com."

The Bruins top two lines have yet to register a point in the series. The trios of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Rich Peverley and Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and Tyler Seguin going silent.

Both Boston goals, Chris Kelly's game-winner in overtime in Game 1, and Benoit Pouliot's net-crasher in the third period of Game 2, have come from the third line That line has all six of the Bruins points in the series, despite possessing only one of the team's six 20-goal scorers this year (Kelly).

It would help the Bruins if they got Seguin going.

The physicality of the playoffs seems to have muted Seguin's game a bit. In spite of a team-high eight shots on goal, he has not resembled the player who led the Bruins in goals (29) and points (67).

During the regular-season, it was clear that whatever line Seguin was skating on was the Bruins' most potent one. When Julien needed to recharge the batteries of a lagging Krejci, he put Seguin on his wing.

For all the talk of digging deeper, getting more dirt under the fingernails and tossing pulchritude aside to get more goals, perhaps it makes sense for Julien to pull Seguin off the Bergeron Line, which has the defensive responsibility of matching up with Alexander Ovechkin's line, and see if he can re-ignite his chemistry with Krejci and Lucic.

Perhaps, pairing up the Bruins two most individually skilled offensive players could crack the Capitals' defensive shell and jump-start two players the Bruins are going to need to lift Lord Stanley's chalice once again.

Krejci said after Sunday's loss that he and linemates Lucic and right wing Rich Peverley weren't clicking.

"I just don't think we're playing our game, especially my line. I don't know what it is, but we have to find a way to help each other out there," said Krejci. "It sometimes seems like the one guy is working and the two others are just waiting and hoping for the puck to get a scoring chance. It doesn't work like that. We got to help each other out there. If we do that we have good players, and we have good size so we should be able to get some scoring chances."

The buzz words in the Bruins locker room after Game 2 were net-front presence, crashing the net and screening. Shield Holtby from shots, so he can't shield them from the net.

The Bruins were more apt to blame themselves than credit Holtby, who had 43 saves in Game 2, for the paucity of pucks that have found the back of the net. Krejci shrugged off a question about whether a lack of familiarity with Holtby, who was playing in the AHL playoffs last year, has made him harder to solve.

"Obviously, he's played real well for them so far in the first two games, but in saying that a lot of our shots have come from the outside," said Lucic. "We haven't done that great of a job getting second, third shot opportunities -- pounces on rebounds -- and getting in his face. Can't take anything away from him; he's made the saves and stepped up big, and we just need to find ways to create more offense."

One way to do that is to reunite Krejci and Seguin. If Julien thinks it's too much of a risk, he could at least let them play together on the power play, which has sadly picked up right where it left off last postseason (0 for 6 so far).

With a Stanley Cup title to his name, Julien has proven that his way works.

But to make things harder for Holtby and the Capitals the Bruins need to get more offensive, unless they plan on getting the Flyers and Penguins to donate a few spare goals.

Bruins' Big Bang Theory pays off against Washington in Game 1

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

The Spoked-B on those Bruins sweaters last night might as well have stood for bullies because it was clear from the drop of the puck that the Bruins planned to begin their Stanley Cup title defense by dropping the Capitals early and often.

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This was a game of two teams with distinctly different styles. It was force (Bruins) vs. finesse (Capitals). The Bruins imposed both their will and their game on the Washington Capitals last night at TD Garden, outlasting Alexander Ovechkin and Caps kid goalie Braden Holtby to score a 1-0 overtime win and take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference first-round series.

Yes, these aren't your older brother's Capitals. They've abandoned their ping-pong style of hockey and no longer act like they're fatally allergic to defense. They play a more measured, responsible game.

But the Bruins clearly felt that they could push Washington around a bit and wasted no time doing so, setting the tone for the game and the series. A game that was short on goals was not on physical contact. The Bruins served Washington a heaping helping of bangers and mash, and I'm not talking about the traditional English dish.

"We don't want to let them play their fancy hockey and their skill game," said Bruins forward Brad Marchand. "We want to focus on playing physical and keeping it simple and playing hard and being tough to play against. We did a pretty good job of that tonight. It's only one game. There is still a lot of time left."

The Black and Gold's Big Bang theory worked on night one.

Boston made its presence felt early with some big hits, and defenseman Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg made a point of knocking around Ovechkin to try to knock him off his game. To his credit, Ovechkin seemed like one of a few Capitals willing to consistently engage in the physical stuff with the bruising Bruins. Most of his teammates were looking for salvation in form of the referee's whistle.

The Russian goal machine gave as good as he got and had a building-shaking collision with Seidenberg in front of the benches in the second period that sent both men tumbling to the ice.

Ovechkin registered a game-high seven hits, but just one shot on goal, a power play laser that Tim Thomas turned aside in the third period. Even with Ovechkin playing a physical game, the Bruins exceeded the Capitals hit count, 40-29.

The Bruins will be more than happy to have nights like last night where Ovechkin, who even in a down year finished fifth in the NHL in goals scored, takes more shots at Chara and Seidenberg than he puts on Thomas.

"That's what it's about -- trying to shut him down because he is their biggest offensive threat," said Seidenberg. "We just got to play tough and try to disrupt his speed and time ... He likes to play a physical game. We do too. It's fun. I think we all like it out there. It's been fair."

This is what the Bruins do. They did it to Vancouver last year. They intimidate and instigate and aggravate. They force teams to fight for every inch of ice. They tilt the rink to their favor and their terms. Finesse teams like the Canucks and Capitals can either whine to the media and the officials or fight through it and try to hurt the Bruins where it counts -- on the scoreboard. Of course, that is easier said than done with the Bruins' commitment to defensive responsibility and a tuned-in Thomas in net.

The Bruins, who tied for second in the NHL this season in goals scored with 260, have enough skill to compete with Washington in a more wide-open game, but to do so would allow the Capitals to get comfortable.

Instead, the Bruins instituted Capitals punishment all night and took Washington out of its comfort zone in Game 1, locking it into a pucks tractor-pull that wasn't decided until Chris Kelly blasted a slapper past Holtby at 1:18 of overtime, the goal set up by a well-executed Bruins' counter-attack.

Don't let the score fool you. The Bruins dominated this game for long stretches. They outshot the Capitals by a 17-2 count in the second period and after two periods the shots totals stood at a lopsided 26 for Boston to just 7 for Washington. Holtby, making his first career playoff start, was keeping the Bruins at bay with a stream of steady, if unspectacular, stops.

If the Bruins' power play hadn't resorted to its feckless playoff form (0-4) then perhaps additional time wouldn't have been needed at all. Coach Claude Julien admitted after the game that if the Bruins had lost the talk of the evening would have been a power play that failed to convert on a four-minute man advantage and a 4-on-3.

That could come back to haunt the Bruins in series where they're playing against Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and offensive-minded defenseman Mike Green.

The Bruins sent a message to the Capitals in Game 1 about what kind of series this is going to be. It's the type that Capitals coach Dale Hunter would have embraced during his rough and tumble playing days. Whether his team is built for that type of hockey remains to be seen.

We already know it's tailor-made for boys in the Spoked-B sweaters.

"They have a ton of skill, and a way to kind of slow them down is to be physical, and we have a physical team," said Marchand. "When we're playing that way we're playing our best hockey. It was just something we wanted to establish early and just continue to build off it."

The Bruins have established their tactics in this series -- hit 'em hard and hit 'em often. They delivered the blows, including the decisive one in Game 1, now we'll see in Game 2 Saturday afternoon at TD Garden what the Capitals have planned for a counterpunch.

Forwarding four April thoughts on Celtics, Sox, Bruins and Patriots

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 3, 2012 03:49 PM

T.S. Eliot said April was the cruelest month, but there is a lot to look forward to in the fourth month of the year in the foremost sports city in the country.

We have the recharged Bruins ready to defend their Stanley Cup crown in the NHL playoffs, the reconfigured Red Sox, replete with a new general manger, manager and closer, hoping to erase the grease stains of last season's epic collapse, the revitalized Celtics appearing ready to make one last championship run, and everybody's favorite rite of April, the Patriots trading out of the first round of the NFL Draft. Seriously, it's a fascinating draft for the Patriots, who have two picks in both the first and second rounds and are an impact defender or two away from Lombardi trophy No. 4.

With the foreword out of the way, here are four thoughts on each of the Big Four sports teams in town.

1. The Celtics are making Danny Ainge look smart -- It looked like Ainge had erred when he failed to pull the trigger on a trade at the deadline that would jumpstart the inevitable rebuilding process. But now Danny the Dealer looks shrewd for standing pat. The Celtics have won five straight and nine of their last 12 to jump from seventh in the East to fourth with a real chance to catch Orlando for the third spot.

The best part of the Celtics' recent renaissance has been the emergence of guard Avery Bradley, who has been a revelation while Ray Allen has sat out with an ankle injury. In his last five games, Bradley is averaging 14.6 points per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field and playing defense better than a White House press secretary. He has given the Celtics a much-needed boost of athleticism in the starting lineup and a running mate for Rondo.

Even if the Celtics don't get beyond the second-round of the playoffs this stretch has been of enormous benefit, as it has turned Bradley from an NBA unknown into an asset. This is what Ainge does best -- turn late round picks into assets he can either hold on to (Rondo) or dangle out to attract better players (Al Jefferson).

Since taking over in 2003 here are the late-round players that Ainge has obtained through the draft either by selection or draft-day deal: 2003 -- Kendrick Perkins (trade with Memphis); 2004 -- Jefferson, Delonte West, and Tony Allen; 2005 -- Gerald Green and Ryan Gomes (second-round pick), both part of the Kevin Garnett deal; 2006 -- some guy named Rondo in a trade with Phoenix; 2007-- Jeff Green, the centerpiece of a deal for Ray Allen; 2010 -- Bradley (19th pick).

Not dismantling his team has been a strategic success for Ainge. It has made the pieces on his roster look more enticing to other teams, and it has made his team look more enticing to potential free agents, who may look at the Celtics now and realize that they could be a quick-fix, not a tear-down.

2. The Red Sox' standard operating procedure hasn't changed -- So, I created quite a stir with my piece on the dynamics between new general manager Ben Cherington and new manager Bobby Valentine. I think some may have missed my point, which wasn't that Cherington and Valentine were stabbing each other in the back with every sharp object they could find, only spoke to each other to spew invectives and were locked in a "The Hunger Games"-style battle for control of the team. (By the way, why is it "news" that a manager and general manager text and talk to each other frequently?)

The point was that the decisions on how to employ Daniel Bard and Jose Iglesias were going to tell us something about the Sox' organizational structure and whether it had changed with Theo Epstein's departure. It would appear not. It's still a collective process spearheaded by the GM.

Perhaps, making Bard a starter was a move that Valentine unwaveringly supported all along, but that seems even more dubious when taking into account the thumb injury to closer Andrew Bailey. This nugget from colleague Peter Abraham in which Alfredo Aceves, who really should think about starting his own Red Sox blog since he seems to break every story, said that Valentine told him Bard got his spot because the organization wanted him to is particularly telling.

Testing out Bard as a starter this season has always been particularly important to Cherington. It was something he was committed to. That's fact, not opinion. A first-year manager on a two-year contract at risk of losing the closer from an already suspect bullpen to injury wouldn't be leading the charge to turn one of the game's best late-inning relievers into a starter, not when he has other viable options for the rotation. He has to win now. Nothing undermines a team faster or produces more second-guessing of a manager than uncertainty in the late innings.

Valentine knows how much Bard can help him the back end of the bullpen. No one knows yet how much he can help him in the back end of the rotation. Yes, Valentine is on board with the idea of Bard being a starter, but that train had already left the station. He hopped aboard, but he'll claim he was the conductor.

3. The Bruins' hibernation is over -- Perhaps, the Spoked-B on the Boston sweaters stood for boredom and that was the explanation for the two-half month malaise --16-17-2 -- that culminated in an ugly four-game losing streak. Whatever it was, the Bruins are back and at the perfect time. They've taken points in five of their last six games and are 7-1-1 in their last nine.

It's not a coincidence that the Bruins renaissance dovetailed with that of their goalie, Tim Thomas. The Bruins stingy netminder hasn't allowed more than two goals in his last seven starts and has a .941 save percentage during that time. Which happened first, better defensive play in their own end or stouter play in their own net? Either way this is the type of hockey the Bruins are going to need to defend their Stanley Cup crown against a much tougher field than last year.

What is a little bit concerning about the Black and Gold this season though is that despite their propensity for scoring goals -- 251, trailing only tonight's opponent, Pittsburgh, and the Philadelphia Flyers -- they're front-runners.

The Bruins are 3-15-1 this season when going down 2-0 and 4-20-1 when trailing by two goals at any point in a game. The Bruins are unquestionably built to play with a lead, but two of their signature wins last spring came when they trailed by two goals, Game 4 of the first-round against Montreal and Game 2 of the conference semifinals against the Flyers.

You would think a team with six 20-goal scorers would be a little bit better at digging out of holes. They might have to be because they're not going to have the same distinct goaltending advantage they enjoyed last season.

4. This draft should be about quality not quantity for the Patriots -- Over the last three drafts the Patriots have selected 33 players. The draft is seven rounds, so a team with one pick per round would have taken 21 players. This year the Patriots have only six picks, but all are in the top 126. The Patriots have done an excellent job of building depth, but what the Super Bowl proved was that high-end talent on defense takes the day.

It's time to find the Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez of the defense. Along those lines they might have to take some chances. Some teams didn't even have Gronkowski (back injury) and Hernandez (off-field behavior) on their draft boards.

A player like cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who was booted out of Florida, spent last season at Division II North Alabama and has four kids with three different mothers, is a risk, but he could also be a Revis-like factor. Jenkins was the best corner in the Southeastern Conference in 2010.

He held A.J. Green, now of the Bengals, to four catches for 42 yards and a touchdown. Julio Jones, the player the Falcons gave up a bounty to move up and draft last year, got four catches for 19 yards against Jenkins. Alshon Jeffrey, considered one of the top half-dozen receivers in this draft, had two catches for 17 yards against Jenkins.

It's a familiar refrain, but the Patriots need pass rush too, and as old friend, Mike Reiss, has often pointed out they spent 60-plus percent of last season in the sub defense. No one would call Mark Anderson, part of that package, a traditional 3-4 outside linebacker, but he was a significant part of that package and the Patriots' defense.

The Patriots tend to go for tall, long-limbed types on the outside (Shawn Crable, Jermaine Cunningham) that can set the edge against the run, but to get an impact pass rusher they have to consider stepping outside of their prototypes and comfort zone.

Throwing a net around Bruins' problems

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 17, 2012 06:00 AM

The Bruins started the season with a Stanley Cup hangover, and once again they’re playing like they’re under the influence. This time it looks like Ambien, not championship champagne.

The endearing, heady, hard-working hockey team we’ve come to know and love has been replaced by a bumbling bunch that literally can’t get out of its own way - if you saw the fifth Florida goal in Thursday night’s disheartening 6-2 loss to the Panthers you know what I mean - and whose goalies can’t get in the way of the puck.

Losers of four straight and seven of 10, it appears the Spooked-Bs are having that alarm clock issue Tyler Seguin had earlier this season in Winnipeg. The Bruins have been late arriving to their own games. When the puck has been dropped, they’ve gone into hockey hibernation. The Bruins have allowed the first goal in seven straight games, and been outscored, 29-16, in the first two periods over their last 10 games.

What had been a months-long malaise - the team has posted a 16-17-2 record since Jan. 1 - you could ascribe to injuries and the tedium of the regular season has become a full-on daze that is disconcerting with a dozen games remaining. Coach Claude Julien acknowledged Friday that his team’s confidence is a “little rattled’’ at this point.

That rattled feeling has come from the cage. Under Julien’s tenure as coach, the Bruins have been synonymous with stingy play and stellar goaltending. But, like snowbirds who go to Florida in June, those qualities have headed south at the wrong time.

Julien has made a point of saying that the Bruins are bigger than one player and that no one player was responsible for them squiring the Stanley Cup around the ice in Vancouver last June. However, some were more responsible than others.

Tim Thomas provided netminding that ranked with the all-time best, repelling more rubber than any goalie in Stanley Cup playoff history and producing Game 7 shutouts in the conference final and Stanley Cup Final on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy. After the Canucks spent the entire Final series trying to crawl inside Thomas’s head, he was inside theirs.

Few positions in sports endure the scrutiny that a hockey goaltender does. It’s like the quarterback in the NFL. When times are good, they get too much credit, and when times are bad, they get too much blame. But in the Bruins’ case they’ve constructed a team with an identity crafted on keeping the puck out of the net, and when the goalie fails to do so it undermines the entire exercise.

Whether it’s the groin injury to Tuukka Rask that has increased Thomas’s workload, mental fatigue from the fallout from his Facebook political musings, or just a cold spell, the soon-to-be 38-year-old has been out of sorts.

In nine games this month, he is 3-5 with a goals-against average (4.06) that is more befitting of the zero-to-60 time of a sports car than an elite goalie. Entering this month, Thomas allowed four or more goals in a game four times in 42 games this season. It’s happened four times in eight starts this month, including Thursday. Thomas has allowed three goals in two other starts this month.

The play in front of him hasn’t always been exemplary, but the beauty of having a two-time Vezina Trophy winner is that he can erase mistakes.

Instead, Thomas has been reduced to bemoaning bad bounces and shaking his fists at the Hockey Gods, hardly the stuff of legend.

Thomas isn’t just the backstop for the Black and Gold. He’s the backbone of what they do. Yes, the offense has been spotty since Rick Peverley joined Nathan Horton in the ranks of the injured, particularly the power play. But the Bruins have scored 225 goals this season. That’s one more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, and one fewer than the Flyers.

The issue is goaltending and defensive breakdowns. It’s hard to play with confidence if every defensive breakdown ends up in the back of the net.

Something is amiss with Thomas, and it’s infected the whole team. It just seems like some ingredient of their gestalt is missing.

It seems a little silly to talk about must-win games in mid-March, but Saturday’s clash with the Philadelphia Flyers at TD Garden feels that way. The Bruins find themselves in a real race with the Senators for the Northeast Division title. Ottawa’s comeback win in overtime over the Canadiens Friday night moved it past the Bruins into first place by a point.

This is how bizarre the Bruins’ swoon has become. It is the Flyers, a franchise that is perpetually searching for a suitable goaltender, who come to town with superior netminding. Philadelphia has been riding red-hot Russian goalie and amateur astronomer Ilya Bryzgalov.

The Flyers are winners of seven of eight, and Bryzgalov has won all seven, allowing just seven goals in that span. The eccentric goalie had authored three straight shutouts and set a franchise record with a 249-minute, 43-second scoreless streak before both were snapped Thursday in the third period of the Flyers’ 3-2 victory over the Islanders.

It was Thomas who broke the back of the Flyers in the playoffs last year with a 52-save pièce de résistance between the pipes in Game 2. That was the game that made it clear that the Bruins were legitimate Cup contenders.

Thomas and the Bruins have to rediscover the play that carried them to the Cup and quickly. Otherwise, the Bruins’ Stanley Cup champion reign will end right where it began - in front of the goal.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

Tyler Seguin is causing idol talk

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 10, 2012 06:00 AM
You don’t have to be among the most devout of the Spoked-Believers to instantly identify the Bruins’ top line these days. It’s simple. Whichever line Tyler Seguin is skating on is the Bruins’ first line of offense.

If he’s skating with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, then that speed-to-thrill trio gets the No. 1 designation. If he’s dashing down right wing with Milan Lucic and David Krejci, like he has been for the last five games, then the label makes a line change. Just add Seguin and skate, instant offense. In the five games with Krejci and Lucic, the trio has combined for 10 goals and 10 assists.

It’s remarkable how imperative Seguin has become to the Bruins’ offense considering where he was at this time last season as a rookie - the press box. Last March 10, Seguin was a healthy scratch against the Sabres, sitting up in Level 9 of TD Garden with the Lords of the Laptop. This year on March 10, when the Bruins face the Capitals at TD Garden on Saturday, Seguin will enter as the Bruins’ leading point producer (55), goal scorer (24), and, warming the heart of coach Claude Julien, the NHL leader in plus-minus (plus-35).

“He’s a different player,’’ said Krejci, who has benefited from teaming up with Seguin, scoring five goals in the last five games. “We all knew what he had last year, but he’s using his experience from last year and last year’s playoffs. He’s just a different player. He uses his strength very well. It’s good to see him produce this year as he has so far.’’

Seguin’s breakout season isn’t breaking news, but it’s still worth highlighting for those who have been distracted by the Red Sox’ road to redemption, the Patriots’ playoff run or the saga of the presumptive final act of the Celtics’ Big Three Redux.

The expectation when the Bruins tabbed Seguin with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft was that he could become a franchise forward. Seguin, who still isn’t old enough to order a drink, hasn’t just taken a step in that direction this season, he’s leaped like Michael Jordan taking off from the free throw line.

Despite protestations to the contrary, the Bruins and Julien got it right the way they handled Seguin last season. This season is proof. They didn’t stunt his growth. They nurtured it, sticking him in an ice hockey incubator for a year until he was ready to not only play as a top-six forward, but to become the offensive pulse of the team. Seguin could become the type of hockey idol this town hasn’t had since Ray Bourque.

Whether he wanted to or not, the wunderkind acknowledged sitting last season had a positive impact.

“Oh, absolutely. I’ll never forget that,’’ Seguin said. “You’re never going to forget being up there. You learn a lot from it. I still cherish my time that I had up there. Obviously, I didn’t enjoy it. You learn a lot from watching from above.’’

Seguin was pretty much watching when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup last year. He was a spectator until Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, and only got on the ice because Bergeron was out with a concussion. Seguin made the most of his opportunity against the Lightning, registering three goals and three assists in the first two games of the series.

If Seguin is sitting again this year in the playoffs, then the Bruins won’t be lifting Lord Stanley’s cherished chalice.

Tim Thomas’s stingy play in net is essential to the Bruins’ success. Zdeno Chara is the backbone of the blue liners, and Bergeron is the heartbeat of the Bruins. But Seguin is entering the sine qua non sphere of importance for the Bruins himself.

That has become more evident with the absences of forwards Nathan Horton, who has missed the last 20 games with a concussion, and Rich Peverley, who has sat out 11 straight with a sprained ligament in his right knee.

The Bruins, who Saturday are looking for their first three-game winning streak since they ripped off seven straight in December, are just trying to stay afloat and out of the trainer’s room until the playoffs. In addition to Horton and Peverley being rendered hors de hockey, backup goalie Tuukka Rask is also on the shelf with a groin injury.

Seguin, who has four goals and three assists this month in five games, and fellow young winger Jordan Caron have been like a pair of jumper cables for a Bruins offense that had stalled.

Caron, the Bruins’ first-round pick the year before Seguin, has three goals and three assists in his last three games. He was promoted to the second line during Thursday’s 3-1 win over Buffalo.

The Bruins will need both young forwards to stay hot as they try to maintain playoff positioning over the final 16 games.

“You gain so much experience from your first year and your first few games,’’ said Seguin. “If you look at a guy like Jordan Caron, right now he’s going through it. You just gain experience. You gain so many little tricks, whether it’s finding opportunities or finding scoring zones or pick-pocketing guys that are 10 years older than you with 30 or 40 pounds on you sometimes. Those little tricks you learn are why you gain confidence and get better.’’

Seguin’s sophomore season hasn’t been perfect. He was benched for a game in December when he missed a team meeting. Seguin said his alarm clock failed. It was more likely that it was his better judgment that malfunctioned in Winnipeg.

But it’s just a reminder that Seguin is playing beyond his years.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.

Seguin could be the one

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 10, 2011 05:01 PM

If Tyler Seguin is the franchise forward we believe him to be then years from now when his career is recounted and his Stanley Cup titles (plural) are counted people will have to be reminded that he was in the backseat, along for the ride, not the driving force at the spoked-wheel of the Bruins' incredible, cathartic Stanley Cup journey.

That's how good Seguin can be, so good that a time when he couldn't crack the lineup will seem impossible. It will be as difficult to fathom now as the idea that Tom Brady was an unknown, string-bean, third-string quarterback in 2000.

Seguin's play as an NHL sophomore has been a ray of light shining through the fog of complacency that enveloped the Bruins to start this season. It's not a coincidence that the player with the most to prove has also been the Bruins' best.

After a rookie season full of growing pains, Seguin has grown up, leading the team in scoring with eight goals and seven assists in 13 games. His play a revelation that leads to the realization that the ability of the Bruins to lift Lord Stanley's chalice again in both the long-term and the short-term is intertwined with the career arc of Seguin, who won't turn 20 until January 31.

A shiny, spare part last season, Seguin has become a crucial component for the Bruins. He centered the No. 1 line when David Krejci was down and is now skating right wing alongside Game 7 heroes Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand on the Bruins' speed-to-thrill second line. Endearing him most to coach Claude Julien is that Seguin is tied for the league-lead in plus/minus at plus-11. He's taking care of his own end, as they say.

Tonight is as good a night as any to size up Seguin and his future because the player he forever will be linked with -- Taylor Hall of the Edmonton Oilers -- is in town. You know the story. Taylor and Tyler were the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft. They were compared and contrasted, dissected and debated, built up and torn down.

They will be linked forever like Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer, Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf, Kevin Durant and Greg Oden, Jacob Black and Edward Cullen (just want to see if you're paying attention).

The good news is that unlike those other infamous decision duos. There does not appear to be a clear loser in the Tyler-Taylor, Taylor-Tyler debate.

Truth be told, both players were overshadowed by Carolina's Jeff Skinner, the seventh overall pick in the 2010 draft. Skinner led all NHL newbies in points with 63 (31 goals, 32 assists) and became the youngest player ever to win the Calder Trophy, as NHL Rookie of the Year. He was also the youngest All-Star in NHL history at 18 years, 259 days.

Given guaranteed ice time and a lengthy leash by a retooling Edmonton outfit, Hall jumped out to a head start last year, potting a team-leading 22 goals to go along with 20 assists in 65 games. Unlike Seguin, Hall was never a healthy scratch. His season was truncated by a high ankle sprain suffered in his first NHL fight. Hall took on Derek Dorsett of the Columbus Blue Jackets to earn a Gordie Howe hat trick -- a goal, an assist and a fight. Got to like the kid's spunk, but there is a reason snipers only hit corners.

Seguin had a much choppier start to his career, placed on a team that needed to expunge the stench of an odious playoff collapse the year before and in a system that emphasized defensive accountability he had to scratch and claw for limited ice time. He ended his inaugural NHL season with 11 goals and 11 assists in 74 games. His defensive deficiencies and reluctance to muck in the corners relegated him to the press box for the first two rounds of the playoffs until Patrice Bergeron's concussion pressed Seguin into action.

Seguin's stint with the Lords of the Laptop lit his competitive fire, as he scored six points (three goals, three assists) in his first two games against Tampa Bay, giving a glimpse of the coming attractions for this season.

The circumstances have reversed this year for Seguin and Hall. Seguin is the one piling up points on a bottom-feeding team -- despite a three-game win streak the Bruins enter tonight's tilt tied for last in the Northeast division. Hall's team is having success, but individually he is being overshadowed by his draft classmate.

Hall has three goals and six assists for the upstart Oilers, who come to TD Garden as the leader in the Northwest division with 20 points. His ice time has decreased slightly (18:13 as a rookie to 17:06), which might be as much a reflection of the Oilers' improved talent level as Hall's own play. The gifted Edmonton left wing has been upstaged by another No. 1 overall pick, rookie center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, who has 12 points in his first 14 NHL games.

Unless they meet in the Stanley Cup Final this will be the only meeting between Tyler and Taylor this year. They met once last year in Edmonton. Neither franchise-forward-in-training figured in the scoring.

If Seguin is the player the Bruins believe he can be then eventually Hall won't be his only point of comparison. You'll start to hear him mentioned with Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos and Evgeni Malkin. Maybe even some day his name will be mentioned with Shore, Orr, Esposito, Bourque, and Neely.

We're a long, long way from that. But we're also a long, long way from Seguin reaching the top floor of his talents.

We're not even out of the first chapter of Seguin's career. We're still on the first few pages.

But it has the potential to be a memorable tale.

Bruins are victims of mistaken identity

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 28, 2011 01:45 PM

The Bruins aren't suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover. They're suffering from an acute case of mistaken identity.

When they stare at their reflection in the Stanley Cup they see the Pittsburgh Penguins or the Detroit Red Wings, teams with enough talent that they can win by playing brilliantly in spurts and score goals with artistry. That's not the Bruins. They don't have a Henrik Zetterberg or a Pavel Datsyuk. Even minus Sidney Crosby, I would still take the Penguins roster over the Bruins'.

Winning Lord Stanley's chalice distorted their sense of self like a fun-house mirror. They've lost the gritty style of play that made them champions in the first place. They've traded their lunchpails for leather briefcases.

The Bruins won the Cup fair and square, and it was glorious. But the idea they were the most talented team in hockey is preposterous. They defeated a more talented and skilled Vancouver Canucks squad because they played harder and were tougher, physically and mentally. The Bruins won with guts, gestalt, great coaching, and sublime goaltending. Only the goaltending has carried over -- the Bruins are tied for ninth in the NHL in goals against (2.33).

That's why if the Bruins look at themselves today what they'll see is the worst team in the Eastern Conference. After last night's lethargic 2-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the Black and Gold are in the East cellar with six points and a 3-6-0 mark. The only team in the NHL with fewer points is the Columbus Blue Jackets.

That is a sobering reminder of how slim Boston's margin for success is.

Maybe, the mistaken identity extended to the front office. The Bruins did little but shine their trophy in the offseason, essentially swapping out Tomas Kaberle for Joe Corvo and adding Benoit Pouliot to a club that was feckless on the power play and went through stretches where it couldn't finish. (Rumor has it that Pouliot suited up against his old team, but you'd need forensic evidence to prove that.)

Both are still issues, as the Bruins are 26th in the NHL in goals per game (2.11) and 25th on the power play at (13.2 percent).

In fairness to general manager Peter Chiarelli, two of his top-line players are missing in action. Where is the David Krejci who led the playoffs in scoring last season? Krejci, who may still be affected by that mysterious core injury, had just one shot on goal in 17:16 of ice time last night, spending another evening as a blanked Czech. Winger Nathan Horton hasn't seemed the same since returning from the hit he took from Aaron Rome in the Stanley Cup final. The hero of last year's Cup run registered one shot last night and was largely invisible.

But most alarming is that the Bruins' problems go deeper than not lighting the goal lamp. They're not keeping the competitive flame lit for 60 minutes, a trend since the season-opener against the Philadelphia Flyers.

Last night, the Bruins took a 1-0 lead on a flukey power-play goal and held it at the first intermission. They were then outshot 29-20 the rest of the way -- 18-9 in the second period, when Montreal tied the game on an Erik Cole tip-in. Perhaps most damning is that the lace-curtain Canadiens outhit the Bruins in the game, 18-17.

"The inability to focus for 60 minutes is pretty obvious and apparent," said a peeved coach Claude Julien. "When you play the way you do in the first period and seem to be heading in the right direction, then come out in the second period and play that way, it certainly shows a lack of focus, and what that translated to was a lack of execution ... That's what we're going through right now.

"Unfortunately, we're not sitting here looking at one or two players you can move around. You're looking at the majority of the team."

There was far more emotion and intensity from the Spoked-Believers, who lustily booed Montreal defenseman P.K. Subban every time he touched the puck, than there was from their hockey heroes. It seemed not even a joust with the hated Habs could roust the Bruins from their early-season slumber.

Fittingly, the Bruins' lone goal was the result of a player falling down on the job. Patrice Bergeron went down trying to win a faceoff in the Montreal zone against Tomas Plekanec, who steered the puck back towards his own net. The trickling puck went through the wickets of Canadiens goalie Carey Price and deflected in off his right skate.

"I just Bill Bucknered it," said Price, quite aware of his surroundings.

One telltale sign of a team that is flatlining is when they're looking for artificially-generated emotion and momentum.

That was the case when the Bruins tried to trade punches with the Carolina Hurricanes. It was the case last night with Brad Marchand getting involved in three second-period tussles with Subban, the first two of which resulted in twin trips to the penalty box. The third encounter finally resulted in pugilism, or what passed for it with Subban throwing punches like he was blindfolded.

Shawn Thornton also tried to engage the Canadiens, but it shouldn't take fisticuffs to get the Bruins focused. That's a cop out and the lazy way out.

Marchand admitted that the Bruins have to get back to a point where they're not trying to manufacture momentum with fights.

"Yeah, definitely. We want to be able to carry the game with our play, and that's what we did so well last year," he said. "Someone had a good shift, and we were able to follow it up and continue building on that. And we just haven't found a way to do that this year. It just seems that guys are trying to step up and create momentum and energy, and we have to find a way to get it elsewhere."

It starts with remembering who they are and how they became Cup holders in the first place.

With opener out of the way, it's time for Bruins to bear down

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff October 7, 2011 01:14 PM

Last night wasn't the first game of the 2011-12 season for the Bruins. It was the last stop of the 2011 championship tour, an emotional encore with a hockey game tacked on the end.

The goosebumps and chills in TD Garden last night had nothing to do with the rink temperature. The playoff run that returned the Stanley Cup to Boston was relived on the jumbo-tron, the Cup celebration was re-enacted on the ice -- replete with retired winger Mark Recchi in full uniform -- and the banner was hoisted to the rafters. It was such a feel-good ceremony that owner Jeremy Jacobs talked about "the next time we win the Cup." How times have changed.

But as coach Claude Julien said following last night's 2-1 season-christening loss to the Philadelphia Flyers, the champagne bottles are empty it's time to go home. The Bruins got caught clinking together empty glasses in one last toast. The Black and Gold get a pass for one night because last evening was all about last season, not this one.

Forget what the schedule says, Game 1 of the 2011-12 season is tomorrow night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

"That was kind of a closing ceremony to everything," said Brad Marchand of the pre-game festivities. "Put that behind us now, and we want to try to do it again. We have a long season ahead of us, but now we can kind of get it under way."

What's going to be interesting about this season is to see how the Bruins respond to success. This team was the NHL's best last year, but it wasn't its most talented. It survived and ultimately thrived on hustle, grit, goaltending and gestalt. It was a team that embraced being written off instead of written up.

They started the year under the cloud of the epic 3-0 playoff collapse against the Flyers. Their best moments during the regular season and playoffs came when either their backs were against the wall or they had something to prove.

Now, everyone is telling them how wonderful they are for ending the Cup dry spell. If suddenly the Bruins start believing their own hype, convincing themselves they're the second coming of the 1984 Edmonton Oilers and gazing at their reflection in the glimmering Cup, they're in for a rude awakening and a tough title defense.

It is often lamented that the big, bad, Bruins of the early 1970s didn't win more than two Cups. It is blamed on a combination of Bobby Orr's knees, Ken Dryden's emergence and the poaching of pucksters by the World Hockey Association. But those teams soaked up their own hype and a few adult beverages in unwise quantities. These Bruins, who ran up a big, bad bar tab of their own, can't make the same mistake.

That's why you got the sense afterwards that coach Claude Julien was not all that upset about last night's loss. More important to him than the team's forechecking or backchecking was a reality check. In the big picture, losing last night might benefit the Bruins more than winning. In a Machiavellian way this was exactly what Julien wanted -- his troops to be humbled a bit and immediately see that no goals, saves or wins carried over from last season.

"This year is not about last year," Julien said.

There did appear to be a bit of a false sense of security from the Cup holders. If the Bruins were going to come out flat one would have assumed it would have been after the stirring banner ceremony. It was just the opposite. They came out flying against the barely recognizable Flyers, who jumbled their roster like Scrabble pieces in the offseason. The Spoked-Bs took a 1-0 lead on a power play strike by Marchand, who showed no ill effects from his offseason partying, 9:42 into the action.

But they fell asleep at the spoked-wheel late in the first, allowing a pair of goals in a 47-second span -- the first a power play strike by Claude Giroux, who whizzed by Marchand and towering captain Zdeno Chara -- in the final 50 seconds of the first period to head to the locker room down 2-1.

Despite four additional power play chances and a third period in which they outshot the Flyers, 11-4, the champs couldn't get the equalizer.

"We started out really strong and then things just weren't clicking as well as they were," said goalie Tim Thomas, who did his part with 27 saves. "I think we have to approach this as a lesson -- that every game is going to be hard. Yeah, we won the Stanley Cup, but that doesn't mean it's just going to happen now."

There are a lot of reasons for optimism that this team with the right attitude can be right there for another Cup.

The lone goal came on a brilliant long pass from sophomore Tyler Seguin that sent Marchand in on Philadelphia goalie Ilya Brzygalov. You can picture Seguin, who won't turn 20 until January, and the 23-year-old Marchand combining on a lot of goals if given the chance.

Picking up the helper's helper on that goal was defenseman Joe Corvo, the latest Bruins' blueliner to try to fill the role of puck-moving defenseman and power-play quarterback. Corvo looked like an instant upgrade over Tomas Kaberle. He was at ease with the puck, is a good skater and was willing to actually, you know, shoot if it came to that.

Corvo looks like a nice piece acquired by general manger Peter Chiarelli, who didn't tinker too much with his title team. It remains to be seen if that was a wise decision or a sentimental one.

The Bruins still have a long way to go this season on the road to repeating. But last night was the most important step. Now, they can put the magical and memorable 2010-11 season in their rear-view mirror.

It's Warren G. Harding-hockey from here on out -- a return to normalcy.

See you Saturday, boys, the 2011-12 season awaits.

Four for thought

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff July 5, 2011 03:53 PM

Now that the hamburger, hot dog and fireworks-induced haze of the holiday long weekend has lifted here are four post-Fourth of July declarations while wondering what happened to the plague that was surely going to befall Adrian Gonzalez in right field.

1. John Lackey is pitching for his season on Saturday: Lackey has an earned run average that only Boeing could love (7.47). He has allowed five or more earned runs in four of 13 starts this season and 16 of 46 since joining the Red Sox while compiling a 19-19 mark and 5.17 ERA. It's enough to make one long for Matt Clement.

The only reason the struggling righthander is even in the rotation at this point is because of Clay Buchholz's balky back. But if Lackey blows up again against Baltimore the Sox have to remove him from the rotation. Alfredo Aceves and Pawtucket pitchers Kyle Weiland, Felix Doubront, and Kevin Millwood are options to fill the spot. It's not fair to Lackey or to the team to keep sending him out there.

You feel for Lackey because his wife, Krista, was diagnosed with breast cancer during the offseason and he has endured a horrendous season on the field that included an elbow strain that has generated speculation about eventual Tommy John surgery. His frustration with his current lot in life is palpable, and it boiled over following a water-logged whipping by the Padres on June 22. His next start, against the Phillies, offered a flicker of resurgence that was doused yesterday, when he was lit up by Toronto.

If Lackey falters against the Orioles, the best thing is to put him on some sort of sabbatical before his Red Sox career spins irrevocably and irretrievably out of control. This season might be a lost cause, but he's on the books for three more.

2. Jacoby Ellsbury equals Carl Crawford: After being tagged with the pusillanimous label last season because fractured ribs reduced him to 18 games, Ellsbury is making a lot of people eat their words . He has been exactly what the Sox thought they were getting with Carl Crawford at a fraction of the cost. The first-time All-Star has been the Sox' best offensive player after Gonzalez and David Ortiz.

After being restored to the leadoff spot April 22, Ellsbury has the third-most hits in baseball with 93, trailing only Gonzalez (100) and Jose Reyes (97). He has batted .336 during that time with a .391 on-base percentage and been on base as many times as Reyes (119). With a career-high-tying nine home runs and an American League-leading 27 stolen bases, he has been the most dynamic leadoff hitter in baseball this side of media darling Reyes. Joke about Ellsbury missing a game over the weekend with the flu, but he has played in 83 of the Sox' 84 games this season.

There was a school of thought that Ellsbury was a bit overrated because baseball observation has devalued batting average and the stolen base to convince you of the "value" of Jack Cust. He can't steal first base, they said of Ellsbury. But Ellsbury's .370 OBP this season would be higher than any Crawford has ever posted in a season.

3. The Bruins are spending the offseason shining their Stanley Cup: Am I the only one underwhelmed by the Bruins' offseason? Benoit Pouliot is the big signing. Would it have been too much to ask for Simon Gagne, who went to the Kings for Michael Ryder money? I understand the Bruins have to re-sign Brad Marchand and plan for next season when David Krejci is a restricted free agent and Chris Kelly, Rich Peverley and Gregory Campbell are all unrestricted. But the Bruins came into the offseason with approximately $12 million to play with and NHL teams pawn off unwanted salaries on other clubs all the time (see: Chicago and Brian Campbell).

The Bruins run to the Stanley Cup was magical and memorable, but it's a mistake to assume you're going to be able to duplicate it without improvements, especially when you were one goal away from a first-round exit and you won it all in a year that Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were hors de hockey.

The Bruins need a top-four defensemen because outside of the Zdeno Chara-Dennis Seidenberg pairing and Andrew Ference they were bailed out by an unconscious Tim Thomas a lot this postseason. Blueliners are a pricey commodity, and Steven Kampfer is cheap labor. Perhaps, Tomas Kaberle returns at a discount (gritting teeth, now). Kaberle cashed in with the 'Canes.

Carolina then traded defenseman Joe Corvo ($2.25 million cap hit) to the Bruins. Truthfully, I don't know Joe Corvo from Jose Cuervo, but this seems like a shrewd, if unspectacular, move for a cost-effective puck-mover. But now is not the time for the Bruins to pocket their winnings and push back from the table.

4. The All-Star game should not be like a cruise -- all-inclusive: It's ridiculous that Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates and CC Sabathia of the Yankees didn't make the All-Star game. It's even more absurd that baseball is still sticking to the edict that every team must have an All-Star representative, or as I call it the Scott Cooper Rule.

As colleague Nick Cafardo pointed out it's antithetical to say that the All-Star game is meaningful because it determines home field in the World Series, but then not let the American and National Leagues take their best players regardless of team. This time it counts...as long as the Royals have Aaron Crow in Arizona.

Are Nationals fans going to make the game appointment viewing because Tyler Clippard might take the mound for an inning? No. It's been 10 years since the Midsummer Classic scored a double-digit rating. The 2001 game in Seattle pulled an 11.0. That was the first All-Star game for Ichiro and the last for Cal Ripken Jr., who retired at the end of the season. Last year's game scored a 7.5 rating, the lowest ever.

My brother, Stephen, had a great idea. Change the rules so only the team hosting the All-Star game must have a representative. Outside of that, it's strictly the best of the best and not some Little League-esque enterprise.

Feeling the Drafts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 24, 2011 12:01 PM

Full disclosure, I'm a draft-a-holic.

Sports drafts always draw me in, whether it be NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, Major League Soccer. The first round of the NHL Entry Draft tonight is appointment viewing, as the NBA Draft was must-see TV last night.

There is something about the novelty of new talent that is always exciting. It's fascinating watching teams trying to project or predict the future, knowing their own hangs in the balance.

For the most part the players that are already on a team's roster are finished products. Their flaws and abilities have been documented and dissected. Draft picks are the solve-for-X of the team-building equation. They are unknowns that (theoretically) can be anything you want -- a franchise savior, an underrated role player or a project that pans out. Drafting is part inexact science and part public relations campaign.

Both hope and hype spring eternal at a draft, sports' perpetual exercise in optimism. Every plan makes sense. Every pick is the guy a team coveted. Such was the case last night with the Celtics in an NBA Draft that was weaker than a day old cup of decaf.

The Celtics had the 25th pick and parlayed it into Purdue power forward JaJuan Johnson and a 2014 second-round pick, making a pre-arranged deal with the New Jersey Nets, who actually selected Johnson at No. 27.

"We didn't think he'd be there, and he was," said Celtics coach Doc Rivers.

"This year we went in with an idea that if a good opportunity came to move out of the draft, depending on who was available in the draft," said Celtics president of basketball operations Danny Ainge. "But when JaJuan was there we really wanted to stay. He was a guy that we had rated pretty high, and had targeted from the beginning."

Johnson, who led the Big Ten in scoring last season (20.5 points per game) and was the Big Ten Player of the Year and a first-team All-American, is that rarest of species in the hierarchy of wannabee hoopsters -- a four-year college player. He also stands in stark contrast to the first pick in last night's NBA Draft, Duke's Kyrie Irving, who played all of 11 college games before being taken No. 1 by LeBron's Leftovers, otherwise known as the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"Even though he is a four-year player we still like his upside," said Rivers, dropping a ubiquitous draft catchphrase.

Solid pick for the Celts, but it's safe to say the balance of power in the East has not undergone a tectonic shift. The Miami Heat are not quaking in their Nikes at the prospect of his addition. As much as the Celtics talked up Johnson they acknowledged that if the draft is the only avenue they use to augment their roster then Banner No. 18 will stay on the drawing board.

"The draft is always a futures thing," said Ainge, who tabbed Johnson's Purdue teammate, E'Twaun Moore, in the second round. "There are not very many rookies that come in and contribute to championship-caliber teams. We know that going in. ...We're going to have to add some more veterans to our roster. We'll have at least three young guys on the roster next year, and maybe one or maybe two contribute. Time will tell."

Such is the nature of the draft. The Cavaliers took Justin Harper with the first pick of the second round and the first reaction of draftniks is, "What a steal." Five years from now Justin Harper probably has as much chance of being in the NBA as Justin Timberlake. Harper was traded to Orlando for 2013 and 2014 second-round picks.

Only on draft night could Washington Wizards pick Jan Vesely, who went sixth overall, be called the Czech Blake Griffin with a straight face.

The NBA Draft had a subdued feel this year. There were plenty of awkward interviews and uncomfortable silences from the ESPN broadcast team. But the sartorial selections were mostly banal and there weren't any Green Room soap operas with crestfallen prospects. The most touching moment of the night came when Kansas star Marcus Morris cried after his twin brother, Markieff, got drafted by the Phoenix Suns, the realization sinking in that they would not be playing on the same team.

There was the Jimmer Fredette intrigue. The college hoops cult hero from Ainge's alma mater, Brigham Young, was taken with the 10th overall pick and is on his way to the Sacramento Kings.

The Celtics pick came in right around 10 p.m. They selected MarShon Brooks from Providence College at No. 25. Even though Brooks played his ball down I-95 from the Celtics, his bio said that his favorite player is Kobe Bryant and his favorite team is the Los Angeles Lakers. That made it fitting that the Celtics shipped him to Nets for Johnson in the pre-arranged deal.

The Bruins, who will make their first-round pick this evening, have a much better chance of nabbing an impact contributor through the draft than their TD Garden roommates. The Stanley Cup champions have the No. 9 selection in the first round of tonight's NHL Entry Draft, courtesy of the Phil Kessel deal.

Copious draft research has me wanting them to select pint-sized puck-moving defenseman Ryan Murphy of the Kitchener Rangers. Murphy has the perfect Boston name and his skill-set is just what the Bruins need. The 18-year-old Murphy finished first in the Ontario Hockey League in points among blue-liners with 26 goals and 53 assists, and he is billed as a power-play quarterback.

Of course, I was once equally excited about the Black and Gold drafting defenseman Johnathan Aiken in 1996 (8th overall) and Lars Jonsson (7th overall) in 2000.

The best part of the NHL Entry Draft is each team journeying to the podium and saying they're "proud" to select Player X and then rattling off every affiliation he has had since day care. Has a team ever been not proud to select a player?

I'm proud to announce I will be watching. It's a draft after all.

Julien gets the last word

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 17, 2011 03:19 PM

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Claude Julien takes his turn hoisting the Cup. (Mike Blake / REUTERS)

On a team full of winners, there isn't a bigger one from the team's Stanley Cup run than coach Claude Julien.

Julien accomplished what Don Cherry, Terry O'Reilly, Mike Milbury, Brian Sutter and Pat Burns, among others, couldn't. Steer the S.S. Spoked-B to a Stanley Cup.

The oft-criticized and much-maligned coach stuck to his guns and stuck it to his critics who could barely get the words "Stanley Cup-winning coach" out of the mouths they used to bad mouth him all season. Don't like Julien's defensive style, steadfast fidelity to struggling veteran players, or alleged lack of adjustments? Too bad. You can kiss Julien's Cup, and probably another three-letter word because after breaking the Bruins' 39-year Cup drought, his way is here to stay.

Julien coaxing this team to the Cup was one of the greatest coaching jobs in the history of Boston sports, on par with Belichick's work with the 2001 Patriots, the gold standard for coaching influence. Unfortunately, the conspiratorial fallout from "Spygate" took some of the sheen off that unlikely Lombardi trophy. Last I checked there wasn't any one falsely accusing Julien of having taped the opposing team's morning skates.

We can all agree that Julien is not Scotty Bowman or Toe Blake. But go back and look at the nine teams Bowman took the Cup with and you'll see names like Guy Lafleur, Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, and Nicklas Lidstrom. None of Bowman's titles could be described as will over skill, even if that is far too simplistic an approximation of how the Bruins beat the Canucks.

The point is that Julien's performance behind the bench was like John Williams conducting the Boston Pops, pure maestro in a town famous for them.

We are blessed to have the coaching brainpower that we do right now in Boston sports. It's unmatched. All four coaches of the Big Four professional sports teams have won titles. Belichick (three) and Red Sox manager Terry Francona (two) have won multiple championships and figure to win more. Celtics coach Doc Rivers is so good that opposing players praise him and want to play for him. Then, there is Julien, the ugly duckling who is only the winningest playoff coach in Bruins history (33 wins).

You could argue that Julien had to do the most with the least to get his title. Yes, he has a Vezina trophy goalie in Tim Thomas and a future Hall of Fame blueliner in Zdeno Chara, outside of that he has some very good to good players -- David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Dennis Seidenberg, Nathan Horton. But no great ones.

Julien didn't have a franchise player drop from the heavens like Belichick. He didn't inherit a team that was one managerial meltdown shy of playing in a World Series like Francona. He wasn't rewarded for his prior efforts with a pair of hungry-to-win, Hall of Famers to add to an All-Star forward like Rivers was.

After arriving in 2007, Julien inherited a Bruins club that hadn't won a playoff game post-Y2K. Four seasons later they're hanging a banner in TD Garden, and they did it without Marc Savard, the team's most preternaturally gifted offensive player.

Sure, Julien has his faults. He is no guru of goal on the power-play. Gregory Campbell in front on the PP was a new low. The man-advantage was pathetically woeful all season long, and completely inept for most of the playoffs, finishing 10 for 88 (11.4 percent).

But the Bruins were 5 for 27 in the Cup Final, equaling their power-play goal tally from the previous three rounds combined. The Canucks vaunted power-play was kept to 2 for 33 by Boston's penalty-kill.

For all the carping about Claude preventing Tyler Seguin from scoring 50 goals this season, what about the development of players like Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Brad Marchand under Julien's watch? Marchand, the Dustin Pedroia of pucks, blossomed in his rookie season under Julien, who did a good job of not letting Marchand's antagonistic tactics get out of hand while not reigning him in so hard that Marchand lost the edge that defines his game.

Seguin is going to be a star. He should have gotten more ice time on the power play. His skill is otherworldly, but he's only 19 years old. He should be viewed for what he is, not what he will be. Julien used him as the offensive equivalent of defensive specialists like Daniel Paille and Campbell, spotting him here and there when the situation called for it.

The playoffs are grown man territory, which is why Seguin sat for Game 3 of the Cup Final in favor of Shawn Thornton. That was one of the many master-strokes of Julien this postseason.

There was pairing up Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, starting with Game 3 of the Montreal series. There was The Timeout in Game 4 of that series with his team trailing 3-1 and headed for a 3-1 series deficit, an ice intervention that saved the season.

There was sticking with Recchi, who had been pointless in eight games, before he finished the last six games of the Final with seven points (3 goals, 4 assists). There was elevating Rich Peverley to the first line in Game 4 of the Cup Final to replace the fallen Nathan Horton. Peverly responded with a pair of goals in a 4-0 win.

It was only fitting that it was the fourth line of Paille, Campbell and Thornton, the line that Julien was often derided for rolling out, that turned the tide early in Game 7 after the Vancouver Canucks came out buzzing around the Boston end. Some thought Julien's allegiance to that checking line would result in him landing on the unemployment line.

Instead, like the Cup run, it only validated his line of thinking all along.

Bruins enjoy restoration hardware

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 16, 2011 04:18 PM

Here in the Hub of Hardware the Bruins had the misfortune of being the franchise with its nose pressed against the trophy case.

No longer. The Bruins have some hard-earned hardware of their own -- the Stanley Cup -- and a new identity.

Last night's 4-0 win over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final was nothing short of a hockey exorcism, the demons of disappointment and underachievement that had dogged the Bruins for years expunged. By vanquishing Vancouver, the Bruins put themselves on the pedestal with the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics. They're winners.

It was important for the Bruins to finish the job in British Columbia, not just for the psyche of their fans, but for the rehabilitated reputation of the organization. These weren't the same old Bruins. They had proven that by rallying from 0-2 down against Montreal, sweeping the Philadelphia Flyers, and outlasting the Tampa Bay Lightning. They had demonstrated it in the Cup Final by shaking off three tough one-goal losses at Rogers Arena to push the series and the season to the limit.

Win or lose last night, they had demonstrated championship mettle, but bringing back championship medal hammered home the point beyond debate.

It was validation for Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara and vindication for coach Claude Julien, general manager Peter Chiarelli, and reformed skinflint owner Jeremy Jacobs.

Honestly, the Bruins weren't the most talented team in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Sure, they had the Conn Smythe award winner in net in the transcendent Thomas, and David Krejci, who ended up as the playoffs' leading scorer with 23 points, does have some Pavel Datsyuk moments. But this team won with goaltending, great coaching, guts, grit, and gestalt.

This wasn't the Big, Bad, Bruins of the early 1970s with Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, who combined won five of six Hart trophies (league MVP) from 1969 to 1974. That's what makes this championship more improbable, and the team that delivered it more lovable. Die-hard Spoked-Believer or double-runner front-runner, it was impossible not to fall head-over-skates for this team.

Years from now we'll recall Timmy, Bergy, Horty, Krech, Big Z and the rest. They restored hockey to the forefront of the sporting conscious.

You had Thomas, a goalie with an unorthodox style and an even more unorthodox path to greatness that included stops in locales as far-flung as Birmingham, Ala. and Finland. Like the 2011 Bruins, the 37-year-old Thomas was a comeback story. He lost his starting job last year to Tuukka Rask and was viewed as an overpriced ($5-million), over-the-hill backup coming into the season.

He ends up setting a regular-season record for save percentage (.938) only to take his game to an even higher level in the playoffs. Thomas, who allowed just eight goals in seven Cup Final games and shut out the Canucks twice, rebuffed more rubber than any goalie in Stanley Cup playoff history, stopping 798 shots. The pensive puckstopper was 16-9 with a 1.98 goals against and four shutouts in the postseason.

You had Brad Marchand, the Bruins' Little Big Man who frosted opponents with his tactics and talent. Marchand, who had two goals and an assist in Game 7, set a Bruins playoff rookie record with 11 goals. Despite his diminutive stature, the rookie came up huge in the Cup Final with 5 goals and 2 assists. His short-handed goal in Game 3 was the most scintillating strike of the playoffs, and his pummeling of Canucks star Daniel Sedin in Game 6 was symbolic of the Bruins taking the fight to the favored Canucks.

You had Patrice Bergeron, whose availability for the rest of the playoffs was in doubt after he suffered yet another concussion in the clinching game of the Philadelphia series. Yet, he bounced back and scored the most crucial goal in recent Bruins history. Bergeron one-timed a backhanded feed from Marchand with 14:37 elapsed in the first to give him the first of two Game 7 goals, and the Bruins the first and only goal they would need to clinch the Cup.

You had Nathan Horton, who before being knocked out of the Cup Final in Game 3 by an Aaron Rome heat-seeking head-shot, had been the Bruins most clutch skater of the postseason, scoring series-winning goals against Montreal and Tampa Bay. Horton delivered once again yesterday, when he poured hockey holy water from Boston on the Rogers Arena ice pre-game. Poland Springs on line No. 2, Nathan.

You had Tomas Kaberle, who,...well, didn't screw it up.

You had The Timeout, Julien's brilliant call for a break in the action after his team allowed two goals in 55 seconds to go down 3-1 in the second period of Game 4 against Montreal. The Bruins would rally to tie the game, 3-3, by the end of the period and won it 5-4 in overtime to tie the series up 2-2.

You had The Save -- Thomas's lunging denial of Tampa Bay's Steve Downie in the third period of Game 5 that preserved a one-goal lead.

You have a Cup.

With this remarkable run the Bruins haven't just wiped out a 39-year Stanley Cup drought. They've wiped the franchise's slate clean. All is forgiven, if not forgotten: too many men on the ice in Montreal, the Game 7 home loss to Carolina in 2009 and the 3-0 (series), 3-0 (lead in Game 7), oh, no! collapse against the Flyers last season.

It is fitting that the Bruins, who entered this season as losers of their last four Game 7s and all three with Julien as bench boss, became the first team to win three Game 7s to lift the Stanley Cup, taking out Montreal in the first round, Tampa Bay in the conference finals, and finally the knucklehead Canucks.

It was representative of just how much they had changed. They weren't the same old Bruins.

They were the city's new champions.

Bruins should get what they deserve

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 15, 2011 06:05 PM

If there is any sporting justice then the Bruins will be squiring the Stanley Cup around Rogers Arena tonight. The Vancouver Canucks don't deserve to beat the Bruins in this series, not with the way the British Columbia bunch has played or behaved.

The Bruins don't deserve to lose, not with the way they've responded from going down 0-2, not with the way they've rallied around the loss of Nathan Horton, not with the sublime play in net of Tim Thomas (who has a 1.34 goals against in the Cup Final), not with this being the last stand of one of the NHL's classiest players, Mark Recchi, not with the resolve they displayed all postseason.

Hopefully, the Hockey Gods have a plus/minus category for pucks probity. If they do, the Bruins win Game 7 of the Cup Final. It's hard to argue that over the course of the first six games the Bruins haven't been the more Cup-worthy team, based on composite performance and comportment.

This isn't simply a good guys, bad guys observation.

The Bruins aren't choir boys. No team that employs lovable (if he's on your side) antagonist Brad Marchand can claim that. But they haven't bitten anyone. They haven't relentlessly critiqued the opposing goalie's playing style. They haven't tried to earn a Screen Actors Guild card drawing a penalty. And they haven't mentally hopped a plane home during any difficult road games. They have been in every game of the series.

Up until Game 6, I was of the belief that either team that ended up winning this series would be a deserving Cup holder. I could rationalize some, repeat some, of Vancouver's questionable decorum as gamesmanship or trying to create a mental edge. So often in sports, morality is viewed through the prism of loyalty to laundry.

But my opinion changed after the Canucks, with the opportunity to clinch the Cup, barely showed up for the first two periods of Game 6. Schizophrenic goalie Roberto Luongo was pulled after allowing three goals on eight shots and Danny Sedin simply took six shots from Marchand with no response.

Regular-season rulers of the NHL with 117 points, the Canucks have treated the Stanley Cup like it's an heirloom bequeathed to them by divine right. Hockey's highest honor is something they deserve, not something they have to fight tooth (well, actually, Alex Burrows has that part down) and nail to earn.

The Bruins have approached the sport's trademark trophy as something that a team has to prove itself worthy of with each shift and each period. They are the latter-day Lunchpail AC, an homage to the lovable, blue-collar teams of the late 1970s that deserved a better fate than to go Cup-less.

The Bruins have shown heart, hustle, guts and guile and wrung every bit of ability out of their roster to reach this point. The Canucks meanwhile have done just enough to get by in this series. They have backed down and backed off at the first sign of adversity or resistance away from home.

Truthfully, the temerity that Daniel Sedin showed in quasi-guaranteeing a Game 7 victory was refreshing. It was defiance from a team that talked the talked and hadn't really walked the walked. But then Danny Boy softened his comments today prior to the game.

"You know, that was probably me being excited and the words came wrong out of my mouth," said Sedin. "What I said was if we put our best game on the ice, I like our chances. That's the way it's been all year. When we play our best, we're a tough team to beat. We show that at home. We like our chances."

What? Your team has ratcheted up the rhetoric all series long, and now hours before the biggest game of its season you choose to temper your talk?

Stanley Cup front-runners all season long, the Canucks have been revealed as just front-runners. They've gone the full LeBron in their three losses in the series, getting smoked by an aggregate count of 17-3 at TD Garden, which is unfathomable for a team as talented from top to bottom as Vancouver, which has a Vezina trophy finalist in goal (Luongo), a Hart Trophy winner as its captain (Henrik Sedin) and the league's leading scorer (Daniel Sedin). I didn't even mention the best American hockey player in the league in Ryan Kesler.

The Bruins' three losses in Vancouver were a pair of 1-0 defeats and a 3-2 loss in overtime. They were games played at the Bruins' pace, games that easily could have gone the other way with a bounce or good-luck goal, games we will rue if they lose tonight. Those were losses after which they could have curled up in the metaphorical covers and bemoaned their fate instead of fighting back to send this series the distance.

Don't confuse the Canucks team with their fans. Like the one's here in Boston, Vancouver's passionate, albeit paranoid, fans deserve to see their team win a Cup. They deserve to have their patience, and feverish fealty rewarded. They have lost two Game 7s of the Cup Final already. The hat trick of heartbreak would be tough to bear.

But their team is not worthy of the support they've shown in this series -- or of being Stanley Cup champions.

Hopefully, the great scoreboard in the sky keeps track of diligence and sports righteousness. If it does then the Bruins are going to get what they deserve.

Rivalry, rancor grow in Stanley Cup Final

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 7, 2011 11:02 AM

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Before their rendezvous in the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins and the Vancouver Canucks didn't know each other well. Now, they know they don't like each other.

What started as contretemps in Game 1 and Game 2 became full-fledged contempt last night in Game 3 at TD Garden, after Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome played hitman and hospitalized Nathan Horton with a questionable first-period check.

Both Bruins coach Claude Julien and Canucks coach Alain Vigneault had plenty of good seats available on their benches at the end of last night's testy contest. While the Bruins elbowed their way into the series, cutting Vancouver's lead to 2-1 with a rousing 8-1 rout, elbow room on the benches was bountiful late in the game. Rome's game misconduct was followed by a total of nine 10-minute misconduct penalties (five on the Bruins, four for Vancouver) in the chippy game, eight in the third period when both the score and emotions got out of hand.

For those left behind, it was a little surreal to see so many vacant seats.

"Yeah, it was," said Brad Marchand, whose sublime shorthanded goal in the second period highlighted a four-goal period that saw the Spoked-Bs turn a scoreless game into a comfortable lead. "At points I was looking beside me and saying, 'Who am I going to be playing with?' It was a good little time to laugh about it, but you don't see it too often."

You also don't often see a Vezina-winning goalie level a Hart Trophy-winning forward with a check, as Tim Thomas did when Henrik Sedin encroached upon the crease with 6:56 elapsed in the third. (Hey, at least Thomas stayed inside the blue paint for the complaining Canucks) You also don't often see a Cup Final contest where there are 27 penalties (15 on the locals) and 145 penalty minutes doled out.

"I think it's just the nature of playoff hockey that as the series goes on the rivalry grows and grows and that animosity grows," said Canucks forward Manny Malhotra.

Down 2-0 in the series after a pair of near-misses in Vancouver, the Bruins quadrupled their goal production from the first two games to catapult themselves right back into legitimate contention for Lord Stanley's cherished chalice. With a four-goal lead, they used the third to exact a bit of revenge for a borderline-at-best blow delivered by Rome.

Just 5:07 into the game, Rome laid out Horton with a scary hit that had the Bruins winger taken off on a stretcher and taken to Massachusetts General Hospital.

Horton, coming down the middle of the ice towards the Vancouver zone, had passed the puck to Milan Lucic on the left wing and had his head turned. The puck was long gone when Rome left his feet and leveled the unsuspecting Horton with a shoulder to the head. Horton's head bounced off the TD Garden ice, and his right hand was frozen motionless in the air for a few seconds, usually a tell-tale sign of someone who has lost consciousness.

The NHL's general managers meet here on Wednesday, and you can bet Rome's hit will be a topic of discussion. Rome was whistled for interference, a five-minute major and was tossed from the game.

That set the tone for a game where the goals, hits, and enmity flowed freely.

Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference and Canucks forward Daniel Sedin tangled at 6:59 of the third for matching misconducts. Exactly 59 seconds later Shawn Thornton was sent to the showers after he got menacing with Ryan Kesler.

With 8:44 left Milan Lucic got into it with Alex Burrows behind the net and taunted Burrows, who bit the hand of Patrice Bergeron in Game 1, by jamming a finger in Burrows' face to see if he was in the mood for more finger food. It should be noted that Julien condemned this sophomoric behavior, and Lucic said he got chewed out by the coach.

"It's definitely a classless move," said Lucic, who is the only one with Vancouver roots owning up to his actions in this series.

Dennis Seidenberg and Kesler, who actually knocked in the Bruins' second goal, a power play strike credited to Mark Recchi, were both given the heave-ho at 11:16 of the third after they discarded their gloves and attempted -- that's the key word -- to fight.

"Obviously, when it's 4-0, 5-0 we got a little carried away," said Recchi, who after going 11 playoff games without a goal has three in his last two, including a pair last night. "But we play our best hockey when we play on the edge."

The Bruins may have gone over the edge last night, but if that's what it takes to avoid being on the brink of elimination so be it. They play their best when they're angry and agitated.

Actually, the most significant damage the Bruins inflicted on the Canucks during a rough and tumble night at the rink could be psychological. They squeezed off Vancouver's potent power play (0 for 8), which is now just 1 for 16 in the series, and potted a pair of short-handed goals. Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo had his fragile psyche slashed, allowing all eight goals, including a Daniel Paille's short-handed strike in the third period that went right through his catching glove.

Get used to what you saw last night. It's not going to get much tamer the rest of the way, starting with Game 4 tomorrow night. Loathing is now as much a part of this series as line changes and faceoffs.

"We're fighting for something we've wanted our whole lives," said Marchand. "It's going to be a battle every game. It's going to look like that, and I think it's going to just get chippier as the series goes on."

Five-on-Five from Game 1

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 2, 2011 03:23 PM

The Bruins do their best work in 5-on-5 play, so let's take a page out of their book and offer up five takeaways from last night's gut-wrenching loss to the Vancouver Canucks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals (Alex Burrows mouthguard optional).

1. Opportunity lost -- Last night wasn't just a 1-0 loss for the Bruins in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals. It was a lost opportunity to shake the confidence of the Canucks. The Canucks are the favorites (or favourites in a nod to our neighbors up north) in this series. All of British Columbia is banking on them to win the Cup for the first time in the franchise's 41-season history.

The Bruins had the Canucks right where they wanted them -- locked in a goal-less grind in a game destined to be determined by a fortuitous bounce in overtime -- and then they let them off the hook with 18.5 seconds to play.

The Canucks scored with 18.5 left on a tic-tac-toe two-on-one started by Ryan Kesler, who found Jannik Hansen who dished to Raffi Torres for the goodnight goal.

It's tough to blame Johnny Boychuk for trying to make a play on a 50/50 puck, but in that situation you would rather see him be extra cautious than get caught up ice, as he did after Kesler worked his magic to get possession of the puck and somehow managed to stay on-side.

2. Bite me -- Vancouver (bite) wing Alex Burrows left a lasting impression on Game 1 and Patrice Bergeron, when he decided to sink his incisors into the Bruin's right index finger during a post-first period scuffle. Burrows's cowardly decision to dine on Bergeron's digit should have been costly. But the NHL offered him no biting rebuke.

NHL senior vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy, pinch-hitting for outgoing czar of punishment Colin Campbell, who does not rule on Bruins-related matters because his son Gregory is a Spoked-B, did not suspend Burrows for Game 2 on Saturday.

That would have been a significant loss for the Canucks because Burrows's seven goals are tied with Kesler for the second-most among Canucks in the playoffs. Burrows rides on the Canucks' first line with twin terrors Henrik and Daniel Sedin. Depriving Vancouver of any of its considerable firepower or chemistry would be a boon for Boston.

Of course as Bruins fans know the disciplinary decisions handed down by the NHL have been a mixed at best when the Black and Gold are involved.

3. Let's get physical -- What was apparent from the outset last night was that the Canucks were determined to turn Game 1 into a hit parade. The biggest example was Dan Hamhuis flipping Milan Lucic in the second period, which backfired and rendered Hamhuis hors de hockey for the rest of the night.

But where the strategy really took root was against Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara. Vancouver pushed, shoved, nudged, and jostled Chara all night. The plan appearing to be to try to wear down the Brobdingnagian blue liner by making him joust every time he took the ice.

It seemed to work in the third period on Chara, who played a game-high 28 minutes and nine seconds. Between Big Z's duties with Dennis Seidenberg on the shutdown defense pairing and as a net front presence on the power play he looked gassed in the final period and didn't play with the same domineering presence, opening up the ice for the Canucks.

For all of Claude Julien's public proclamations of support for Tomas Kaberle, he played him just 10:09 of even-strength ice time, compared to 4:03 on the power play. If the Canucks keep chopping away at Chara, then Kaberle is going to have to see more shifts to lighten the load. If he can't be trusted more at even strength then the Bruins gave up an awful lot for a No. 5 defenseman.

4. Saving account -- The Bruins have enjoyed a goaltending edge in every series they've played in thus far, and the Stanley Cup finals are no different. Yes, Roberto Luongo got the shutout, but Tim Thomas was clearly the best net minder.

In prior series it has taken Thomas a game or two to warm-up. He came out last night on top of his game from the start and carried over his play from Game 7 against Tampa Bay. Before Torres tucked the puck past him, Thomas had stopped 61 straight shots dating to Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals.

Thomas made 33 saves, and at least four were of the game-saving variety in the third period. He denied Burrows on a tip 42 seconds into the third period, made a sterling glove save on Maxim Lapierre 2:12 in, and stoned Hansen on a pair of should-have-been goals. There is no way the Bruins would have been within seconds of overtime without him. He remains their best hope for winning this series. You just have to hope that there is more where Game 1 came from.

5. Time change -- I'm a well-documented supporter of Julien, but one adjustment that needs to be made for Game 2 is cutting down the ice time of Mark Recchi and increasing the time of Tyler Seguin. Julien did this in Game 7 against the Lightning.

Last night, Recchi got 15:18 of ice time and Seguin, just 6:21, although the rookie did serve 1:20 on the impotent (0 for 6) power play. The Canucks are a swift-skating bunch and Seguin has the legs to keep up, even if the penalty is a potential youthful indiscretion or two on the ice. Conversely, Recchi's legs are nearing the end of their warranty and the admirable veteran is now pointless in his last eight games and goal-free in 11.

Julien should be looking to get Seguin and Rich Peverley on the ice whenever he can because they have the speed to match up with Vancouver.

Bruins have Boston buzzing

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 31, 2011 03:44 PM

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(From left to right) James Pioppi, 13 of Winthrop; Frank Martens, 16 of Malden and the Cup's creator, Justin Pioppi, 16 of Winthrop.


A water cooler jug serves as the base. Stacked above it in ascending order are inverted containers that once housed butter, cream cheese and yogurt, but now have answered a much higher calling. The iconic chalice atop is an erstwhile Ziploc bowl. Coalesced by silicone and bathed in silver paint, it is a homespun version of hockey's Holy Grail, the Stanley Cup.

The faux Cup is the work of 16-year-old Justin Pioppi of Winthrop, and it is a symbol of how the coolest game on Earth has become the hottest thing in the Hub with the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time since 1990 and trying to win it for the first time since 1972. The Bruins open the Stanley Cup finals tomorrow in Vancouver against the Canucks.

Spring fever has been replaced by Stanley Cup fever in Boston. The symptoms include wearing Bruins paraphernalia, throwing around terms like backchecking and net-front presence, and referring to "Bergy" (Patrice Bergeron) and "Looch" (Milan Lucic).

Pioppi, his younger brother James, and friend Frank Martens held the ersatz Cup aloft yesterday in the players' parking lot outside TD Garden, where approximately 3,000 Spoked-Believers, according to the Bruins, gathered to send their hockey heroes off with pomp and pleas to bring home the real Stanley Cup. Other fans came up to touch and take pictures with the faux Cup and its creator, who spent an hour bringing it to life.

"It has relevance because our city wants it, the real Cup, so bad," said Pioppi, who made his Cup before the first game of the playoffs, against the Montreal Canadiens.

The Spoked-B has become haute couture worthy of any Newbury Street boutique, and the Bruins are a hot topic for those conversant in vulcanized rubber and those whose only familiarity with the blue line is courtesy of the MBTA.

Sorry, Detroit. Boston is currently Hockeytown, USA.

"You know I definitely got a feeling of it [Saturday]," said Lucic. "Me and Johnny Boychuk, we went for lunch and everyone was cheering when we left the restaurant so that was cool. From when I first came here, obviously, the Bruins were kind of in the bottom of the standings and everyone was cheering for the other three teams that were here, and they kind of the forgot about the Bruins.

"It’s been a long time since they’ve been in this position, and you can see how special it is to this city that we've been able to get here. Walking around, you could see everyone's Red Sox hat was replaced by a Bruins hat, and that was really cool to see and it means a lot. We want to do whatever we can to do it for our fans because we really feel like they do deserve it."

There is a never-ending debate as to what the professional sports pecking order is around here. Have we all been annexed by Red Sox Nation? Have Bill Belichick and Tom Brady made football first in fealty? Is this a dormant hockey domain waiting to erupt with passion. Where do the Celtics and their 17 championships weigh in?

The answer is simple. Boston is a town that loves winners and possible winners, first and foremost. Yeah, the Red Sox went 86 years without a title, but what kindled the obsessive state of Red Sox fandom most of us our familiar with was the 1967 "Impossible Dream" season, when the Sox went from ninth place in the 10-team American League the season before to the World Series.

The '67 Sox led the AL in attendance (1, 727,832). The '66 Sox, who authored the franchise's ninth straight losing season, drew nearly a million fewer fans at 811,172. After '67 there was a reason to be emotionally invested in the Sox -- they could actually win it one of these years. The rest is history and a Red Sox Nation membership card.

This isn't Chicago. There are no lovable losers here in the Hub of Hardware. We are a sports meritocracy.

Suddenly, the Bruins, the definition of unremarkable for nearly two decades, have a chance to add to the 21st century trophy case and everybody wants a piece of the action. That's why the Bruins are the "it' team in town.

The players are appreciative of the fan support and attention, die-hard puck-heads and hockey dilettantes alike. A member of the Bruins media relations staff said that players were still buzzing on the flight to Vancouver about the send-off they had gotten from the Garden. They were taken aback by how many people showed up.

Before they boarded their buses to begin the trip to British Columbia, Bergeron was asked if the players had noticed the increased interest in the team and the sport.

"Yeah, for sure. You can feel, you can sense that the whole city is behind us and they’ve been like that all playoffs," said Bergeron. "It’s great. Obviously Boston is such a sports town and to bring back I guess the hockey fans and us into it is something that I’m very proud of."

It hasn't taken defenseman Andrew Ference long to realize that the loyalty of the Boston sports fan is only matched by his or her sense of fatalism.

"I think people are excited just to know we have a shot," Ference said. "I think even last series, playing a Game 7, I know everybody was excited, and everybody was really wanting us to win. But I think the Boston mentality is to prepare for the worst. So, I think they were pretty jubilant and couldn't believe that we did win."

Perhaps that's why in keeping with real Stanley Cup superstition, Pioppi made sure none of the Bruins touched his replica Cup yesterday as they made their way through the crowd to sign autographs.

But he's certain the franchise will be lifting the real thing for the first time since 1972.

"They have to," he said.

Julien a bad coach? Dream on

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 28, 2011 01:39 PM

There is a different type of pinching associated with the Bruins today. It's not the kind that Dennis Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara do to keep the puck in the offensive zone. It's the actual kind, squeezing the skin together to make sure what you're experiencing is real.

Yes, the Bruins are headed to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1990. It wasn't a dream, just a dream come true for devotees of the Hub's hardscrabble hockey team.

The Bruins' 1-0 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning last night in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals really happened. They're playing the Vancouver Canucks for the Cup. Spin your totem "Inception"-style if you must.

Last night has to go down as one of the most significant victories in the history of the franchise. As much heart, resolve, and resiliency as the Bruins had shown in these playoffs, if they had somehow lost this game on a fluke goal, an unlucky bounce, or a momentary lapse in judgement they would have automatically been lumped in with the previous editions that lost Game 7s on home ice to Carolina and Philadelphia.

Different team, different result. Same coach.

The win provided vindication for an entire organization and validation for oft-criticized coach Claude Julien. There were a lot of winners last night associated with the Black and Gold. Tim Thomas, who entered with a 3.22 goals-against average in Game 7s, pitched a shutout. Chara, the towering captain, finally reached a Stanley Cup final in his 13th season. Nathan Horton, who had the game's only goal, continued to build his legend in his first postseason.

But there was no bigger winner than Julien, who became the first Bruins coach in 21 years to steer the Spoked-Bs to the Stanley Cup final. Julien started out the playoffs coaching for his job, and now the job he's done should ensure he keeps it. Even if the Bruins still decide to can Claude, he'll have plenty of coaching opportunities elsewhere.

Julien would have had every right to sit in his office and blast Frank Sinatra's "My Way" while enjoying a cold beverage after last night, smiling while he thought of those who wanted him to change everything but his last name.

Like any coach, Julien did make a few tweaks -- he played Tyler Seguin for 14 minutes and 53 seconds, reduced Mark Recchi's ice time to a playoff-low 12:37, and spotted Rich Peverley on the second line -- but the brand of hockey the Bruins won with was unmistakably his. Conformist, no frills, stay-the-course.

After two tense and goal-less periods that saw the Bruins outshooting the Lightning, 29-17, with nothing to show for it thanks to goalie Dwayne Roloson, who had never lost an elimination game before last night (7-1), Julien had a straightforward message: don't change a thing, boys.

"I just basically said, 'We shouldn't have to change anything. We just have to stick with it, and eventually we would get rewarded," Julien recalled. The frequently second-guessed coach was talking about how to beat the Lightning, but those same words apply to his own stint behind the Bruins bench.

The Bruins broke through with 7:33 left, and it was with a play that Julien and his coaching staff had designed to break Tampa's much-vaunted 1-3-1 neutral zone trap. Andrew Ference carried the puck up ice and passed to David Krejci, who came streaking up the ice from left wing-side and sliced up the middle between Teddy Purcell and Steven Stamkos. Krejci then hit Horton, driving to the net, with a perfect pass and the puck was in the net.

Lightning coach, Guy Boucher, portrayed as a cross between Toe Blake and Stephen Hawking, said in his post-game address: "One thing for sure is they're very well-coached. Claude, I coached against him in Juniors, he’s always done a very good job."

There are some here who beg to differ, Mr. Boucher, despite that Jack Adams (Coach of the Year) award Julien bagged in 2009.

Neither Julien nor his system will ever be beloved by the Spoked-Believers, but pro sports is a results-oriented business. If you think Julien is going to reconsider his tight-fisted, tight-checking coaching philosophy now, you're mistaken.

"Staying the course is what I'm going to do right until the end," he said in what is about as close to defiant as you'll get from Julien.

Some might want to label Julien as accidental tourist on the Bruins' trip to Vancouver, but his players feel he is a guiding force.

"Ever since he came here -- I was a rookie -- he's brought a different culture to this organization and this club," said Milan Lucic. "I feel like we've gotten better and better as every year has gone on, and especially this year, especially in the playoffs we've bought into the system and that structure. Whenever all 20 guys do that that's when you have success."

But what about the criticisms that Julien plays it too close to the vest, and that he prefers joyless, scoreless hockey?

"You know, when we opened it up against the Tampa Bay Lightning it didn't work for us," pointed out Lucic. "We blew a three-goal lead [in Game 4] because we opened up with them. We can't afford to do that. We got to stay true to our structure and stay disciplined. He makes sure that he keeps us accountable. That's some of the qualities he's brought to this organization and changing that culture."

Julien's approval rating might still be low, but it was impossible to ignore the roar of approval from the TD Garden crowd as the final seconds ticked off. It was as loud as Garden 2.0 has ever been, including when the Celtics clinched Banner No. 17 in 2008.

Vociferous fans chanted "We want the Cup, We want the Cup."

Julien, the coach they love to hate, has his team four wins away from giving them exactly what they're asking for. The dream lives on.

Bruins face off with Game 7 questions again

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 26, 2011 03:00 PM

After 17 games, 11 wins, six losses, and several memorable moments the Bruins are right back where they started when the postseason did. Like the Spoked-B on their chests they've come full circle to be in the faceoff circle with the tag of being a team that must prove it can win the Big One.

All the ground the Bruins have gained during this enjoyable playoff run -- the Game 4 comeback against the Canadiens, winning a Game 7 at home against the haunting Habs, exacting revenge on the Flyers in a four-game sweep, Tyler Seguin's preview of coming attractions, Tim Thomas' Save of the Century -- will be lost if the Bruins are not victorious in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals tomorrow night at TD Garden against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Eastern Conference finalists for the first time since 1992, the Bruins can't throw their faithful fans under the Zamboni by subjecting them to a third straight dismal playoff demise via a Game 7 at home, this one coming with a trip to the Stanley Cup finals on the line. Then this postseason will go down as one big, bad bear trap for die-hard and newbie fans alike.

This is probably not a good time to mention that Game 7 against the Flyers last year also came on a Friday night in May. Or that the Lightning have never lost a Game 7 in their brief history (3-0). Or that Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson is now 7-0 in elimination games. Or that Simon Gagne-Dent-Boone is on the other side.

Okay, so now we have the negative thoughts out of the way.

Count me among those who believe this iteration of the Black and Gold is more up to the task and mentally tough than previous versions that have failed miserably in this spot. They've shown it all playoffs long, responding to adversity and performing under pressure (4-0 in overtime games). They bounced back from the Game 4 debacle in this series to win Game 5, despite ceding the obligatory early-bird goal.

Even in defeat, they flashed their newfound determination last night. The Bruins could have waved the white flag after Steven Stamkos scored 34 seconds into the third period to give Tampa Bay a two-goal lead. They could have mentally been clearing TSA security for the trip home after it took just 29 seconds after a David Krejci tally for the Lightning to restore that two-goal lead. Instead, they made the Lightning and a restored-in-goal Roloson sweat out a 5-4 victory until the final seconds. Then they roughed them up at the buzzer for good measure.

The Bruins are different, but no one will care if the result is the same as 2009 or 2010. Tomorrow night is Judgment Day for the Bruins as an organization. Fair or not, legacies and jobs could be on the line.

It starts in net with Thomas. If he had played the way he did in Game 5 we wouldn't even be discussing a Game 7. He didn't lose the game last night, but the power-play goal he allowed to Teddy Purcell in the second period won't be part of his Vezina trophy reel. His failure to corral a rebound of a Marc-Andre Bergeron shot from the point led to the desperation cross-check Andrew Ference took on Stamkos, which set up Stamkos's power-play strike early in the third.

Thomas was pedestrian on a night when the Bruins got the offensive equivalent of a solar eclipse -- a goal from Milan Lucic and a power play goal happening in the same game. Four goals should have at least ensured overtime.

Thomas is the primary reason the Bruins are in this position, but for his amazing Vermont-to-Vezina story there still remains the question of whether he is a big-game backstop. Thomas is 1-2 with a 3.22 goals against and a .899 save percentage in three Game 7s. It should be pointed out though that it was Tuukka Rask, not Thomas, who was between the pipes for the fold against Philly.

Not surprisingly, the Game 7 marks for most of the Bruins' centerpieces are low. Patrice Bergeron, the team's Rock of Gibraltar, has played like a pebble in Game 7s. In four of them he has one goal, one point, and a 1-3 record. Zdeno Chara was 0-5 all-time in Game 7s until the Bruins broke through against Montreal. Krecji, who missed last season's Game 7 loss to the Flyers with a broken wrist, has one assist in three Game 7s.

Lucic has been a big-game player with three goals and an assist in four decisive games, but his scoring touch has been on the fritz all postseason.

Perhaps, no one has more to lose tomorrow night than much-maligned coach Claude Julien. Anything short of the Bruins hoisting the Stanley Cup and a very vocal segment of Bruins' backers wants Julien's next line change to be to the unemployment line. If his team exits the playoffs in ignominious fashion on home ice for the third year in a row, then his critics will have more ammunition for his ouster.

With the suddenly-invisible Seguin no longer the cause du jour, they can point to Julien waiting too long to park Chara in front of the net on the ineffective power play (5 for 61 in the playoffs). Or the fact that Mark Recchi, who is pointless in the Eastern Conference finals and hasn't scored a goal since Game 1 of the Flyers series, is still seeing regular time on the man advantage, while averaging 16 minutes and 35 seconds of total ice time per game in the series.

If the Bruins lose, let the second-guessing of everything and everyone Black and Gold begin.

Tomorrow marks 43 days since the Bruins began the playoffs with a lot to prove. It's been a long journey to arrive back at the same old place -- Game 7 at home.

Something special is brewing with Bruins

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 24, 2011 02:38 PM

The Bruins are one win away from the Stanley Cup finals. A single sentence says it all.

It was wistful thinking last May after the collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was a pipe dream in December. It was hopeful thinking in February. It was nigh unthinkable on the evening of April 16, after the Bruins fell in an 0-2 abyss against the Montreal Canadiens. Now, in late May it is a rub-your-eyes reality. One victory is all that separates Causeway Street's one-time lost cause from skating for the Stanley Cup.

Enjoy what is happening here. It is special. Special like the 2001 Patriots. Special like the 2004 Red Sox. (Michael Ryder as Derek Lowe, anyone?).The final result might not be the same, but the Bruins aren't just winning games. They're providing hope where there hasn't been any before. They're restoring faith to the faithless and converting hockey heretics one shift at a time. They're overhauling the sports pecking order in this area. They're reformatting a frustrating and foundering organization.

This is a pucks Impossible Dream that is about to come true.

With each postseason win -- it's 11 and counting -- the Bruins are chipping away at 39 years of trepidation and lowered expectations. They are no longer the local sports scene's punchline or punching bag. If the Bruins finish off the Lightning then the Red Sox, 2007 World Series champions, will be the organization in town that has gone the most calendar days without playing for a championship. The 2007 almost-perfect Patriots played Super Bowl XLII on Feb. 3, 2008.

Last night's Saint (Tim) Thomas-inspired 3-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals has the Bruins on the precipice of playing for hockey's crown jewel for the first time since 1990. If all goes to plan tomorrow night in Tampa then the next game the Bruins play in TD Garden could be Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals. Certainly, Bobby Orr will be brought back to sprinkle some of his gold dust on the Black and Gold for that one.

Don't get ahead of yourself, you say. At this point you're either a non-believer or a Spoked-Believer. Count me among the latter.

Whatever psychological baggage the Bruins have accumulated over the past two postseasons has been checked and kicked curbside. That was obvious last night, when after grotesquely squandering a 3-0 second-period lead and an opportunity to go up 3-1 in the series in Game 4 the Bruins opened Game 5 by allowing a goal just 69 seconds in.

Making matters worse it was Simon Gagne, a player quickly nearing Bucky Dent, Aaron Boone, David Tyree villain status in this town, who scored the goal. At that point, the Bruins could have curled into the fetal position, cursed the Hockey Gods and instead of forechecking or backchecking, simply checked out.

They didn't. They killed off four Tampa Bay power plays, and then finally broke the seal on Lightning super-sub goalie Mike Smith at 4:24 of the second on a Nathan Horton one-timer. The unbreakable Bruins had the lead 11 minutes and 32 seconds later when Patrice Bergeron, padded his Conn Smythe trophy credentials, with a laser-guided pass to Brad Marchand, who put it past Smith.

Remarkably, they led 2-1 after two periods despite only having 12 shots on net to Tampa's 23. Thomas did the rest, including making a stop that will heretofore be known as The Save, robbing Steven Downie with an impossible sprawling stick save with 9:20 gone by in the third.

"He's making miracles," said Lightning coach Guy Boucher of Thomas. "We have to come up with miracles."

Who has crawled inside whose brain now, Mssr. Boucher?

The Bruins have shown the character traits of a championship-worthy club -- the ability to bounce back from adversity, the ability to win playing different styles and the ability to win when you don't play your best. Such was the case last night.

"It wasn't our best game. But you know sometimes it's about finding ways to win," said Claude Julien, who is silencing his critics. "That's what we did tonight, without maybe playing our best game. So we need our best game next game if we plan on winning that one."

Naysayers will point out that last night should have served as the series clincher, not a Game 6. It would have been if the Bruins hadn't seen a 3-0 lead washed away like a sandcastle at high tide. But even if the unthinkable happens and the Bruins fail to close out this series, last night proved it won't be because of the Game 4 collapse.

Any sentiment otherwise will be talk-radio-fueled revisionist history.

Game 4 was not a turning point in the series, just a brief and bumpy detour, because the Bruins showcased the resolve they've shown all postseason, putting a bad game or a bad period or bad luck out of sight and out of mind.

"Yeah, I think we've done a good job in the past of bouncing back after tough losses or uncharacteristic losses," said Chris Kelly. "I think we do a good job of parking things and realizing they're in the past and there is nothing we can do to change that and look forward to the next game."

The Bruins have moved on. It's the rest of us who cling to the past. What is it going to take for the Bruins to convince the skeptics that they're not the same old Black-and-Fold-when-it-counts?

Kelly has a pretty simple answer: "Win, I guess. That's the only way. I don't know what else you can do. Just win."

That's what the Bruins are doing. If they do it one more time then the dream lives on.

Bruins shouldn't be Black and Groan at home

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 23, 2011 04:18 PM

Here is a suggestion for all the Spoked-Believers headed to TD Garden tonight for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Bruins and Tampa Bay Lightning: Leave your angst at home.

Listening to the pucks pessimists, the Bruins now trail, 2-2, in this best-of-seven series. Yeah, trail. Of course that's mathematically impossible, but that's how it feels to some after the Bruins gagged up a 3-0 second-period lead on Saturday in Tampa on their way to a disheartening 5-3 defeat.

Boston is a sports town that has always measured sports fandom in heartbreak and perversely reveled in reliving disappointment. Fellowship of the Miserable, anyone? The Bruins have taken the place of the pre-2004 Red Sox in providing the material.

Their fatalistic fans and followers are always anticipating the next calamity and playing karmic connect-the-dots between failures past and current. No soon had Simon Gagne, antagonist of last season's epic failure against the Philadelphia Flyers, put the puck past Tim Thomas in Game 4 and the references to last year's 3-0 (series lead), 3-0 (Game 7 lead) epic collapse were flowing like the taps at The Four's.

As sure as Rene Rancourt's timbre will ring through TD Garden pre-game, you can bet that if the Bruins fall behind early tonight or Tomas Kaberle continues his Dennis Wideman tribute that the 17,565 in attendance will groan with the collective disappointment of 39-Cup-less campaigns. Call it a guttural "Here we go again."

Nearly four decades of frustration hangs above the ice at every Bruins playoff game. You could feel it in Games 1 and 2 of the Montreal series as soon as the Bruins fell behind. You could feel it in Game 1 of this series when Tampa scored two goals in 19 seconds in the first period and three in 85 seconds. Once the agita from their fans starts to waft down upon them the Spoked-Bs become the Spooked-Bs.

They start playing "tight" and feeling the "pressure," words coach Claude Julien used to describe his team after the first two games against Montreal.

It's one of the reasons the Bruins have often played their best hockey away from home this season and in these playoffs. Remember that seven-game winning streak? Six of the wins came away from TD Garden. That doesn't mean the fans are to blame for Bruins losses. No way. That's a complete cop out for the players. They're professionals, but the constant caterwauling at the first sign of adversity on Causeway Street is not always conducive to success.

Uniforms aside, this is not the same Bruins team that needed a hockey Heimlich maneuver against the Flyers last spring. Eight players from that team are no longer with the Bruins. A ninth, Marc Savard, hasn't suited up since Jan. 22. A tenth, goalie Tuukka Rask, has not played a single solitary minute this postseason. Some of the ingredients are the same, but the composition is not.

These Bruins rallied from 0-2 down against the Canadiens. They've won every overtime game they've played this postseason (4-0). In two road games where they had every right to roll over (Game 4 in Montreal, where they were down 3-1 in the second period and Game 2 against the Flyers facing a 2-0 deficit halfway through the first) they fought back to win in overtime.

"Well, I think we’re a resilient team, there’s no doubt about that," Julien told the media today. "And you hear that word quite often. But we realize that we’re also a team that has given up some leads and we need to get better in that area.

"But even if we have done that, the one thing we have been able to do is bounce back. And we understand our faults and we understand where we’ve gone wrong, and the next game we try and redeem ourselves. And this team is one of those teams that's done that all year, and I don’t expect any different from them going into the game tonight."

The reality is that Tampa is in this series in large part due to Bruins' miscues. In both Lightning wins, the Bruins melted down like it said Chernobyl on their sweaters. Game 1 was a complete and total give-away with three first-period goals in 85 seconds, including a softie allowed by Thomas and Kaberle's gasp-inducing gaffe behind his own net. Game 4 featured a puck-handling faux pas by Thomas, another blunder by Kaberle and Milan Lucic setting up Gagne's game-winner with some very poor two-way play and judgment.

For all the talk of the Bruins' barren power play (2 for 15 in the series), the Lightning, who came into the series with the most power-play tallies in the playoffs, are just 2 for 14. The Bruins have sapped the juice from their man advantage, but given them too many advantages with regrettable mistakes.

"If anything, our team has committed more mistakes in this series than we’re used to," Julien said. "And we have to cut down on those. And I would prefer taking the responsibility on our team and saying what do we have to do better more than look at them, and what are they doing to us to cause those things? I think it’s really about our execution, and we’ve been able to handle that in the past so I don’t see why we can’t handle it now."

There is no reason they can't. There has been next to zero carry-over between games in this series. What happened in Game 4 doesn't doom the Bruins, neither does what happened in Game 7s of the second round in 2010 and 2009, or what happened in the long-gone Forum in 1979.

If you're going to the game tonight, you've already opened your wallet. Now, try to show up with an open mind.

Claude Julien getting the job done

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 20, 2011 03:12 PM

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Right up until the moment the Bruins cart the Stanley Cup around the ice, coach Claude Julien is going to be criticized and derided, treated like his coaching strategy is the marriage of a "Hockey for Dummies" book and the back of a shampoo bottle -- roll four lines, rinse and repeat.

Coaching credit, that's reserved for Doc Rivers, Terry Francona and Bill Belichick. Like the Tampa Bay Lightning last night, Claude is shut out.

Julien is not viewed as a maestro who is getting the most out of his team and has the Bruins on the verge of a Stanley Cup final for the first time in 21 years. Nope, he is simply the hapless dope who put Tyler Seguin in park, preventing a sure 40-goal season, and who deigns to play Gregory Campbell.

The Spoked-Believers have a hard time embracing Julien. They want a coach with the personality of Don Cherry, the intensity of Mike Milbury or the playing pedigree of Terry O'Reilly. They can't put their faith in a guy who often looks like he's waiting in line behind someone fishing for exact change at the supermarket checkout, arms folded and mouth pursed in annoyance.

Stolid and stay-the-course only works if you're wearing a hoodie. If you're Julien, it just makes you clueless, stubborn, predictable and, oh, yeah, a proven winner -- at least by the contemporary standards of the Spoked-B.

Last night's 2-0 shutout of the Lightning in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals was Julien's 27th playoff win behind the Boston bench, tying him with Art Ross for second-most in team history. Julien is 27-14 in the postseason with the Bruins. For a team that hadn't won a playoff series this millennium before Julien arrived, 27 playoff wins in four seasons is nothing to scoff at.

Two more playoff wins, and he will go where no Bruins coach has gone since Milbury in 1990, the Stanley Cup finals. Even if he doesn't guide the Bruins there, he has done exactly what he pledged to do when he took over the team.

"I am looking forward to the challenge of bringing this team to the level of expectation that the organization, the players and, most importantly -- the fans, want," Julien said on June 21, 2007.

There is no question that under Julien the expectations, and the interest, surrounding the Bruins have both increased.

Thus far, Julien is matching up just fine with Tampa Bay coach/strategic savant/media darling Guy Boucher.

Should he have played Seguin more sooner in the Game 1 loss? Absolutely, that was a mistake. But it's not the reason the Bruins lost the game. His team kicked away the game with an 85-second collective brain-freeze that resulted in a 3-0 deficit.

Julien corrected course with Seguin in Game 2, giving the rookie 13 minutes, 31 seconds of ice time -- the same amount as venerable veteran Mark Recchi and 10 seconds fewer than Brad Marchand.

Last night, with Patrice Bergeron back at Julien's disposal, the Bruins played his bland brand of hockey to perfection and stifled the Lightning, who left the ice frustrated and flummoxed.

Now, the Bruins, who hold a 2-1 lead over the Tampa Bay, only have to play .500 the rest of the series to reach the Cup final.

Who would have thought that after they went down 0-2 to the Canadiens in the first round? People were already penning Julien's Boston coaching obituary, and the Bruins looked like playoff passers-by. But Julien brought the Bruins back from the abyss, acknowledging his team was simply playing too tight.

While fans and media clamored for Seguin to play in Game 4 of the Montreal series, Julien stuck with Michael Ryder, who produced two goals, including the game-winner in overtime. Julien called The Timeout in that game, stopping play in the second period with the Bruins trailing, 3-1, and staring the same deficit in the series in the face.

By the end of the period, the game was tied. If the Bruins go on to play for the Cup, that timeout will go down as the pivotal moment of the playoffs.

The knock on Julien is that he doesn't make adjustments. After the offense sputtered in Game 1 against Tampa Bay, Julien swapped Chris Kelly, who was centering the second line in place of Bergeron, and Rich Peverley. The result was six goals and a five-goal second period. Three of those five second-period goals came with the Kelly-Seguin- Ryder line on the ice.

Perhaps Julien's most important decision of the playoffs was to pair his two best defensemen, Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, together after the team slipped into an 0-2 hole against the Canadiens.

Those sound like adjustments to me. The only thing not being adjusted is the view of Julien.

No matter what Julien does he will always have last year's 3-0 collapse in the second round against the Philadelphia Flyers on his resume. While the Grady Little comparisons are entertaining, they're not accurate. There was no Little moment of decisive indecision, no glaring managerial gaffe. That ignominy was the property of Marc Savard and Vladimir Sobotka and their phantom line change in Game 7.

The fateful Flyers series changed when David Krejci, who was doing to Philly what he did to them this year, got knocked out in Game 3, and Simon Gagne returned for the Flyers in Game 4. Julien was also without Seidenberg, his best two-way defenseman this postseason. The German blueliner missed the entire playoffs after he had a tendon in his wrist sliced by a skate nine days before the playoffs.

If was generally known that Julien was fighting for his job this postseason. The job he's done so far should solidify the fact that he's earned the right to keep it.

Bruins have to act defensive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 19, 2011 05:30 PM

This series is there for the taking.

Entering Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals tonight in Tampa, it's clear it is quite within the realm of realistic expectation for the Bruins to skate for Lord Stanley's hallowed hardware for the first time in 21 years. Even with Guy Boucher going Gary Kasparov in the playoffs and the Lightning's gobs of goal scorers, Tampa Bay is a beatable bunch for the Bruins, Patrice Bergeron or no Patrice Bergeron in the lineup.

But just as important as Bergeron being able to clear his head following a mild concussion is the Bruins being able to clear visions of Game 2 out of theirs, because 6-5 is not the blueprint for beating the Lightning. That victory was more like catching lighting in a bottle with a remarkable five-goal second period. The NHL abolishes the shootout in the playoffs, and the Bruins should follow suit, lest they be banished from the postseason.

The Bruins' defense-optional win in Game 2 was memorable (thanks, Tyler Seguin) and enjoyable, but it should have come with a warning label -- potentially fatal if not enjoyed in moderation. We can debate until we're blue in the face whether Bruins coach Claude Julien stunted Seguin this season, but what is not debatable is that the Bruins backbone all season has been goaltending and parsimonious play in their own zone.

While the mark of a championship team is the ability to win in a variety of ways, the Bruins aren't going to win this series, currently deadlocked 1-1, by channeling the 1984 Edmonton Oilers. Open ice, ample maneuvering room and an open-ended style of play favors Tampa Bay and the skating and skill of Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier. We're talking about in order the NHL's second-leading goal scorer this season, a Hart Trophy winner, and a former No. 1 pick and one-time 50-goal scorer.

The Bruins simply can't match that high-end horsepower, even if you think Seguin is now the second-coming of Wayne Gretzky, David Krejci really is Pavel Datsyuk Lite and Bruins pick Milan Lucic up from the TD Garden lost-and-found. The Lightning are the highest-scoring team in the playoffs (3.69 goals per game), with the Bruins, the fifth-leading scoring team during the regular season, second at 3.46. That will be the order of finish in this series if Game 2 is a preview of coming attractions.

The good news for the Black and Gold is that they're knotted up with the Lightning without Bergeron, despite the fact they haven't played their best hockey yet and have gotten off on starts that would make the Red Sox blush in each of the first two games. The bad news is that they haven't played their best hockey yet, and they've gotten off to horrible starts in each of the first two games. Hopefully, a change of venue to the St. Pete Times Forum can change that. The Bruins have played their best in the playoffs on the road, going 4-1.

The Bruins are away from home, but they're going to have to return to their roots stylistically and tighten up the play in their own end. It's time to cut out the gift-wrapped goals and too-late reaction times, and cut down on the odd-man rushes and frantic scrambles in front of their own net.

"I think we’ve just got to get back to playing our game," Bruins coach Claude Julien told reporters this morning. "The first game I don’t think was as bad. We talked about those three quick goals were goals I felt we just got a little sloppy, gave them away. It wasn’t necessarily always structure. Second game, I mean we were pretty good in the first period and then when we took that lead, it kind of opened up the play. ...For two teams that are relying a lot on solid defense, it hasn’t been the case so far in this series."

It was for Tampa in Game 1, when they went up 3-0 and held on for a 5-1 win. The Bruins, not so much with 6-3 lead after two periods of Game 2.

The Bruins allowed seven goals total in the Flyers series. They've already surrendered 10 to Tampa Bay in two games. The only two Bruins' defensemen on the plus-side of the plus-minus ledger are Adam McQuaid and Tomas "Give it away" Kaberle, whose goal-producing gaffe in Game 1 is emblematic of the Spoked-B breakdowns defensively in this series.

Not all of Tampa tallies are the result of negligence around the net. The lasers by Stamkos and Lecavalier in Game 2 were just great plays. Brett Clark's goal in Game 1 was on goalie Tim Thomas, who has looked spectacular at times but uncomfortable at others in the first two games.

Julien said you can't just single Thomas out for not being in the Vezina zone he was in against the Flyers. The whole team has been inconsistent defensively.

"Everybody has to take responsibility as a team," said Julien. "I think we have given up a lot of scoring chances, way more than we’re used to giving up. And on our account anyway, we had them for nine scoring chances in the third period [of Game 2] which is sometimes what he give up in a whole game. So, certainly, we have to take responsibility as a team, and still the goaltender is part of the team. So everybody takes that responsibility and together we can make it better." 

The more you watch this series the more you realize that the Bruins have a golden opportunity in front of them, if they can keep the Lightning from reaching the back of the net five times per game.

If the Bruins don't get more defensive, then what was wishful thinking before the playoff started -- playing for a Stanley Cup -- will become wistful thinking as a golden opportunity to play for the silver chalice passes them by.

Video: Bruins-Lightning series preview

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 12, 2011 08:01 AM
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Here's my take on the upcoming Eastern Conference finals, and I'm joined by Craig Custance, an NHL writer for The Sporting News, to provide additional perspective on the story lines that will unfold starting Saturday.

Bruins' best shift has been attitude

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 6, 2011 02:07 PM

Forget it Philadelphia, not this time. All you have on your side is history, and that's exactly what the Bruins are about to make you tonight at TD Garden.

There won't be any hockey hearts broken here this year in the Eastern Conference semifinals by the Flyers. These Bruins have the same 3-0 advantage in the same round against the same antagonist, but these are far from the same old Bruins. They're a better, bolder, gutsier Black and Gold.

They are the Spooked-Bs no more. This Bruins team has a resiliency that prior playoff models haven't come equipped with, which is why Philadelphia's 3-0 voodoo isn't going to work this spring. It's not 3-0, uh-oh. It's 3-0-ver and out.

With each shift this postseason you can see the Bruins' team culture shifting from one of apprehension and underachievement to one of confidence and accomplishment. Like the 2004 Red Sox, they're not just enjoying bucking history; they're reveling in it. This team is already the first in franchise history to rally from a 2-0 deficit to win a playoff series, a feat made doubly sweet by the fact it came at the expense of the Montreal Canadiens. Now, they're going to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1992, and avenge their epic collapse from last post-season in the process.

The pucks personality makeover started against the Canadiens.

After losing Games 1 and 2 at home, the Bruins rallied to win the next two in the boisterous and combative confines of the Bell Centre. They easily could have folded up like a lawn chair in Game 4, when Montreal scored two goals in 55 seconds to take a 3-1 second-period lead, and the Bell Centre was buzzing in anticipation of their demise. Admit it, you thought they were done.

Then coach Claude Julien called The Timeout. The Bruins battled back to tie the game twice and took it in overtime on Michael Ryder's tally.

It was the first of their four overtime wins this postseason. The Game 7 overtime win against the Habs cemented their new-found resiliency. The Bruins' undefeated overtime mark this postseason speaks volumes about the their ability to handle pressure and overcome adversity.

"This group has been very composed. Nothing really rattles this group too much," said forward Chris Kelly to reporters yesterday.

When is the last time you could say that about a Bruins team?

The Bruins owe their new mentally-tough mien in part to the presence of New-Bs like Kelly, Nathan Horton (didn't think I'd be saying that in December) and in particular Brad Marchand, who has a lot of Dustin Pedroia to his personality. Those guys weren't around for last year's 3-0, 3-0 collapse, and they haven't been Bruins long enough to be infected by 39 years of frustration and disappointment.

The Flyers experienced Boston's resolve firsthand in Game 2 of this series. After being "embarrassed" by the Bruins in the words of Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia came out racing in Game 2 and had a 2-0 lead just 9:31 into the action. The Bruins looked like they were going to get blown off Broad Street. Instead, they scored two goals of their own, and the game was 2-2 after a period.

That was the defining moment of the series. The Bruins had withstood the Flyers' best haymaker, and Philadelphia was both surprised and bewildered. Tim Thomas took it from there, and David Krejci's overtime BB delivered another OT triumph for Claude's Club.

It's all pointing towards the Bruins tonight. Thomas is rebuffing vulcanized rubber at will. The Flyers have poured 92 shots on him in the last two games. He has stopped 89 of them. Krejci plays like Sidney Crosby against Philadelphia, and has 4 goals and 4 assists in the first three games of the series. The Bruins even snapped their 0-for-30 power play drought in Game 3 with a 5-on-3 strike. At this point, the only thing missing from their postseason portfolio is the return of Milan Lucic, still scoreless in 10 playoff skates.

The Flyers will point to the fact that they're 6-1 in elimination games in the Stanley Cup playoffs over the last two seasons, and they'll talk about how they're overcome a 3-0 deficit before against the Bruins, so they know what it takes. But Philadelphia is desperate. They're proffering up the past and resorting to mental gamesmanship to try to plant a seed of doubt in the Bruins' locker room because nothing on the ice has worked against them so far.

"I think just one win would give us that confidence, and it's going to make them think about what happened last year," Flyers center Claude Giroux told Philadelphia reporters. "Just one win would just put us back in the mix, and then going back in front of our fans, I have no doubt that we can get a win" at the Wells Fargo Center.

Hartnell opted for the black magic approach to Game 4 as well, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer that the Flyers were "going to try to relish this opportunity and go out there and disappoint these fans in Game 4, and then they'll start thinking, 'Oh, man. Oh, man. What's going to happen here? Is it going to be a repeat of last year?' "

History is all the Flyers have left to cling to because in the present the Bruins are a better team, period. Lightning isn't going to strike twice, and the Bruins are moving on to face the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference finals, with home-ice advantage no less.

The second-round is no longer the final stop on Causeway Street.

Bruins president Cam Neely boldly proclaimed a while back his was a Final Four team in the chase for Lord Stanley's chalice, and he was right. Chutzpah starts at the top.

The Spoked-B sweaters are exactly the same, but the look of this year's Bruins is totally different.

Neely leaving his mark on the Bruins

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 28, 2011 12:13 PM

When P.K. Subban's power play blast that should have had a NASCAR sponsorship logo on it whizzed by Tim Thomas with 1:57 remaining to give Montreal new life in Game 7, Bruins President Cam Neely, peering down from his presidential perch, was thinking exactly what most Spoked-Believers were.

"I was like, 'Can it never be easy?' said Neely, who wore a suit and a look of relief after his Bruins knocked off the Canadiens 4-3 in overtime last night at TD Garden to advance to the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.

"That was the first thing, like, man, 'It's just never going to be easy.' But I guess that is what makes it a little sweeter."

It doesn't get much sweeter in recent history for the Bruins, who ended their run of Game 7s gone bad against their biggest rival and rallied from an 0-2 series deficit for the first time in franchise history to do so. Seventeen years after they won their last Game 7, also against the Canadiens, it was No. 18 (Nathan Horton) who delivered the Bruins from the brink of yet another playoff disaster with the winner in OT.

The validating victory earned the Bruins a date with redemption and the Philadelphia Flyers in the land of broken dreams, known to the rest of the NHL as the second round. It also got the president's seal of approval for a gutty performance.

"They showed some great character in pulling this game out. I think it was a series where our team just wasn't going to be denied," said Neely.

Character, resolve, determination, and timely tallies -- It's called Bruins with Neely at the helm.

Those were characteristics that defined Neely's Hall of Fame career in Black and Gold. Old No. 8 has left his imprint on this Bruins team since becoming the eighth president in team history last June, 33 days after the collapse against the Flyers. He has brought leadership, accountability, and a sense of urgency to Causeway Street. Last night it showed.

Neely is already on record as saying that he feels like this club has Final Four (re: Eastern Conference finals) talent. That's still debatable, but what isn't is that Neely has raised the bar.

That's why this win was huge for Bruins' leadership, from Neely to General Manager Peter Chiarelli to coach Claude Julien to captain Zdeno Chara, finally on the winning side in a Game 7 in his sixth try. As a group the latter three had been 0-3 in Game 7s with the Bruins.

If it got to 0-4 it was over and out for Julien, and probably Chiarelli. A first-round exit after heartbreaking losses the last two years in the second round would have left Neely with no choice but to reboot the Bruins behind the bench and in the front office.

"You don't want to think [about losing] during the game," Neely said. "You just want to think about winning. Obviously, everybody knew what was at stake in Game 7 in the first round when you think you shouldn't be in that situation necessarily. But it was good to pull it out."

Still, you get the sense that Neely is reserving judgment until the playoffs are concluded. He's looking at the big picture, and a second-round exit for the third year in a row would probably negate the euphoria of breaking the Game 7 hex. Neely was asked if this was a big win for Julien, whom Neely issued a tepid vote of confidence for in December.

"Based on how we finished last year and coming into this year, we had a lot of expectations to do really well," Neely said. "We had a good regular season. We knew it was going to be a tough series against Montreal, just based on how we played each other throughout the regular season. In this sport there are always expectations and there are always pressures."

Neely clearly has the hang of this executive thing because that was a suit-speak answer, but what else can he really give without making a false promise or undermining his coach? The second-round is still the Rubicon the Bruins must cross. Last night's win, no matter how cathartic, doesn't change that. That's the type of clear-headed vision you want from your pucks president.

But any potential human resources reshuffling takes a back seat to hockey. Instead of waking up this morning to a fed-up fan base and pondering the fate of the franchise after another playoff failure, Neely is looking forward to a rematch with the Flyers.

"No matter who you face in the second round you want to continue on, said Neely. "Philadelphia, it probably gives a little extra incentive."

Of course it's not all handshakes and happiness for the Spoked-Bs heading into Round 2. There are some real concerns. The first line delivered the game-winner last night on Horton's third goal of the series, but it ended the series with six points, or as many as Chris Kelly had on his own. Flyers center Danny Briere had six goals and seven points in Round 1.

Then there is the power play, which went from feckless to reckless last night, when a second-period Black and Gold gaffe led to a shorthanded goal for the Canadiens that tied the score 2-2. The Bruins' power play was 0-21 in the series, and it looked even worse.

"It's something that I know everybody has talked about. We've talked about it internally," said Neely. "The guys are working on it. The coaching staff is working on it. ...I think we have to improve on it for sure."

But we'll worry about that when the puck drops on Saturday at the Wells Fargo Center.

We know by now that it's never easy with Bruins. Easy isn't in their vocabulary or DNA, but these won't be the same old Bruins because Neely won't allow them to be.

Video: The three biggest questions in Boston sports right now

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff April 27, 2011 01:24 PM

What's the biggest key for the Bruins? A Game 7 prediction? The difference-maker for the Celtics in the sweep? Christopher L. Gasper has the answers below.

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It's closing time for the Bruins

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 26, 2011 02:45 PM

The measure of a team or an individual is how they handle success. Do they build upon it or become complacent with it? It's time to break out the ruler for the Bruins tonight at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

The Bruins have not dealt with prosperity well during coach Claude Julien's tenure. They're more comfortable being counted out than being counted on.

After losing four out of five games, the Bruins rattled off their first 6-0-0 road trip since the days of Bobby Orr on their way to winning seven straight. Then they lost six out of their next seven. We all remember last season's epic 3-0, 3-0 collapse against the Flyers. In 2009, the Bruins rebounded from a 3-1 deficit against the Carolina Hurricanes to force a Game 7 that they lost in overtime on home ice. In 2008, the Bruins erased a 3-1 deficit against the Canadiens and then went out with a whimper in a 5-0 loss at the Bell Centre.

Now, the Bruins have the Montreal Canadiens on the ropes after rallying from an 0-2 series deficit to pull out a hat trick of victories and take a 3-2 series lead. Luck and momentum are riding shotgun with the Black and Gold after overtime wins in each of the last two contests. Can they capitalize and close out the Canadiens tonight or will they be content with the cushion of a seventh game on home ice?

The Bruins, who have never won a playoff series in which they trailed 0-2 (0 for 26), better finish off the Habs tonight in Montreal, otherwise let the agonizing and agita begin for the Spoke-Believers, who have begun to regard Game 7 as a fatal fait accompli for their Stanley Cup-starved team.

Can you imagine the milieu of apprehension and foreboding that will pervade TD Garden tomorrow night if the Bruins lose to the Canadiens tonight and have to return home for a do-or-die Game 7? Everyone in attendance will be waiting for the next skate to drop, for another potentially promising playoff run to come to a premature end in crushing and accursed fashion.

It will be Boston sports angst at its best or worst depending on your perspective.

The Bruins don't need the air of 39 years of desperation and disappointment wafting above them at TD Garden as they chase around the pesky Canadiens. That's part of the reason they went down 0-2 in this series in the first place, losing the first two games on home ice. There's pressure on them to atone for coughing up the Flyers series, pressure to get past the second round, pressure to save Julien's job, pressure to prove they're not the same old Black and Gold.

That's why tonight at the Bell Centre is a must-win.

Now might be a good time to mention that the Bruins have not won a Game 7 since 1994...against the Canadiens. Back then Cam Neely was a 50-goal scorer and not the top suit in the front office, and the team still played in the old Boston Garden. It's been a while. They are 0-3 in Game 7s under Julien. Eventually to end their Cup drought they're going to have to win a Game 7. There's no way around that.

But Bruins fans from New Brunswick to New London, Conn. are leery of another unlucky seventh game against the Bruins eternal antagonists, the Canadiens, too much heartbreak, too many headaches and too much history with the hated Habs.

Psychological repercussions of going to a seventh game aside, there are still some major questions for the Bruins to answer tonight.

Can you win a series if Chris Kelly (2 goals, 2 assists) has as many points as your entire top line -- Milan Lucic (0-1), David Krejci (1-0) and Nathan Horton (2-0) -- combined, and Jumbo Joe Thornton has outscored them? The former Bruins captain and notorious playoff no-show potted the series-winner last night for the San Jose Sharks, and has a 2-3-5 line.

Lucic finally got on the scoresheet with an assist in Game 5 and had a game-high eight shots on goal. Horton scored the game-winner in double-overtime with some opportunistic body positioning. But overall the top line has been stuck in neutral in the series. It's probably going to take more from them to drop the curtain on the Canadiens tonight, unless Michael Ryder extends his remarkable renaissance .

Can you a win a series without scoring a single power play goal? The Bruins are 0 for 15 on the power play in this series. They are the only team in the playoffs without a power play goal. Even the New York Rangers, who have been on vacation for three days, departed the playoffs with a power play goal stamped on their passports.

Tomas Kaberle was supposed to juice up the power play. Instead, it's continued to short-circuit and Kaberle has been a bit of a defensive liability.

For those who say Julien never reclaims ice time from struggling players check out Kaberle's numbers after Zdeno Chara sat out Game 2 and Kaberle led all Bruins defensemen with 28 minutes, 4 seconds. Since then Kaberle has played 16 minutes and 8 seconds in Game 3, 15:01 in Game 4 and 21:10 in Game 5, a double-OT affair. Chara (37:06), Dennis Seidenberg (38:15), Johnny Boychuk (32:35) and Andrew Ference (30:07) all saw significantly more ice time in grueling Game 5.

The biggest question of all is whether the Bruins can display the killer instinct needed to storm into the Bell Centre and send the Canadiens and their fans home for the postseason? You see the Celtics revel in such environments. They're a championship team. That's not a coincidence.

The Bruins have done a remarkable job of recovering to seize control of the series, and shown a lot of resolve and fortitude in the process. Now, they have to choke the life out of those "CH" sweaters or risk coughing up another playoff series.

Party isn't over for Bruins

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 19, 2011 03:38 PM

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"Welcome to the playoffs, Bruins. So, glad you could make it. We were all beginning to think you weren't going to show. It appears you just got the locations and dates confused, so the Canadiens started without you. No problem, better to arrive questionably late than not at all.

"Please, please stay awhile. We're delighted by your presence. Would you like someone to take your coats and those stylish cable-knit scarves around your necks. Wait, those are loosened nooses. So sorry for the confusion, really. Lace up your skates, grab your sticks, grow your beards and make yourselves at home. Actually, no don't. Well, you know what we mean. Just relax, have a good time and get a win in Game 4."

Okay, this conversation between the Spoked-Believers and the boys in the Spoked-B sweaters is obviously fictional, but the reality is the real Bruins didn't make it to the playoff party until last night, when they outlasted the Montreal Canadiens, 4-2, at the Bell Centre to give us a Black and Gold glimmer of hope that for the first time in franchise history they can win a playoff series after being down 0-2.

They are a Carl Crawford-esque 0 for 26.

Maybe the Bruins needed to simply get out of Boston and away from the ghosts of playoff failures past to get their postseason groove back. Bruins management and players have admitted that last year's 3-0 (series lead), 3-0 (Game 7 lead) collapse against the Flyers has been a recurring theme and a driving force this season. But when it came to this year's playoffs it seemed to drive the Bruins batty.

In retrospect, perhaps, returning to the scene of the playoff crime -- TD Garden -- for the first two games of this series was not in the Bruins' best interests. From the moment that Brian Gionta slipped the puck past Tim Thomas for the first goal of the series just 2 minutes and 44 seconds into Game 1, the Bruins have been tighter than the strings on Rafael Nadal's racquet. Self-doubt and diffidence crept into their helmets.

Don't believe me? Then believe the Bruins, ahem, beloved coach, Claude Julien. Here are some words and phrases that Julien used before Game 3 in his pregame interview with Bob Beers on the team's flagship station, 98.5 the Sports Hub: "tense," "pressure," "relax," and "fighting the puck."

That doesn't sound like a team that is embracing the pressure of the playoffs and an opportunity for redemption. It sounds like a scared bunch of skaters seizing up at the mere possibility of enduring another ignominious postseason exit, instead of seizing the opportunity presented by these playoffs.

The Bruins finally loosened up, grabbed a lead last night and resembled the team that has the talent to take another shot at getting past the second round. The only thing worse than another second-round send-off for the Bruins would be getting bounced in the first round by the Bleu, Blanc, et Ruse, er, Rouge.

The Bruins are the better team in this series. They have more talent and more ways to win. Their best is better than the best of the Canadiens, which is why this best-of-seven tilt is still quite winnable for Boston, if they don't wilt under the weight of history, both recent and ancient.

The only way the Bruins lose this series is if Carey Price channels Ken Dryden, which he has not, or they choke the series away with ghastly giveaways and offensive ineptitude. That was pretty much the story in the first two games in Boston, and it's left the Bruins with a skate blade-thin margin of error the rest of the way.

Last night was a must-win for the Bruins and they came up big, and so did their best players, who are usually the arbiters of a team's playoff fate. Dehydrated defenseman Zdeno Chara, who missed Game 2 after being briefly hospitalized with a virus, returned to the lineup and logged 26:20 of ice time, while collecting an assist on Boston's second goal.

The first line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton, which had zero points in the first two games, accounted for the first two goals.

Krejci took a beautiful cross-ice feed from Patrice Bergeron and drilled it past Price to put the Bruins up, 1-0, just 3:11 in. Horton alertly and deftly banked a rebound off Price's posterior for goal No. 2. The Bruins built a 3-0 lead when Price misplayed a puck behind his net and the loose puck landed on the stick of Rich Peverley, who took advantage of a vacated net.

The pucks pessimists out there will point to that fluky goal and a hair-raising third period as evidence that the Bruins only delayed the inevitable -- a loss at the Bell Centre -- for a few nights.

The Bruins had to parry a furious Canadiens push after Montreal pulled within 3-2 on a pair of cotton-ball soft goals surrendered by Thomas, who has been suspect in this series. But Thomas made the saves he had to make in the third period, and looked skyward in relief when the final buzzer sounded.

A weight had been lifted off him and the entire team. So the grips on the sticks are a little looser, the laughs are little heartier and the minds a little less cluttered today in Lake Placid, N.Y., where the Bruins are staying.

They're in the series before it's over. Now, they can just go play hockey. A more sanguine and relaxed Bruins bunch for Game 4 is a reason for optimism. Thomas is capable of playing much better in net and Lucic, the leading goal-scorer during the regular season, doesn't have a point yet.

Facing a potential 3-1 series deficit, you can't say the pressure is off the Bruins. But you can say that there is proof they can perform under it.

Bruins need to go Green

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 18, 2011 11:28 AM

The Celtics and Bruins share the same home address. That's about all they have in common when it comes to delivering in the playoffs. The two franchises that call TD Garden home are playoff polar opposites.

The Bruins shrink from the moment. The Celtics rise to the occasion. That much was obvious last night when the Celtics eked out an 87-85 win over the New York Knicks in their playoff opener, executing in what Magic Johnson called "winnin' time" to get the victory on a day when upsets sprang up like weeds across the NBA playoffs.

As Bill Parcells said, "Confidence is only born of demonstrated ability." The Celtics have demonstrated an ability to win the most important games of a season at the most crucial time of the season. The Bruins have demonstrated an ability to collapse under the weight of such games. They blew a 3-0 series lead in the second round last year, and have dug themselves a 2-0 deficit in their playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens, which resumes tonight at the Bell Centre.

Honestly, the Knicks probably outplayed the Celtics for much of Game 1. The Knicks rag-tag bench outscored the Celtics reserves, 21-8. Amar'e Stoudemire was not as easy to guard as Glen "Big Baby" Davis had foolishly claimed. In fact, he was nigh unstoppable with 28 points and 11 rebounds.

But when it really mattered New York was no match for a Celtics team that operated with the efficiency of a Swiss timepiece on a pair of crucial in-bounds, offensive sets, the last of which resulted in Ray Allen's game-winning 3-pointer with 11.6 seconds left. The Celtics also clamped down defensively to hold the Knicks, who shot 54.5 percent to lead 51-39 at the break, to just 32.6 percent shooting in the second half. That included a 1-of-11 second half from Carmelo Anthony.

"Regardless of how bad we were shooting or how bad we were playing defense I thought down the stretch we found a way to win, and that was because of our experience," said Paul Pierce.

Contrast Pierce's confident remarks with Milan Lucic saying the befuddled Bruins are "in trouble right now."

The Bruins are by no means done, but if they want to keep skating this spring they should take a page from the playoff playbook of their Causeway Street comrades. They need to go Green, and I'm not talking about recycling.

Say what you will about their regular season decorum, but the Celtics know when it's time to elevate their game. The Bruins are the inverse. They're a regular-season outfit that can't find a clear path past the second-round and could exit the playoffs before that if they don't display some esprit de corps this evening in Montreal.

The Celtics' best players -- Pierce (18 points and the drawing of an offensive foul on Anthony late), Kevin Garnett (15 points and 13 rebounds), Rajon Rondo (10 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists) and Allen (team-high 24 points) -- all answered the bell when it mattered most. Meanwhile, the Bruins' first line of Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton has not netted a single, solitary point in two games, and goalie Tim Thomas has been shakier than a three-legged table.

While Bruins coach Claude Julien plods along with his plans and rolled out his fourth line down by a pair of goals late in the third period, Celtics coach Doc Rivers conducted a comeback with his X's and O's acumen. Doc drew up a pair of Picasso plays in the final minute with his team trailing by three (85-82).

The first was an in-bounds alley-oop from Rondo to Kevin Garnett that cut the Knicks lead to 85-84 with 37.8 seconds left, a crucial basket because it took virtually no time off the clock. The second set piece was the game-winner, a pick-and-roll between Pierce and Allen that left Allen in position to do what he has done more times than anyone in NBA history -- drain a 3-pointer.

"You see yourself, man, the last couple of plays that we ran he drew up. They were amazing," said Jeff Green. "He's an amazing coach."

If it's any consolation to the Bruins, they're not alone in looking up to the Green.

The Celtics are the only one of the Big Four professional sports teams in this town that has won a playoff game in the last 10 months. Dating to Game 6 of the NBA Finals last year at Staples Center, New England teams had suffered five straight postseason defeats to bitter rivals -- Lakers, Jets, Canadiens -- before the Celtics came through last night against the Knicks.

The Knicks remain a dangerous first-round opponent for the Celtics because of the presence of Stoudemire and Anthony, who were emboldened by coming so close in Game 1. Those two alone make them a more threatening foe than the Philadelphia 76ers. Stoudemire took the game over in the fourth quarter with 12 points, including a ridiculous 360-degree layup. Anthony was the NBA's third-leading scorer this year.

But the Celtics have something that neither the Knicks nor their Garden-mates, the Bruins, have -- a proven playoff portfolio. And for one night, they also had another attribute their Black and Gold brethren lack -- a No. 1 center. Different sports, different responsibilities, but crucial for both clubs.

Kendrick who? Jermaine O'Neal, last seen in the playoffs shooting 9 for 44 against the Celtics last season while with the Heat, was the paint-patrolling savior last night. The "other O'Neal" scored 12 points on perfect 6 for 6 shooting, adding 4 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. His play helped turn the tide in the third quarter, when the Celtics were down by 12. Rivers said his team won the game because of O'Neal.

No, they won because they know how to win these games. That's a nebulous quality that a team either has or it doesn't.

Bruins send playoff message to Montreal

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 25, 2011 01:43 PM

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The Bruins gave their fans something to cheer about with their 7-0 win over the Montreal Canadiens Thursday night. The win bodes well for the Bruins' postseason. (John Tlumacki / Globe Staff)

This time the Bruins hit the Canadiens where it hurt the most — the scoreboard — and any Canadien who suffered a neck injury last night was the result of whiplash from turning around to see the puck end up in their net so often, seven times in all.

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If the good people of Montreal wanted to call the police they should have reported an abused hockey team.

The 7-0 beatdown the Black and Gold laid on the Canadiens last night at TD Garden in the much-anticipated first meeting since Zdeno Chara's controversial March 8 check on Montreal's Max Pacioretty is going to leave a more meaningful mark than any black and blue body blows they could have inflicted on the Habs and their hysterical fans.

That's because the Bruins didn't just beat the Canadiens. They added insult to blowout by beating them at their own game, skating, scoring and creating. The 711th meeting between the Bruins and Canadiens — that's 711 Canadiens fans, not to be confused with 911 — was a technical knockout as much as the fight-filled 8-6 Boston victory on Feb. 9 over the Habs was a literal one. The Bruins proved they can beat the Canadiens by roughing them up or killing them softly, and the latter hurts the Habs more.

Last night's Canadien cake-walk has to have Bruins fans feeling better about a likely 3-seed vs. 6-seed, first-round playoff matchup with Montreal. It has to have the Canadiens, who won the season series taking four of six games, reconsidering just how much they want another go-round with the Spoked B's in the postseason.

For months, we've been saying that the Canadiens would be a tough first-round matchup for the Bruins. That still might be the case, but judging by Thursday night, any perceived psychological advantage the Canadiens enjoyed disappeared faster than a Chara slapshot.

In a playoff-type atmosphere, the Bruins rose to the occasion and the Canadiens looked mighty small in those "CH" sweaters. The Bruins tried to downplay any potential playoff ramifications from their biggest rout of the Bleu, Blanc, et Rouge since a 9-2 drubbing on Oct. 28, 1998. But that was just typical hockey player humility.

"I don't think we're in their heads," said resident sports psychologist/winger Mark Recchi, who did crawl into the Canadiens' cerebellums with his comments about Pacioretty's injuries earlier this week. "I think we played a great game. I think we showed what we're capable of doing as a team against them. Playoffs, it's all a different story. If we end up playing them it all starts over. I think they got a good team. They're fast. They're very skilled."

But last night the Bruins were faster to the puck. How about that 3-on-5 shorthanded goal from Gregory Campbell? And more skilled — a pair of snipes from Nathan Horton, including a power-play strike on a beautiful feed from Milan Lucic.

Both Recchi and coach Claude Julien admitted last night's victory was more satisfying than the big, bad Bruins one in February because it was done the right way.

"This is a much better win," Recchi said. "There was so many power plays, so many penalties. There was obviously a lot going on in that game. This was just a better win for us. We skated. We got pucks deep. We played proper. We played patient. We can't turn pucks over against them. They thrive on turnovers, and the guys did a wonderful job of making sure we got it deep all night. Then we started using our size to our advantage at that point."

Among the reasons to be hopeful about the Bruins playoffs chances this spring is that they're capable of playing multiple styles. If you want to get physical and fight. They can do that. If you want to play a more skilled game. They can do that. If you want to get into a grind-it-out defensive game. They can definitely do that.

Teams that go deep in the playoffs either play one style exceedingly well (think the glory days New Jersey Devils) or can mix physicality and skill to matchup with an opponent (Pittsburgh).

The Canadiens are a one-trick team, relying on skill and drawing penalties. They were never going to come into the Garden and try to rough up the Bruins as retribution for the pasting of Pachioretty into the partition. They don't have the requisite muscle to do so. Their only shot at revenge was picking up two points and trying to make the Bruins sweat a bit in the Northeast division title chase, which Boston all but ended last night.

In a game that lacked any real physical edge, save for the fight between Montreal's Paul Mara and Gregory Campbell, the Canadiens were credited with out-hitting the Bruins, 25-11. I'm not sure what qualifies as a "hit" on an NHL scoresheet, but most of the Montreal hits looked like they came from players carrying a feather-duster and not a hockey stick.

The cathartic win over the Canadiens is a nice springboard for the Bruins as they prep for the playoffs. They've scored two straight wins, scored on the power play in two straight games and they're out of the 1-3-3 funk that followed their seven-game winning streak.

Suddenly, facing the Canadiens in the first round doesn't look so daunting. Of course, the first round has not been the Bruins Waterloo the last two seasons. That's been Round 2 ... and beyond.

The Bruins are the Rubik's Cube of the Boston sports scene — tough to figure out.

So, Sunday's game against the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers and Tuesday's contest against the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks are important showings as well to build postseason momentum.

But last night, the Bruins left a playoff calling card for the Canadiens.

No need for blood feud to be a blood bath

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 24, 2011 01:58 PM
There is nothing wrong with a little honest to goodness enmity in sports, but this has all gotten a bit out of hand between the Bruins and Canadiens. This great rivalry has gone off the rails in the wake of the Max Pacioretty-Zdeno Chara incident on March 8, with accusations of exaggerated concussion reports on one side and spurious investigations and pious protests on the other.

Can't two eternal ice enemies jockeying for playoff position just play a hard-fought hockey game tonight at TD Garden?

That's what I hope happens, not the carnage that some are clamoring for with the hated Habs in town. The blood feud doesn't need to become a blood bath. Enough damage has been inflicted already on the sport, on Chara's reputation and on Pacioretty. Move on. The white-hot Bruins-Canadiens rivalry should represent the best hockey has to offer, not bring out the worst in two of the NHL's most passionate fan bases.

Look, what happened between Pacioretty and Chara 16 days ago in the Bell Centre was unfortunate for both parties and both have been wounded by it. It's absurd for there still to be an on-going investigation in Montreal over Chara's check that sent Pacioretty into the stanchion. It was a hockey play, Montreal. Get over it and fight real crime. Chara's good name has been dragged through the mud enough by Canadiens players, ownership and fans and he has handled it will grace and class, repeatedly professing regret that Pacioretty was hurt and concern for his well-being.

For those Spoked-Believers -- and veteran winger Mark Recchi -- who believe that Pacioretty's injuries were a failed bleu, blanc et rouge ruse to get Chara suspended, consider the fact that Pacioretty is extremely lucky not to be paralyzed after taking that hit. Pacioretty fractured his fourth cervical vertebra after going head first into the partition. Former Boston University hockey player Travis Roy was paralyzed when he fractured his fourth and fifth cervical vertebrae. It's quite callous to penalize Pacioretty for a speedy recovery when the alternative could have been tragic.

Yes, the Canadiens pantomime pain with the best of them and the league should whistle them more for such fakery. But you can't fake being nearly decapitated and knocked unconscious.

The winner tonight is not going to be the team that stoops the lowest to answer the bloodcurdling call to violence. It's going to be the team that keeps its composure and doesn't get sucked into the subplot. The biggest blow either side can strike is picking up the two points that come with a win.

With 90 points, the Bruins are three up on the Canadiens in the Northeast division and have two games in hand, having played 72 to Montreal's 74, entering tonight's skate.

A win puts the Spoked-Bs in the drivers' seat for the division title and the No. 3 seed. It also sends a message to Montreal, which has won four of five meetings between the teams this season and 9 of the last 11, that any perceived playoff advantage they thought they had is wishful thinking. If the playoffs started today, the sixth-seeded Canadiens would face the third-seeded Bruins in the first round.

Keeping focus on the ice was something the Bruins failed to do last time they played Montreal, losing 4-1 in that now infamous game. They were anticipating retaliation from the Canadiens after Boston's rock'em, sock'em 8-6 victory on Feb. 9 -- a game that featured 187 penalty minutes, six fights and a put-up-your dukes do-si-do between goalies Carey Price and Tim Thomas.

"I think maybe all the hype about the fights the game before that and stuff that was going on, maybe it got in guys' heads and guys were expecting the same things to happen, but that's not Montreal's game," said Bruins winger Brad Marchand. "They have a lot of skill, a lot of talent. They battle hard every game. We can't expect something like that to happen [tonight]. We have to expect them to come play their game -- skill and speed. We'll try and play our game to match that."

Marchand was asked if he expected the Canadiens to seek retribution for the Pacioretty injury. He said, yes, but not the way everyone thinks.

"I think the biggest thing they can do is try to get the two points," Marchand said. "That's the biggest revenge you can get, especially with how we're battling right now for first place. I don't think they're going to come in here and try to physically hurt anybody or try and put us through the boards. But they're going to come play hard. They're going to battle and want to get those two points. We have to make sure we counter that."

That sentiment was echoed in Montreal.

It wouldn't be wise for the Bruins to get into a penalty-filled affair with Montreal. The Black and Gold is just 2 for its last 34 on the power play, and converted their first 5-on-4, power play goal since Feb. 18 on Tuesday night in a 4-1 win over New Jersey. The Canadiens meanwhile are humming along at 9 for 23 on the power play against the Bruins this season.

Take the bait and you could be digging the puck out of your own net.

"This time for ourselves we're not going to worry about that type of stuff," said Milan Lucic. "We're going to worry about carrying over what we did [against New Jersey] and making good hard plays and try to get a win because they're right up our back in the standings. It's definitely a big game."

It's a big game, but not just because it's the first meeting since Pacioretty was introduced to the partition and all of Montreal lost its mind. Or because of the hockey hysteria that has fanned the flames of illogical behavior on both sides.

It's a big game because it's Bruins-Canadiens with playoff implications and division title repercussions.

Shouldn't that be enough?

Bruins need to find way home

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 11, 2011 02:46 PM

Zdeno Chara, playing for the first time since his controversial check on Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty, enjoyed the support of the home crowd last night at TD Garden, but as a whole the Bruins may have been better off playing away from home.

The plane from Hanscom Field couldn't take off fast enough last night for the Bruins, who barely touched their postgame meal before embarking on a four-game road trip that starts tonight on Long Island. It's road, sweet road for the Black and Gold, where the points pile up like dirty laundry.

The Bruins haven't treated the Spoked-Believers to their best brand of hockey. They've saved that for enemy ice. Last night's 4-3 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres dropped their home record to 16-12-5. That's 19th in the league, sandwiched between playoff outsiders Minnesota and Toronto. Of the teams currently holding down NHL playoff spots, only the Sabres (14-15-3) and New York Rangers (15-16-3) are worse off at home. Conversely, the Bruins are like George Clooney in "Up in the Air." They feel most at home when they're not, posting a 22-8-4 road record to tie Detroit for the most points picked up on the road in the league.

We've always been told that the good teams in any sport are capable of winning on the road, but in the NHL the championship teams own home ice. Looking at the last 10 teams to life Lord Stanley's hardware, only one team finished outside the top 10 in home record -- the 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins, who were 11th at 25-13-3. The only other team outside the top five in home ice advantage to skate away with the cherished chalice was the 2004 Tampa Bay Lightning, who had the sixth-best home record that season.

That's not a good sign for the house-broken Bruins bringing home the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1972, unless they can be more formidable on home ice in their remaining eight home games.

The Bruins generated considerable buzz and optimism with a recent perfect 6-0 road trip, the first such trip since Bobby Orr was sporting the Spoked-B and hockey was a religion in this region. Claude Julien's road warriors returned home triumphant with a 2-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning to stretch the win streak to seven straight, but they dropped overtime decisions to the Penguins and Sabres at TD Garden -- sandwiched between the infamous evening in Montreal -- to break their momentum and give pause to the parade plans.

"We've had definitely our highs and our lows this homestand here," said defenseman Adam McQuaid. "I think that's probably the biggest thing to come out with a 60-minute effort and get back to doing some of the things we're doing on the road, just simple, simple plays instead of trying to make a fancy play or trying to impress the crowd."

It's hard to believe for those who remember how the old claustrophobic rink on Causeway Street used to rock and how the Bruins had a distinct advantage with the smaller ice surface, but home ice advantage is negligible this season at TD Garden.

McQuaid said there are certain buildings in the league that players just know are tough to play in, and the Bruins want TD Garden to be that building. It has at times, especially in fight-fest wins over the Dallas Stars and Montreal Canadiens last month. But other times, like last night, when none of the penalty calls went the Bruins way and they blew a 2-0 lead, it was not.

"It's not something that we're proud of that's for sure," said McQuaid of the team's middling home mark. "We were really hoping coming down the stretch here to really make this a tough building to come into and we're hoping to have home-ice advantage and make it an advantage. We want whoever we're playing to be like, 'Oh, geez, we don't want to go into that building and play.' It's something that we're going to have definitely work on coming down the stretch."

It's certainly not the fans' fault. The support and positive energy are there, unless you were Dennis Wideman. It's just kind of hard to explain. How can a team with one of the most ardent, appreciative and passionate fan bases in the sport be so blah in its own building?

Do they feel the weight of a nearly 40-year Stanley Cup drought with every home skate? Is there too much negativity in this town? Or are there simply fewer distractions when they go to one of the other 29 rinks across North America?

It's a baffling situation and one that doesn't bode well for the playoffs, not when you are a team that the last two seasons has seen its Stanley Cup chase come to a screeching halt by losing Game 7s in your own house (of pain).

This is two years running that the Bruins have played better in the away sweaters. The Bruins were pedestrian at home last season as well, going 18-17-6. In 2008-09, when they had the best record in the Eastern Conference, they had the second-best home record in the league, going 29-6-6.

"It might be a matter of how we focus on the road," said feisty forward Brad Marchand. "We're all together. We know every time we're at the hotel or at the rink we're all getting focused. Here there are families and girlfriends and other distractions. We have to find a way to put that aside and make sure every time we come to the rink we're focused on having a 60-minute effort. Maybe we want to play to the crowd or try to impress them. We just seem to have a little more on the road."

They certainly do.

That's fine, sometimes we all like to get away from home. However, it's pretty clear the road to serious Cup contention is incumbent on the Bruins finding a way to win more at home.

NHL takes a hit in Chara case

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 10, 2011 02:32 PM

Zdeno Chara spends a lot of time skating backwards, and that's the direction the NHL went in failing to fine or suspend him for his check on Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty.

Take preferred laundry out of the equation for a moment and ask yourself this: If it had been Hal Gill who had put Brad Marchand into the stanchion in the same manner, and it was Marchand who was in the hospital with a severe concussion and broken vertabra in his neck -- not one of the hated Habs --would you feel the same way about the NHL's decision? Answer truthfully.

Anyone who saw the result of Chara's check on Pacioretty knew that while the intent to injure was not part of the play, the responsibility for harm was. We are all responsible for our actions, regardless of intentions, and there are consequences for them. There is no doubt that Chara, who is usually criticized for not throwing around his formidable frame enough, did not intend to nearly decapitate Pacioretty on the partition between the benches at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night. But that's what he did.

What the NHL should have done is suspended Chara for a game or two for a dangerous play simply to send a message to the rest of the league's skaters that in similar circumstances you want to think twice about endangering a player in that area of the ice. Let everyone -- players, coaches, officials, fans -- know that player safety and common sense trump track records of restraint or the lack of malicious intent. But instead the NHL buried its head in the ice and let Chara skate free, proving once again that most of the league's punitive action is simply puny.

Contrast this with the NFL, which has gone out of its way -- some like Steelers linebacker James Harrison have argued too much so -- to make an example of dangerous play and players.

Now, the cries for police involvement in Montreal are an absurd overreaction. But since the NHL can't police its own league, fans want the actual police to do it.

The NHL has not covered itself in glory this season in terms of player safety. Its marquee player Sidney Crosby is idle due to a pair of borderline blindside hits that have left him battling post-concussion syndrome. The Penguins-Islanders melee last month was an embarrassing display. Islanders hit man Trevor Gillies has drawn condemnation from even the staunchest proponents of old-time hockey for his blatant thuggery, and now Air Canada is threatening to pull its sponsorship of the league over the lack of disciplinary action in the Chara-Pacioretty affair.

That had tone-deaf commissioner Gary Bettman verbally sparring with the airline.

The perception, rightly or wrongly, is that the league is too laissez-faire in these matters, too content to chalk up serious injuries as the unavoidable collateral damage of a great game.

Pacioretty is simply the latest sacrificial skater, like Marc Savard. The Connecticut-native told TSN that after the hit he briefly considered whether he wanted to even play hockey anymore. Is that what the NHL wants its players feeling about their vocation?

Now, the Chara case is more complicated, especially in these parts. He is not just a stand-up defenseman. He is an upstanding guy. He told reporters today that he was "relieved" he was not suspended, but again expressed his regret that his hit ended up in Pacioretty getting hurt. He even said he understood why Pacioretty would be emotional and say he was "disgusted" by the lack of a punishment.

While defending his actions, Big Z has shown uncommon humanity and grace for a player who knows he's being vilified across much of North America.

Bruins followers can argue Chara not getting suspended is justice because the disciplinary arm of the NHL owed them one after it failed to levy any type of punishment against Pittsburgh Penguins bad boy Matt Cooke for his concussion-causing hit on Savard last March, a hit that Savard may never really recover from. The explanation from NHL vice president Colin Campbell at that time for the lack of a suspension or fine was that there was no penalty called on the play and that Cooke didn't technically violate any rules -- rules that were then promptly changed in reaction to his hit.

Campbell also pointed out the league didn't penalize Philadelphia's Mike Richards for a similar hit on Florida's David Booth, which caused Booth to miss 45 games, a classic NHL disciplinary tack, compounding an error by citing another one.

Bruins fans would have been livid, somewhat rightfully so, if Chara had to do hockey hard time while Cooke's much more calculated and malicious hit resulted in nothing. On some level, the league had to have taken that into account. However, as the old bromide goes: two wrongs don't make a right.

If the league is going to rule simply by the rules and previous non-punishment precedents then there is no need to waste money paying disciplinary deans/vice presidents Campbell, who recused himself from the Chara ruling due to his son, Gregory, being a Bruins player, or Mike Murphy, who ruled in the Chara case.

Read Murphy's statement and it's clear he's trying to apply the headshot rules to the Chara situation, which is to suggest there is a cookie-cutter, one-size-fits all solution to every dangerous hit. There is not. Essentially, what the NHL is saying is that Pacioretty is responsible for his own well-being in this case because the rule book can't protect him, outside of the interference call Chara was whistled for.

It's the cold, harsh reality of the ruling.

The cold, harsh, reality for the NHL is that they failed to make the workplace a safer place for their players once again.

Hold Julien accountable for Bruins' success

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 8, 2011 02:32 PM

"We're all accountable here."

Those were the words of Bruins president Cam Neely in a tepid vote of confidence for coach Claude Julien, issued during a 98.5 The Sports Hub interview on Dec. 21, the day after the Bruins suffered their fourth loss in five games, and the seething Spoked-Believers were calling for an immediate end of Julien's reign of terror.

Neely was right then, and he still is. But accountability is not just about assigning blame in bad times. It's also about passing out plaudits when they're deserved. Time to give Claude some credit, Bruins fans.

If you ripped him for the team's demise in December then you have to praise him for a 33-game resurgence that has propelled the Bruins to the second spot in the Eastern Conference -- two points back of conference-leading Philadelphia Flyers -- entering tonight's tilt in Montreal with the Canadiens. Otherwise it's hockey hypocrisy.

The Bruins status in the standings is a far cry from 77 (now there is a magic number) days ago in December, when they were in eighth place in the East, their Stanley Cup aspirations circling the drain. Since that time they've gone 21-8-4, including a seven-game winning streak and the first 6-0-0 road trip since the days of Orr and Esposito.

The Bruins front office may believe that with the additions of defenseman Tomas Kaberle and third-line forwards Chris Kelly and Rich Peverley the team is, apropos of the month, a Final Four team, but it's not like someone handed Julien the 1984 Edmonton Oilers. This is not a team where you can just lace 'em up and let 'em go

The coach makes a difference here, and he has.

Players win games and coaches are in a no-win situation, that's always been the case.

Was it Julien's fault that Nathan Horton went into the witness protection program for two months, or that Marc Savard wasn't sufficiently recovered from his concussion effects to be a reliable playmaking presence before his season came to a career-threatening end?

If so, then he should get credit for the return of Milan Lucic's spunk and scoring touch or the emergence of fan favorite Brad Marchand as a second-line forward. Name another system in the NHL under which defenseman Adam McQuaid could be tied for the league lead in plus/minus. McQuaid is one of five Bruins ranked in the top 10 in the league in plus/minus.

Look, Julien is not Scotty Bowman or Toe Blake, but he's not some clueless clod either. In three-plus seasons as the Bruins bench boss, Julien has coached and coaxed the team to points in 63 percent of his regular-season games. Only Don Cherry and Tom Johnson have posted higher points percentages among those who spent three or more seasons behind the Black and Gold bench.

If the standard is winning the Stanley Cup then Julien falls short, along with every coach since Johnson. Julien hasn't advanced the team to the conference finals, which makes him no different than any other Bruins coach post-1992.

He has advanced them to the second round twice in three seasons, which makes him different from quite a few, considering the team reached round two twice from 1993 to 2007, the season before Julien took over. They don't hand out trophies or hang banners (at least not in the new Garden) for making it to the conference semifinals, but before you can run the Boston Marathon you have to be able to finish a 5K.

For a certain segment of the fanbase, Julien is always going to be judged unfavorably no matter what his results because of his approach, which is more conservative than the Tea Party. You can count on death, taxes and Julien rolling out four lines. He believes the best offense is defense, defense and more defense.

It's not always appealing to watch, and the jury is out whether young, talented offensive-minded players can succeed under his system, which in the new NHL might ultimately spell Julien's demise. Phil Kessel, a top-five pick, chafed under its constraints and rookie Tyler Seguin, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft, has become a press-box fixture when he's not riding shotgun on the fourth line.

And as any Bruins observer can recite, the power play is 0 for its last 12.

But there is a certain hooded coach in Foxborough who taught us a long time ago that you judge a coach by the results and not necessarily the approach. I'm not saying that Julien deserves to be compared to Bill Belichick because there is no comparison. But the 2001 Patriots weren't exactly an aesthetic masterpiece. Win something first, then worry about style points.

Then there is the matter of last spring's epic collapse against the Flyers. The 3-0 series lead and 3-0 Game 7 leads squandered. That series and his firing in New Jersey prior to the 2007 playoffs are the most often-cited reasons for Julien being unfit. Unpredictable Devils impresario Lou Lamoriello also fired Robbie Ftorek in 2000 with eight games left in the season, so Julien was not the only one he pink-slipped prior to the postseason.

As for the Flyers series, where was the Grady Little moment? It wasn't the ill-fated line change in Game 7 that resulted in a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty. That was a Savard/Vladimir Sobotka production.

Julien can't be blamed for the fact that he lost his best player, David Krejci, in the series in Game 3 and that Philadelphia added the firepower of Simon Gagne, who returned from a broken toe, in Game 4. Those health-related happenings changed the series -- and history. Gagne scored the game-winners in Game 4 and Game 7.

That's all in the past, like the December skein. Julien will be judged from here on out on what happens this spring. That's fair.

But to not give him credit for the Bruins' current success isn't.

Five thoughts from the Fort

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 16, 2011 01:19 PM

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- After a few days down in Florida embedded in baseball territory, here are some thoughts, observations and impressions of what is happening here and elsewhere on the Boston sports scene:

1. Zoning in -- What a difference a year makes in terms of spring training talking points for the Red Sox. Last year, all discussion centered on "run prevention" and ultimate zone rating (UZR). Those two terms haven't been uttered at all down here.

Run production was not a problem for the 2010 Red Sox, but run prevention was. The Sox finished second in all of baseball last year in runs scored with 818 runs but allowed the eighth-most runs (744). Defensively, the Sox have a chance to be better this year in the outfield with the addition of Carl Crawford in left field and the return of Jacoby Ellsbury, who arrived in camp today, to center field.

Last year, the Red Sox cumulative outfield defense posted a negative-23.4 UZR, 28th out of the 30 major league teams, according to Fangraphs.com. Boston ranked 23d in left field UZR with a minus-8.6. The Yankees, with speedy Brett Gardner in left field, led the majors at 19.9, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays, who had Crawford patrolling left, at 19.1. Center field was even worse for the Sox. They ranked 27th with a negative-17.9 UZR, down from negative-11.4 with Ellsbury in center in 2009.

"There are not too many balls that are going to find green grass out there," said pitcher Jon Lester. "Those guys are going to run them down."

2. Speaking in tags -- It's interesting that the language the Patriots used in their release announcing they had placed the franchise tag on guard Logan Mankins was nearly identical to the verbiage they used last year in tagging nose tackle Vince Wilfork.

"....Vince is a tremendous player for our team and remains a significant part of our future plans. It is because of Vince's importance to this organization that we have assigned the franchise designation as we continue to work toward a long-term agreement. We are hopeful that Vince will remain a Patriot for many years to come.”

“Logan Mankins is a tremendous player...and he remains an important part of our future plans. Unfortunately, we have not been able to reach a long-term agreement, despite many attempts and proposals by both sides. That remains our objective in utilizing the franchise designation and we are hopeful that Logan will be a Patriot for many years to come."

Let's hope the result of the tags is the same: a long-term agreement.

There has been talk that Mankins would be unwise to stage another sit-out with an estimated $10.1 million pay day. But withholding his services is the only leverage Mankins has, and even the guaranteed $10.1 million is about 40 percent of the easily earnable money he'd set himself up for in the first three years of a new long-term deal, using Saints guard Jahri Evans (seven-year, $56.7 million deal) as a comparison. Evans got a $12 million signing bonus in the first year of his deal and is slated to earn $25.7 million in the first three years of the contract. I wouldn't expect Mankins to show up for training camp on time (if camp starts on time with the NFL labor situation) without a new, long-term deal. If he doesn't, the Patriots could rent Bobby Jenks from the Sox.

3. Trade wins? -- Far brighter hockey minds can tell you exactly what type of player the Bruins are getting in Ottawa center Chris Kelly. What they're not getting is a player who inspires planning of the rolling rally route. There are still 12 days until the NHL trading deadline for Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli to augment his team. Hopefully, Chiarelli can pry puck-moving defenseman Tomas Kaberle from the Maple Leafs. The good news is that Leafs hockey honcho Brian Burke doesn't appear to want Toronto's 2011 first-round pick -- part of the Kessel trade cache -- back. However, Chiarelli might want to consider flipping that possible top-five pick to pick up another major piece because draft analysts like Gare Joyce of ESPN have pegged this as a bit of a down draft.

4. Rooting interest -- Hopefully there is a spot on the 2011 Red Sox for amiable outfielder Darnell McDonald. McDonald, who has been with seven organizations since he was a first-round pick of the Orioles in 1997, was one of the few bright spots of the injury-plagued 2010 season. He played in 117 games and hit .270 with nine home runs. His Sox debut, which came against the Texas Rangers on April 20, was one of the most enjoyable moments of the season. The persevering journeyman hit a two-run, pinch-hit homer in the eighth to the tie the game and then won it with a Wall-ball, walk-off single in the ninth.

McDonald has a better locker (next to Marco Scutaro) this year and a better chance to stick at the start of the season as a fifth outfielder. But as usual there are no guarantees for him. With an all lefthanded starting outfield and 38-year-old Mike Cameron coming off surgery to repair a torn abdominal muscle, there would appear to be a need for a player like McDonald, who hit .294 against lefties last season.

"Yeah, I hope so," said McDonald. "The key is just being here. Everything else will take care of itself. I don't really know as far as the role, but my role, my job is just to be prepared every day and see what happens."

5. Manny being Manny -- McDonald said he spent most of his offseason in Arizona shuttling his oldest daughter to and from school and dance practice. He reported to camp in fantastic shape, and said that among his workout partners this winter were Matt Kemp of the Dodgers and one Manuel Aristides Ramirez. "Manny is good. His swing looks good," said McDonald. "He's motivated. We'll see what happens."

Without Savard, Seguin should be pivotal

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 8, 2011 12:33 PM

Marc Savard's battered and beclouded brain has taken him off the ice and put his season on it. It's a sad sight to see Savard forced into another hockey hiatus by concussion symptoms, his return to the game currently as unclear as his mind.

First and foremost, the concern lies with the 33-year-old center's well-being and his ability to function normally again not only, hopefully, as a hockey player but more importantly as a human being. As callous as it may seem, the Bruins' season does not end because Savard's suddenly has. Such is the cruel reality of professional sports.

In Savard's tragedy there is opportunity, a chance for Tyler Seguin, the latest next big thing in Black and Gold, to jumpstart his career. Out of necessity Seguin's learning curve can be accelerated, if the Bruins are willing to. That is a big if, apparently.

As faithful pucks chronicler Fluto Shinzawa pointed out today, Seguin could be a healthy scratch tomorrow against the Canadiens. He has played fewer than 10 minutes in four straight games, and the Bruins called up another promising center prospect, Zach Hamill, from Providence and also recalled winger Jordan Caron from the Baby Bruins.

But sitting Seguin now would be a huge mistake by the Bruins brass. Give him an opportunity to prove that this season is more than a dry run for greatness yet to come.

The casual hockey fan would expect that a player with the hype that followed Seguin here would be easy to identify on the ice, that he would stand out, not blend in. Visions of an instant-impact franchise player have had to be readjusted. Shuffled back between wing and center, the second overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft has been an inconsistent and inconspicuous presence for the Spoked-Bs this season. He has eight goals and nine assists in 51 games.

He hasn't hurt the Bruins, but he hasn't really helped that much either. He has been a Spoked-B bystander for the most part.

If it's any solace for Bruins backers, while Seguin has not made his mark yet, the man who is responsible for him being in a Bruins sweater, ex-communicated sniper Phil Kessel, is already trying to shoot his way out of Toronto.

Seguin will be a franchise forward one day, but that day is not here. However, no one is asking him to morph into Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby overnight with Savard back home in Ontario. All the Bruins need now is for him to be a crafty, skilled third-line centerman who can threaten opposing defenses with his play-making and skating.

Whether he's capable of that in this nascent stage of his NHL existence is unclear, but there is only one way to find out: take the training wheels off and turn Tyler loose.

Don't tell me Seguin is too young to handle the responsibility on a playoff team.

Look south to Carolina where Hurricanes center Jeff Skinner, who played wing on the same line with Seguin as a Midget Level player, has put up 18 goals and 23 assists in 53 games for the 'Canes, who are currently in the eighth and final Eastern Conference playoff slot. Skinner, who made the All-Star team this year, is three-and-a-half months younger than Seguin.

If Seguin succeeds then the benefits reaped are both short term and long term for his development into the dynamic force the Bruins hope he becomes. If he fails in the role, then there is no harm. You know that you need to go out and get additional help upfront, something that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli may have had to do even with Savard still available.

Savard was showing signs of rounding into form before taking a pair of bruising hits from Pittsburgh's Deryk Engelland and Hunwick a week apart, but on the whole he was a shadow of his former self in 25 games, posting 10 points (two goals, eight assists). The prorated portion of Savard's $4.007 million salary is certainly a nice chip for Chiarelli to play with, but simply finding another forward to fill out the lineup isn't automatically the right move. The Bruins could use some augmentation on the blue line as well, so Seguin's potential emergence could save those funds for that purpose.

The Feb. 28 trade deadline is 20 days away. The Bruins have 10 games between now and then, starting tomorrow night on home ice against Les Canadiens. Why not give Seguin a 10-game audition to see if he can fill the open pivot spot?

This sort of thing has happened before. You may recall that during the 2007-08 season, the Bruins had a promising young rookie center named David Krejci. The slick Czech, who had been demoted to Providence during the season, blossomed after Savard suffered a cracked bone in his back when he was checked by Steve Begin, then of the Canadiens.

With Patrice Bergeron still feeling his way back from his own concussion issues, Krejci was given a chance to play a more prominent role, and he responded. The crafty Krejci had nine points in the seven games Savard sat out, including a five-game point streak. The nine points represented a third of his total production for the season.

Krejci continued his evolution in the playoffs against Montreal, even with an ailing Savard returning. Krejci was second in playoff scoring that year with 1-4-5 totals. It was the turning point in the pivot's career.

This could be the same type of opportunity for Seguin. The Bruins just have to give him a chance.

Bruins hit break in stride

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 27, 2011 03:07 PM

Hockey is on hiatus for a few days here in the Hub, as the NHL's All-Star festivities head south for Raleigh, North Carolina. It wasn't that long ago that south was the general direction of the Bruins' season, until a recent course correction.

Perhaps you've been locked in a daze by the depressing weather and/or the rueful demise of the Patriots, or you're just a pucks passer-by. In that case you may not have noticed that your Boston Bruins go into the break as one of the hottest teams in the NHL.

Kudos to Claude Julien and Co., who wrapped up game No. 50 last night with a 2-1 win over the Florida Panthers. They stand at 28-15-7, good for 63 points, first-place in the erstwhile Adams Division and third-place in the Eastern Conference. No one is saying it's time to clear the calendar in June and fuel up the Duck Boats, but it was just about five weeks ago that there were calls for Julien's head and this Bruins' season of great expectations appeared headed for the Black and Gold dustbin.

In hockey terms, the Bruins' shot at being Cup contenders has been redirected.

Since the nadir of their season, a 3-0 home loss to the Anaheim Ducks on Dec. 20 that marked their fourth defeat in five skates, the Bruins have beared down to go 11-4-3. Fans and media begged the Bruins for a response, for a sign this wasn't more of the same old Black and Fold. They apparently got the message and have sent one of their own.

From the outside looking in, it's hard to pinpoint one specific move or instance that got the Bruins' season back on track. It's been obvious that since he got less than a ringing endorsement from club president Cam Neely that Julien has approached his work behind the bench with more of an open mind.

There has been more shuffling of lines, more emphasis on pushing forward and a more entertaining product. During this 18-game stretch the Bruins have scored six or more goals five times. That doesn't suddenly make them the mid-eighties Edmonton Oilers, but in the previous 32 it happened just once.

The comparison numbers are skewed by the absence of the concussed Sidney Crosby (karma perhaps for Matt Cooke), but the Bruins are tied with the Pittsburgh Penguins for sixth in the NHL in goals per game (3.02). That's a far cry from last season when the team's goal droughts conjured up visions of John Steinbeck's dust bowl.

The Bruins' leading goal scorer last year was Marco Sturm, who had 22 in 76 games. Milan Lucic, who fought finger surgery and a nagging high ankle sprain that limited his production last season, netted his 20th goal of the season last night in his 47th game.

Lucic is finally starting to resemble the Cam Neely knockoff the Bruins believed they had when they inked him to a big contract. Looch has more goals at the All-Star break than Alex Ovechkin (19).

Patrice Bergeron (16 goals and 24 assists on the season) has been piling up the points recently and has been the team's most reliable player night in and night out. The Bruins appear to have a find in mighty-mite Brad Marchand, a pest of a player who has become a fan favorite for his persistent, high-energy output. Despite a broken nose, AHL call-up Steve Kampfer has emerged as a pretty fair replica of the ever-elusive puck-moving defenseman the Bruins are eternally searching for.

Imagine how good this team would be good with a healthy and fully functional Marc Savard, who is one of the league's top playmakers when he's right. The sad plight of Savard, who is out indefinitely after suffering another concussion in Colorado, is the only blemish on a feel-good last few weeks for the Bruins.

The team must act as if Savard is hors de hockey for the rest of season, and if he is able to return and return to form treat it as a bonus. In retrospect his rush back for the playoffs last spring seems like it was a mistake.

The best part of the Bruins' season-rescuing renaissance is that they haven't had to sell their defensive souls for more goals. Yes, there was the 7-6 shootout loss to Buffalo and a 7-5 win over the Flyers, but they are still in their customary spot among the most miserly outfits in the league. The Bruins are allowing a league-low 2.14 goals per game, thanks in large part to the stellar play of soon-to-be 37-year-old goalie Tim Thomas.

Written off after a hip injury and the emergence of Tuukka Rask relegated him to a reserve role last season, Thomas is making a strong bid to add another Vezina Trophy to his top shelf. Thomas is sporting a league-leading 1.81 goals against average and a sterling .945 save percentage.

If the last five weeks have taught us anything it's that you can't earmark the outcome of a season based on a sample of games. Through 50 games the Bruins look a lot better than they did after the first 32, but they still have 32 to go. Late next month they start a brutal six-game road trip that takes them to Long Island, Ottawa (twice), Calgary, Vancouver and Edmonton.

Fortunes can change fast in the NHL, and the Bruins have fooled their fans before with false promise.

But give the Bruins their deserved due. Instead of falling and not getting up they recovered from a rough patch of the regular season and showed that underneath the Spoked-Bs sweaters this team has some heart.

Handing out some Boston sports gifts

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 24, 2010 11:18 AM

'Tis the season for giving again, so it's time to hand out some Christmas gifts to our local sports teams. We've made our list and we've checked it twice; we know who has been naughty (What's next, Brandon Spikes?) and who has been nice (You've done it again, Bill Belichick).

Where else would you start then with a team named the Red Sox?

1. Red Sox -- Christmas came early for Sox fans this month when in a span of four days Theo Epstein traded for San Diego slugger Adrian Gonzalez and then got must-have toy, outfielder Carl Crawford. Making it even better was that lefthander Cliff Lee spurned the Yankees, who ended up with a lump coal from the Hot Stove. So, what do you get for the team that seemingly has everything? How about another loss for the Yankees?

The best gift the Sox could get would be Andy Pettitte packing up his pinstripes for good and retiring. Pettitte, who was the Yankees No. 2 starter, is an important piece for the Pinstripes. So important that club president Randy Levine doesn't have dreams of sugarplums dancing through his head, he has Pettitte back in a Yankees uniform occupying his dreams.

The estimable lefty made the All-Star team last season at age 38 and went 11-3 with a 3.28 earned run average. He had an ERA under 3.00 when he went on the disabled list in July with a strained groin, an injury that forced him too miss two months of the season. With Lee in Philadelphia and Zack Greinke in Milwaukee, the Yankees are running out of options to ramp up their rotation.

Stocking Stuffer: A healthy Jacoby Ellsbury.

2. Celtics -- The Celtics are the only Boston sports team playing on Christmas Day, as they bring their 14-game win streak to Orlando to face the extreme-makeover Magic. Celtics coach Doc Rivers gets the gift of being with his family on Christmas Day. But strictly basketball speaking the perfect present for the Celtics would be a healthy center. Hopefully, that is in Shaq-a-claus's sack this season.

The Celtics haven't had any missed games due to injury from the Big Three. But they've already lost an entire season due to injuries -- 82 man games missed. Right now they're making due without Kendrick Perkins, Rajon Rondo, and Delonte West.

But it's in the middle where they've been hurt the most -- literally. Center Jermaine O'Neal (sore left knee/flu) has missed 20 of 27 games. Shaq, who has missed a third of the season, is touch and go with a calf strain. The surprising Semih Erden, soldiering on despite a bad shoulder, is the healthiest center the Celtics have.

Stocking Stuffer: Continued good behavior from Glen Davis and Nate Robinson.

3. Patriots -- It has already been a season of joy for the Patriots. They are the scrooges of the NFL. They never give the ball up and they're always taking it away. Their nine turnovers this season and 29 turnovers forced are an integral part of their success. The only two games the Patriots have lost this year came when they lost the turnover tussle.

There are the obvious presents for the Pats -- a new hoodie for Belichick, a pair of scissors for Tom Brady, a GPS for maligned safety Brandon Meriweather. But what this team really needs for the playoff season is an improved pass rush.

Colleague Greg Bedard had an amazing stat, courtesy of Football Outsiders, last Sunday: just three of the Patriots' sacks have come on third down. The team had five sacks last Sunday against the Green Bay Packers, but none on third down.

That explains why the Patriots have the worst third-down defense (49.2 percent conversion rate for opponents) in the league.

Stocking Stuffer: A couple of losses for the Raiders to bump up that 2011 first-round pick.

4. Bruins -- The spoked-Bs certainly showed some holiday spirit last night against the Atlanta Thrashers in a raucous and rough 4-1 win. Before that the appropriate gift would have been a pulse. But the Bruins showed some pluck in Thrashing Atlanta. So, the ideal gift now for the Bruins would be a return to form for center Marc Savard, who has three points in 10 games this season.

Savvy hasn't been the same since he suffered a concussion at the hands of Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke last March. He's dealt with post-concussion syndrome and depression, which delayed the start of his season. When he's right, Savard is one of the best playmaking pivots in the game and his presence makes the Bruins a deep and dangerous team. My hunch is Savard finding his game will allow Nathan Horton to reappear.

Stocking stuffer: One of these days the Bruins are going to get that premium puck-moving defenseman we hear so much about.

5. Revolution -- I know some of you don't consider soccer a major sport, but 'tis the season to be charitable. The Revolution, who missed the playoffs for the first time since 2001, actually got their gift back in October, when Robert and Jonathan Kraft agreed to open up the coffers. They instructed soccer operations to pursue a designated player, which allows teams to go over the salary cap to bring in star players like David Beckham with the Los Angeles Galaxy and French star Thierry Henry with the New York Red Bulls.

It's doubtful the Revolution will end up with a name that recognizable, but they should be able to procure an international talent or two -- MLS teams can sign two DPs and can trade/pay to get a third -- who can propel them back into contention. Previously, the Revolution had shied away from the DP, saying they were saving it for a player who would create scoring opportunities for the franchise off the pitch as well, i.e. Beckham.

Stocking Stuffer: The Revolution really need a soccer-specific home of their own.

Merry Christmas.

Bruins are far wide of the goal

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 21, 2010 02:16 PM

Sound the siren behind the Bruins net, not because the opponent has slipped the puck past Tim Thomas -- as the Anaheim Ducks did thrice last night -- but to sound the alarm on the direction of this much-anticipated season.

The Bruins like to play the song "Zombie Nation" to celebrate goals, but they're not supposed to look like zombies on the ice.

After last night's 3-0 loss to the Orange County ice outfit, the Bruins are 6-6-3 in their last 15 games and planted in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference with 50 games to play. They are typically Bruins, uninspired and mired in mediocrity. They have 38 points at 17-11-4. At this point last season they were 16-10-6, 38 points. To quote Michael Felger, "What's the diff?"

It wasn't supposed to be this way for the Bruins, not this season. No way. This was their season to seize the sports spotlight here and challenge for Lord Stanley's Cup.

Last season's 3-0, uh-oh, collapse at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers left a bad taste in everyone's mouth, but it also left us wanting more ... more hockey, more Bruins. It was like when the Red Sox lost Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series, you wanted the next season to start the next day.

Tack on the additions of Nathan Horton and ostensible wunderkind Tyler Seguin and the elevation of Cam Neely to El Presidente and first faceoff couldn't come fast enough. But that positive energy around the franchise has dissipated, both on and off the ice.

Much like last night, the Bruins are failing to capitalize. In this case it's on the goodwill and genuine interest they generated from the general Boston sports fan last spring. The diehards will always turn out on Causeway Street. If the Bruins haven't turned them off by now they never will. But sports is about competition, and the Bruins right now are still stuck at the little kids table, eating off paper plates, while the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics are using the fine china.

Mediocrity is going to get you tuned out here in the Hub of Hardware. The Patriots are on an inexorable march to Super Bowl XLV. The Celtics are riding a 13-game winning streak despite a plague of injuries. The Red Sox are burning through bucks like Antoine Walker, having shelled out more than $300 million to acquire Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Bobby Jenks and to erase the memory of a "bridge year" gone bad.

And the Bruins ... are skating in circles.

This is where the Spoked Believers, who voiced their disapproval with the product last night, get angry. They don't like outsiders criticizing their team. It's like your little brother. It's okay when you make fun of him, but if anyone outside your family does then it's go time.

But demanding more from the Bruins isn't the same as belittling them. Everyone around here wants them to be good, to be great. You want them to knock off the Flyers and the Penguins and the Capitals with great goaltending and timely goals, as they have this season.

At its core this is a hockey town and it deserves a team that reciprocates that passion for the sport, not the rudderless bunch currently at Claude Julien's command.

Whether the coach changes or not the culture has to on Causeway Street. Julien has done a good job behind the Boston bench, even though his defensive-minded tactics can be maddening. They've won two more playoff series in three-plus seasons with Julien than they did in the prior eight without him.

I'll leave it to much sharper hockey minds to opine and decide Julien's fate, although his comments after last night's game might be sealing it.

"Our compete level needed to be better," he told reporters. "That started with our forecheck, a sustained forecheck. We didn’t have a sustained forecheck.

“At the same time, whatever scoring opportunities we had, we had to show more hunger in the finishing department. ...We’ve got to be a lot better than that. Right now, we’ve got to find that intensity and that emotion that is needed to compete the way we want to compete."

Careful, Claude, don't write your own epitaph.

What's disappointing is that the Bruins are clearly a more talented team than they were at this point last year. They have a plus-21 goal differential, which trails only the Flyers and Penguins in the Eastern Conference and is the fourth best in the NHL. By comparison the Bruins were a plus-six at the end of last season.

Last season every goal felt like turning coal into diamonds; they finished last in goals per game (2.39). Goals are still not plentiful, but the Spoked-Bs are a respectable 13th out of 30 teams at 2.78 goals per game. A healthy Milan Lucic really does look a bit like Neely Lite, and before he became the invisible man, Horton looked like just the front-line sniper the Bruins needed. If Marc Savard can bounce back from his concussion-related symptoms he has scorers to be on the other end of his pretty passes.

Defensively, the Bruins have displayed their usual penuriousness, leading the league in goals against. They're allowing fewer goals per game (2.03 to 2.33) than last season, in large part thanks to the spectacular play of Thomas, who has been anything but Tiny Tim in net.

Add it all up and you should have a better team. But you don't, and as Duane Charles Parcells once said, "You are what your record says you are."

After Thursday night's tilt with the Thrashers at TD Garden, the Bruins will spend seven of their next eight games away from the Garden. Perhaps that is the opportunity for them to find themselves.

They better find something because they can't afford to let another season slip into the unremarkable, especially not this one.

Playing some five-on-five

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff September 23, 2010 03:19 PM

New York is the city that never sleeps, but Boston is the city where the sports analysis, talk, and speculation never cease. There is rarely a shortage of topics to discuss. Here are five that have been on my mind of late.

1.There are two offensive players who have defined the essence and ethos of the Bill Belichick Patriots. One was Troy Brown, and the other is Kevin Faulk, now out for the season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament. The laconic Louisiana native is as stand-up a guy as you'll find in an NFL locker room. During the 2007 season, with Spygate swirling, Faulk, a team captain that season, was one of the few players who consistently stood at his locker and faced the barrage of questions. When asked why he did it, he simply relayed he felt it was his job as a captain.

Faulk is one of those players for whom statistics simply don't do justice. An example, he scored just one touchdown during the point-a-palooza 2007 season. It was the game-winner in the Patriots' epic comeback against the Colts, as Faulk willed his way over the goal line for the winning points, squeezing between Colts defenders. It was quintessential Faulk. When Faulk retires there is a place in the Hall at Patriot Place with his name on it.

2. Just curious what all those David Ortiz detractors are saying now. At the start of play on May 9, the last day the Yankees came to the Fens, Ortiz was batting .178 and the discussion was about how long before the Sox gave Big Papi his walking papers. ESPN's estimable Buster Olney wrote: "I'd be stunned if Ortiz finishes the month on the Boston roster."

Now, here we are on Sept. 23, and Ortiz is tied for fifth in the American League in home runs (31), is on pace to drive in 100 runs and has a higher batting average, slugging percentage and OPS than the Yankees Mark Teixeira. To me it's a no-brainer for the Sox to pick up Ortiz's $12.5 million option, especially with Mike Lowell coming off the books. This team is already devoid of power and 30-homer sluggers don't grown on trees, at least not anymore. Ortiz is too proud to take a paycut to stay here. Ortiz is awful against lefties -- .205 and just two homers -- but do the Sox have a better option at DH? Compare Papi's numbers to Nationals slugger, Adam Dunn, long a Fenway front-office favorite. The on-base percentages (.362) are identical, so are the RBI totals (96). Dunn has hit .199 against lefties this year.

3. There has been considerable buzz building lately for Jayson Werth coming to Boston this winter. The hard-hitting and hirsute outfielder would fill the Sox' desperate need for a right-handed-hitting outfielder with pop. This year Werth ranks No. 16 in all of baseball in OPS-plus, which adjusts for a player's ballpark. He is ahead of Joe Mauer, Prince Fielder, and Evan Longoria. By comparison, Matt Holliday, last year's hot free-agent outfielder, is eighth in OPS-plus.

The question is whether Werth is worth the cost? Werth has hired Scott Boras as his agent, and SI.com's Jon Heyman, who frequently quotes Boras, guessed that it will take five years and $90 million to sign Werth via free agency. Do you want to give that long a contract to a player who turns 32 in May, when you're only willing to go two years on Victor Martinez, who turns 32 in December?

Anyone who read the recent Sports Illustrated piece on Werth has to wonder how he'd fare in Boston. It's one thing to go from bench player to cult hero in Philly. It's another to arrive in baseball-obsessed Boston as a big-ticket acquisition. The Red Sox haven't exactly hit a lot of home runs in free agency during the Theo Epstein regime. Plus, Werth's home-road splits this season are a little alarming, although he posted a higher on-base percentage away from home in 2009 and boasted more home runs and a better slugging percentage on the road in 2008.

If you have to spend that type of money on an outfielder then the safer investment in my mind would have been Holliday, who turns 31 in January and has a longer track record of success.

4. I'm not sure what to make of the Marc Savard saga, except it just seems like a headache for the Bruins. To me there are three possible scenarios and none of them are really good for the B's, considering that Savard's seven-year, $28-million extension kicks in this season. One, is that the team and Savard are telling the truth and at some point during the summer his post-concussion syndrome symptoms unexpectedly returned. Two, is the grassy-noll theory that Savard is ticked off about his name being bandied about in trade rumors all summer long and is going on a wildcat strike. Three, that the Bruins knew Savard was damaged goods and were trying to peddle him off before it became obvious he wasn't going to be ready for the start of camp. Here's hoping Savard returns healthy and happy.

5. Got to love the Celtics' logic when it comes to losing to the Lakers in the NBA Finals. Doc Rivers has said that his team has never been beaten in a playoff series with the entire starting five at the Green's disposal, a point Paul Pierce agreed with. Kevin Garnett was hors de hoops in the 2009 playoffs, and Kendrick Perkins torn ACL in Game 6 of this year's Finals let the Lakers play volleyball on the boards in Game 7. The problem is that when the Celtics beat the Lakers in 2008, LA was playing without center Andrew Bynum, who missed the entire playoffs that year with a dislocated left kneecap, a convenient fact that gets omitted over on Causeway Street. Here's hoping for a full-strength Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals rubber rematch this year.

Trading Savard stirs up more questions than answers

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 29, 2010 01:19 PM

Under Marc Savard's entry in the Bruins media guide there are a series of glib getting-to-know-you questions and answers. He says the strangest thing about Boston is the one-way streets. He offers the celebrity parents he'd pick are Tiger and Elin Woods. (You get a mulligan on that one, Savvy.) He said if he could play with any Bruin in history he'd pick...Cam Neely.

Now, that's an odd one-way street because it appears Neely, the newly-anointed club president, isn't so keen on Savard playing on his team. At this point the Bruins might as well put the slick center on eBay with the volume of trade rumors that have surrounded Savard.

It would seem strange for Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli to be pushing Savard out the door, since one of Chiarelli's initial major moves after taking over in 2006 was to sign Savard as a free agent the same day he inked team captain Zdeno Chara. Plus, Chiarelli handed Savard a seven-year, $28.05 million contract extension about eight months ago.

This has the distinct feel of a Neely power play with an assist from Harry Sinden, who is already on record as not being head of the Savard Fan Club.

You would think Neely, who rode shotgun with Craig Janney and Adam Oates, of all people would covet a creative and productive pivot. Savard has produced since pulling on a Spoked-B sweater. Since 2006, only Joe Thornton (0.95) and Sidney Crosby (0.87) have averaged more assists per game than Savard, who is tied with current Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) winner Henrik Sedin at 0.81 assists per game. Savard has averaged better than a point per game during that time period (1.09) and made two All-Star games.

That doesn't sound like a player the offensively-starved Bruins would want to -- or should -- part with. So, why are the Black and Gold powers that be so bent on shipping Savard out of Boston?

The urge to give Savard the gate goes more to temperament than talent. You don't have to be around the Bruins very long to hear the murmurs and whispers that Savard is not exactly beloved by his teammates. It was kind of telling that when Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke delivered his blindside blast to Savard, even the Bruins' delayed reactions to the play lacked the alacrity you would expect when another team cheap-shots your best player.

It was also somewhat telling that when locker room sage and de facto captain Mark Recchi was asked about possibly dealing Savard during a conference call with reporters, his words came far closer to endorsing the idea than condemning it.

Recchi gave his imprimatur to the Bruins off-season plan, a big part of which appears to be sending Savard elsewhere, saying Chiarelli "had a great feel for what was needed," and that he thought the team was going to get younger and faster, a trend that started with the drafting of Savard's presumed replacement, Tyler Seguin.

Recchi said complimentary things about Savard -- "I really like Savvy," and called him a"dynamic passer" -- but certainly didn't make any pronounced public plea to keep him, which you might expect a fellow forward to do for his team's top centerman.

"If there’s a viable option to Marc Savard, you’ve obviously got to look at it," said Recchi. "[Chiarelli] might be looking for a different dynamic. We’ve got [David Krejci], [Patrice] Bergeron, and Seguin as centermen. We’ve got some younger centermen coming up. He might be looking at the big picture right now."

A picture that doesn't include Savard.

Savard certainly didn't win any points for the way he handled the too-many-men on the ice fiasco in Game 7 of the Bruins' historic collapse against the Philadelphia Flyers. He was indecisive on the play, but quite decisive in avoiding the blame.

Savard's co-conspirator in that fatal folly, Vladimir Sobotka, has already been shipped out of town and he still has the tread marks on him from where Savard threw him under the bus. No doubt, that didn't sit well with Neely.

There is a legitimate and logical on-ice case, albeit it not as strong considering his production, to trade Savard, who turns 33 on July 17, as well.

He endured an injury-plagued season last year, missing 41 games, the final 18 due to a Grade-2 concussion, which he valiantly returned from to help the Bruins build a 3-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals. He scored the game-winner in overtime in Game 1, his first game since the Cooke hit, but it was all down hill from there for Savard, who had just two assists the rest of the series.

Perhaps the Bruins are concerned that he won't ever return to form, although that seems a little spurious considering the way they've stood by Bergeron, who has bounced back from a Grade-3 concussion.

Savard is a very good player, but he's not a franchise forward. The Bruins believe they drafted one in Seguin and now have a surfeit of centers with him, Savard, David Krejci, the team's best player in the playoffs, and Bergeron.

The Bruins are dealing from a position of strength at center and Savard looms as an attractive option for any team in need of a primo playmaking pivot and could bring back hockey's new holy grail, the (say it all together now) puck-moving defenseman.

But Neely, Chiarelli or whomever is calling the shots on Causeway Street clearly want to dish off Savard like one of the center's nifty setups. Less clear is exactly why.

If they follow through and run No. 91 out of town they better make sure they make a savvy swap of Savvy or they'll be the ones that have to offer up some answers to not so glib questions.

One-way streets are accepted in Boston, but one-way trades aren't (see: Thornton, Joe).

Boston sports are an 'LA Story'

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff June 21, 2010 01:35 PM

We just can't escape LA these days. The fate and fortunes of our traditional Big Four pro sports franchises -- the Celtics, the Red Sox, the Patriots and the Bruins -- are intertwined for better or worse with Los Angeles.

New York will always be Boston's chief rival sports city, but LA has become a noteworthy nemesis, a sunny, superficial antagonist that we love to beat and resent.

There couldn't be two more different cities than staid, historic, and compact Boston and capricious, trendy and sprawling Los Angeles. Yet it seems like everywhere you turn there is some Boston- LA link hovering above the sports scene like LA's infamous smog.

Let's start with the obvious LA story. The Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers just concluded a seven-game basketball battle royal to crown an NBA champion, meeting in the NBA Finals for the second time in three seasons. The Lakers outlasted the Celtics to win their 16th championship. Fittingly, dead downtown Los Angeles could be the final burial ground for the Big Three era and the Celtics coaching career of Doc Rivers.

The two storied franchises have accounted for 33 of the NBA's 64 championships, with the Green, who beat LA two years ago for Banner No. 17, holding the slimmest of leads. It would be nothing short of a calamity if the Lakers, who are holding their championship parade today, tied or surpassed the Celtics as the most decorated team in professional hoops history.

Luckily, it can't legitimately happen. The "Los Angeles Lakers" claim of 16 championships rings a little hollow when in their own arena they hang prominent purple and gold banners for each of the LA championships and cram the five titles won in Minneapolis, before LA seduced the Lakers west for the 1960-61 season, with the game's first superstar, George Mikan, on to one measly flag marked "M.P.L.S"

The scoreboard should read Celtics: 17, Los Angeles Lakers: 11.

A Boston sports team did manage to defeat one of LA's beloved teams in a series, replete with "Beat LA" chants. The Red Sox just swept Manny Ramirez and the Dodgers out of Fenway, with nary a word uttered by the mercurial, peculiar and polarizing former Sox slugger, who went 5 for 12 with a home run and one run batted in during his letdown of a return to Fenway.

Manny being Manny has given way to Mannywood. The desperate for a dollar Dodgers have done a great job of marketing Manny's misfit -- and occasionally misanthropic -- personality. This is the final year of Ramirez's contract with the Dodgers and he and the team appear headed for a divorce. That's not a word that Dodgers fans are fond of, as there is prevalent fear in LA that the sticky divorce proceedings between team owner and former Boston real estate magnate Frank McCourt and his wife, Jamie, could leave the team financially hamstrung and unable to add the pieces it needs to reach the World Series for the first time since 1988.

Speaking of separation anxiety, that's what Patriots' fans are experiencing when it comes to their bi-coastal franchise quarterback, Tom Brady. Los Angeles may no longer have a pro football team (according to the NCAA they had one at USC under Pete Carroll), but they do have New England sports' most revered and recognized star.

Tom Terrific has generated some concern among the Foxborough Faithful by spending the majority of his off-season in the Los Angeles-area. Brady's eldest son, Jack, lives in La-La Land with his mother and the QB's former girlfriend, actress Bridget Moynahan. The canonized quarterback is building a home with his wife, supermodel Gisele Bündchen, in the posh Brentwood section of LA, and he was seen yucking it up with Lakers star Kobe Bryant after Game 3 of the Finals.

There have been as many photos of him hanging out at the UCLA spring game with David Beckham as there have been participating in Patriots off-season practices. And the purported "growing disconnect" between Brady, whose contract is up after this season, and the team is both financial and geographical. Brady isn't willing to take a hometown discount this time, at least not if the hometown is here.

LA stole the Dodgers and the Lakers, they won't hesitate to take the greatest football player in New England sports history. Brady could be quarterbacking the Los Angeles Jaguars in 2012.

It's not all bad from a Boston perspective when it comes to the City of Angels. LA could be about to deliver a savior to the most forlorn of Boston's Big Four, the Bruins. The NHL Entry Draft will be held Friday and Saturday in ... Los Angeles. The pick-a-palooza is at Staples Center, so the scene of the Celtics' demise could be the locale of the Bruins' resurrection.

Anybody who has been keeping up with the Bruins knows that the Black and Gold have the No. 2 pick in this draft and are assured of obtaining one of what the ice hockey intelligentsia have promised us are two genuine franchise forwards in winger Taylor Hall and center Tyler Seguin.

The last time the Bruins successfully drafted a face-of-the-franchise player, Los Angeles was involved. The Spoked-B's swapped goalie Ron Grahame to the Los Angeles Kings on Oct. 9, 1978 for a 1979 first-round pick. That pick ended up being used to select a young defenseman by the name of Ray Bourque. Thanks, LA.

See, it's not all bad with Los Angeles, although you do have to question a place where Miley Cyrus is a success. LA has the ultimate sports bar for the Boston sports diaspora, Sonny McLean's. It's delivered us Bourque and produced Paul Pierce, Willie McGinest, Fred Lynn and newly minted Patriots Hall of Famer Sam "Bam" Cunningham.

In return, we gave them Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Fair deal.

As Rodney King famously said while imploring an end to the violent 1992 LA riots, "Can't we all just get along?"

Boston and LA sports fans don't have a choice.

No need to be alarmed by Bruins

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 11, 2010 12:55 PM

300bruinsbench.jpgThat wailing siren, accompanied by a red flashing light, isn't signifying a Bruins goal. Nope, that's the panic button being sounded by hockey fans all over the Hub because a once spacious 3-0 lead over the Flyers has been reduced to a claustrophobic 3-2 advantage in this Eastern Conference semifinal series.

This series just got hairier than a playoff beard for the Bruins, following Philadelphia's 4-0 victory at TD Garden last night in Game 5. The Bruins are in the faceoff circle with ice hockey ignominy -- the possibility of becoming just the third team in the history of hockey and fourth in professional sports to blow a 3-0 series lead.

The Flyers, who host Game 6 tomorrow at the Wachovia Center, are certain that they'll be returning to the Garden on Friday night for a seventh game.

"We have two games left and we are going back home confident, said Ville Leino, who was credited with the first Philadelphia goal last night. "Obviously, we are believing that, and it is easier to believe now then when we were down 3-0."

This is all good news for the Bruins. What? Yeah, that's right, I said good news.

Anyone who has watched this Bruins team all season knows it doesn't handle expectations, success or being the front-runner very well. A disappointing 82-game regular-season told us that. In a way it was inevitable that the Bruins, as the higher-seeded club and presumptive favorite, would let the Flyers back into this series. This version of the Black and Gold is a team that plays better when it's counted out, not counted on.

So, last night's clunker, during which they mangled a clinching game worse than Mayor Malapropism did his speech to commemorate the new Bobby Orr bronze sentry outside the Garden, wasn't all that out of character. Neither would be a bounce-back win in Game 6 or a Game 7 victory on home ice to send our pucks protagonists to their first conference finals since the first George Bush administration.

Whenever the situation looks most bleak, the Bruins are at their best.

They endured a 10-game losing streak in January and February. Just when you were ready to write them off, they won their final four before the Olympic break and ended up winning six of seven. Everyone buried the Spoked-Bs when wanton Penguins winger Matt Cooke, who had concussed Marc Savard 11 days earlier, was allowed to skate through the rematch with only a perfunctory fight with Shawn Thornton, and the Bruins failed to get revenge on the scoreboard as well with a 3-0 loss to the Pens. They responded by closing the season with eight wins in their final 12 skates.

Some people just can't handle success. That's the Bruins. They have to do everything the hard way. It was obvious last night from the jump. The Bruins came out and looked like the same, old Black and (fool's) Gold we watched skate for too many evenings during the regular season.

The boys were gripping their sticks tight and not moving their skates enough. They were outmuscled, outmaneuvered and outworked. It seemed like the Philly blades had magnets on them to draw in every loose puck.

"We lost battles from start to finish," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, whose team dropped its first game at home in the playoffs. "They were the hungrier team tonight, and when that happens you get those results."

The reality is that this series was never as lopsided as the Bruins' three-games-to-none lead would lead you to believe. After Marc Savard's welcome-back OT winner in Game 1, team sage Mark Recchi said he expected it to be a close, hard-fought, long series. That's exactly what it has become. It shouldn't come as a surprise that heading into Game 6 the Bruins and Flyers have each scored 16 goals a piece in the series.

The Bruins' win in Game 3 has proven to be costly because it cost them David Krejci, who was in the press box last night with a cast and a sling on his right arm because of the dislocated right wrist he suffered in the first period of that game.

Krejci's injury coupled with the return of Simon Gagne (if you're going to draw the parallel between the Flyers and the 2004 Red Sox, then Gagne is playing the Curt Schilling role of hobbled hero) from a broken toe has altered the offensive advantage in the series.

The Eastern European-descent line of Krejci, Milan Lucic and Miroslav Satan was the best for either team in the series, and was the Bruins' best line in the playoffs.

But the Bruins are used to playing without their big guns -- Savard, Lucic, Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, who missed eight games with a broken thumb, were all injury scratches at some point this season. It's just more adversity for a team that appears to be fueled by it.

"We've responded to adversity well throughout the whole year," said Recchi. "I didn't see [last night coming], but like I said this team has been through a lot together, and this is just another thing. Now, we got to go up there, and we got to win Game 6."

The word that Recchi used a half-dozen times as he held court in front of his Bruins cubby was desperate.

The Bruins' need to create desperation often leaves their fans feeling exasperation.

However, that adage that a wounded bear is a dangerous bear is especially true with the now playoff-grizzly Bruins.

So, don't be spooked, the Spoked-Bs have the Flyers right where they want them.

Something's brewin' with Bruins

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 5, 2010 02:04 PM

This column originally ran in the Boston Globe on Tuesday, May 4:

The irony didn’t occur to many of the 17,565 in attendance, as they joyously jumped up and down celebrating yet another one-goal playoff win by the Bruins Monday night at TD Garden by serenading their skating idols to the strains of the Standells’ “Dirty Water.’’ Yup, it still wasn't safe to sip the H2O around town, but it is encouraged to drink in the playoff run of the team that plays on iced-over aqua.

The Bruins are now two wins from their first conference final since 1992, when Mario Lemieux was the star of the Penguins and not the team’s owner. It's been that long.

The Bruins have tapped into the passion for pucks in this town, which had been dormant this season, much like the beat-up and belittled Bruins, and it’s overflowing with goodwill with the Bruins up two games to none in their best-of-seven second-round playoff series with the Flyers.

Coach Claude Julien’s Boys of Spring downed the Flyers, 3-2, on Milan Lucic’s goal with 2:57 remaining. Looch, who had a big goose egg next to the goals ledger in these playoffs, took a loose puck that had been batted in the air, turned and fired the winner past Brian Boucher.

Boucher, a native of Woonsocket, R.I., no doubt grew up dreaming of having his name chanted by a Bruins crowd, but derision likely wasn’t part of the dream. Neither was Lucic.

(So, it's since come to my attention that Mr. Boucher grew up, gasp, a Canadiens fan. Being mocked or mistreated by Bruins fans is not new to Boucher.)

“The way it was scored it was a typical Lucic goal,’’ said Julien. “He did a great job that whole shift, and it was nice to see him score that goal.’’

It was also a typical Bruins win.

Those Spoked-B sweaters must be made of Kevlar because the Bruins are bullet-proof these days. Nothing can pierce their playoff armor. Go 0 for 5 on the power play? No problem.

Allow a horrible, tying goal by Flyers forward Danny Briere with just 25 seconds left in the second period, a cardinal sin on skates? No worries.

They just find a way to win, and one-goal games are their specialty. The Bruins have won six games in the postseason and five have been by a single, solitary goal.

It seems like luck has made a line change.

“It’s nice to see. I’m not going to lie,’’ said captain Zdeno Chara. “It’s nice to see that we are getting those breaks at the end of games and scoring those winning goals. We didn’t get those breaks during the regular season, so it’s nice to get them now.’’

The truth is the Bruins are also making a lot of their own breaks, and it starts in net with Tuukka Rask, who had another terrific night between the pipes. The Finnish netminder made 24 saves to backbone the defense. Miroslav Satan, who was conducting his own free skates in January on Long Island, added another goal last night, his fourth of the playoffs and third consecutive game with a goal.

A goal-starved team during the regular season is getting plenty of offense from Miro the Hero and his linemates, Lucic and David Krejci, who assisted on Lucic’s winner and has points in three straight games.

There are certainly a lot of fans jumping on the Black and Gold bandwagon, rightfully so, but the Bruins have become front-runners themselves.

After allowing the first goal in their first five playoff games, the Bruins drew first blood for the third straight contest. Patrice Bergeron beat Scott Hartnell cleanly on a faceoff in the left circle, guiding the puck back to Johnny Boychuck, who snapped off a shot that sailed by Boucher with 5:12 gone in the first period.

The Flyers, who went 0 for 4 on the power play, tied the score twice, getting goals from Mike Richards late in the first and Briere as the clock wound down in the second.

But Philadelphia still hasn’t led for a single minute in this series.

That’s making the Flyers a little agitated and creating some good, old-fashioned playoff enmity. Philadelphia agitator Dan Carcillo put Bruins center Marc Savard in a headlock after Savard took a whack at Boucher’s glove, trying to knock loose a puck in the second period.

Carcillo alleged that Savard sunk his teeth into him during the scrum, a charge that Savvy brushed off.

“He embellished a bit,’’ said Savard, who got a penalty on the play, but not for biting. “I think he tried to pull my teeth out. So, if that’s biting, I don’t know what to say. I still got them, thank God.’’

Two months ago, most considered the Bruins to be a toothless team. Now, they have plenty of bite, and they restored this region’s taste for playoff hockey.

“Yeah, we had that belief,’’ said Savard. “It’s tough because a lot of people outside didn’t. We kept our heads up in here. We’ve done that for a long time. We kept that belief and here we are.’’

Hard-hitting analysis: This will be a grind

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff May 2, 2010 11:50 AM
Yes, the ending of Game 1 was unforgettable, but it represented the beginning of what promises to be a grueling and gut-wrenching playoff series between the Bruins and Flyers.

Don’t let the screenplay denouement of the opener of this Eastern Conference semifinal, courtesy of comeback kid Marc Savard, fool you. It was everything this series isn’t going to be: poetic, pretty, and sudden.

“It was a battle,’’ said Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask, who made 32 saves, including a huge stop on Flyers pest Daniel Carcillo in overtime on a break-in. “They’re a tough team to play against. They really jam the net and throw those pucks at the feet there and crash the net a lot. It was a tough game, but we found a way to win.’’

The way they claimed that 5-4 OT win was goose-bump-inducing sports theater, and one also could argue a bit of sports karma, considering the Flyers concussed Patrice Bergeron three years ago. Fitting, then, that Savard in his first game back after a Grade 2 concussion knocked the Flyers out of Game 1 with the winner from the right circle with 6 minutes and 8 seconds left in overtime.

It certainly didn’t look like the faithful would be sweating it out inside the Garden on a 75-degree day the way the game started. That scent wafting through TD Garden at 12:54 of the first period, when Bergeron put a backhander past Brian Boucher to give Boston a 2-0 lead, wasn’t popcorn or hot dogs.

It was overconfidence.

That was the first time the Bruins had a two-goal lead. They also would lead, 3-1, and 4-2 after a David Krejci tally at 7:25 of the third. Still, they had to fend off the Flyers after Philadelphia rallied to send the game to overtime when Danny Briere breezed between defensemen Dennis Wideman and Matt Hunwick to knot things, 4-4, with 3:22 left.

Buoyed by their team’s bouncing of the third-seeded Sabres as the No. 6 seed, the Spoked-Believers were viewing the Flyers, who are without leading goal scorer Jeff Carter (broken right foot), as well as wingers Simon Gagne (broken toe) and Ian Laperriere (brain contusion), as sacrificial lambs on skates.

The Bruins players knew better.

“We have two very similar teams,’’ said feisty 42-year-old Bruins wing Mark Recchi, who spent a good part of the game mixing it up with Chris Pronger. “We’re both going to try to outwork the other one, try and out-forecheck the other teams and see where it gets you. Like I said, I think this was indicative of what I think the series is going to be all around.’’

Recchi won a Stanley Cup in Carolina playing for Flyers coach Peter Laviolette.

He can attest that it wasn’t a fluke that the Flyers dispatched the Devils in five games, helping to set up the first No. 6 seed vs. No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference draw since the Bruins bowed out to Buffalo in 1999.

“They didn’t put New Jersey away in five games because Jersey played bad,’’ said Recchi. “I think they played good. They’re a good hockey club. I know their coach very well, and they’ll play hard, and they’ll play the right way. We know what this series is going to be all about.’’

So, Recchi said it shouldn’t come as a surprise if there are more one-goal games in this series.

The only surprising aspect of yesterday’s game was that the rekindled rivalry didn’t produce a single penalty in the first period. The teams made up for it with 12 penalties (seven for the Bruins and five for the Flyers) in the second and third periods.

That was not good for the Bruins, since the Flyers were able to crack their vaunted penalty kill with a pair of power-play goals, although the first one was a bit of a softie off the stick of Pronger in the second period.

“I saw it. It went through me. Bad goal,’’ said Rask.

That’s about all Rask did wrong, though, and he and his team are built for a series like this. The Bruins have been playing taut, tense games all year long.

The Bruins have five playoff victories thus far and all but one was by a goal. The fifth was a two-goal win with an empty-netter with 20 seconds left.

If Theo Epstein were the general manager we’d be calling it puck prevention.

“We’ve been through this all year where we’ve just been in close games, so there is no sense getting frustrated,’’ said Recchi. “We showed against [Buffalo goalie Ryan] Miller we just stay with it and we stay with it and we stay with it.

“That’s what we have to do. We’ve got to keep playing our game.

“There is no sense worrying about it. Boucher is going to make great saves. They’re going to make good plays defensively. You just have to make sure that you keep playing relentless and keep playing the right way. They’re going to do the same thing, so it’s going to make for a heck of a series. It’s a good start.’’

But that’s all it was — the start of what promises to be a fight to the finish.

'Upsets' make Stanley Cup playoffs special

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 27, 2010 12:04 PM

After the sixth-seeded Bruins deep-sixed the Buffalo Sabres last night, winning Game 6 to close out their first-round playoff series, you half expected Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask to make like Kevin Garnett and throw his goalie stick into the air, while screaming, "Anything is possible."

In a Bruins' season filled with injuries, inconsistency, offensive impotency and an ignominious response, or lack there of, to a crushing, concussion-dealing blow to their best forward, winning a playoff series certainly seemed like a cause for celebration, maybe even one of Mayor Thomas Menino's famed rolling rallies.

Except in the mind of the Finnish franchise goalie and a lot of his teammates, the Bruins, who have Zambonied the rough patches in their regular season with a fresh sheet of ice and a fresh start in the playoffs, defeating third-seeded Buffalo wasn't really an upset.

"We always believed," said winger Milan Lucic, who assisted on a pair of third period goals in Boston's 4-3 series-sealing win. "It was definitely a tough road this season, for sure. I think when we were sitting at 10th at that time of the season we had a couple of team meetings to talk about 'this is the time of year for us to turn things around.'

"We knew that we had a good group of guys in here that could make something out of this season. So, the way we finished the [regular] season we had a lot of confidence, and we were able to carry that on into this series."

Really, the major surprise isn't that the Bruins, who went 4-2 against the Sabres during the regular season, won their first round playoff series; it's that they have advanced before the Celtics, who tonight against Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat will try to make it two series clinchers in two nights on Causeway Street. Of course the Black and Gold had some help from the NBA schedule makers, who seem intent on having sports fans celebrate the Fourth of July with an NBA Finals game.

But Rask was right to say that the Bruins beating Buffalo shouldn't be deemed an upset, and that is what makes the Stanley Cup playoffs one of the most enjoyable and unique postseasons in all of sports. Lower-seeded clubs toppling higher-seeded teams is a much a part of the playoffs as the post-series handshake line.

"Going into the playoffs anything can happen," said Rask. "I don't think it's an upset. I thought we played a good game. Look at our guys. We played good defense and got those chances, and you know anything can happen."

Especially in the chase for Lord Stanley's silver chalice.

The Bruins won the series because Rask (2.18 goals against and .927 save percentage) narrowly nudged USA hockey Olympic hero Ryan Miller (2.35 GAA and .926 save percentage) in net, and their special teams totally outclassed the Sabres' in the six games. The Bruins got a pair of power play goals to jump out to a 2-0 lead, and the Bruins' penalty kill kept Buffalo from scoring a single man-up goal in the series (0 for 19). So, they move on and Buffalo is swapping its hockey sticks for golf clubs.

On the same night the B's cut down the Sabres, the eight-seeded Canadiens were busy winning a Game 6 of their own, 3-1, to send the top-seeded Capitals to the brink. The seventh-seeded Philadelphia Flyers already got an early start on their spring cleaning by dispatching the New Jersey Devils. In the egalitarian Eastern Conference, only the No. 4-seed Penguins, who loom as a possible second-round opponent for the reborn Bruins, have advanced among higher-seeded teams.

Even the Sabres, the Northeast Division champions, didn't seem that surprised to be upended by the Bruins, a team that jumped out to a three-games-to-one lead on them in this playoff series.  

"It's disappointing," said Buffalo winger Thomas Vanek. "But you look at the parity, one through eight and every team plays a good system and has good goaltending on both sides. I think it could have went both ways, but we are on the short end of it."

Of course, the Bruins have been on the short end of this playoff parity play as well. Last year, it was the sixth-seeded Carolina Hurricanes that put the Bruins on ice in the second round of the playoffs and advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals.

"I think anybody can beat anybody. It's unpredictable, really, " said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. "The seeding is just the stats. Every year you have some upsets and you have some favorites, but if you're not ready to really work extremely, extremely hard and battle for every puck, every game, you ain't going to win four games.

"It's the toughest trophy [to win]. That's why it is. It's such a long way, and it's so exhausting to do that. You see it's only after the first round, but everybody is so beat up."

Upset or not, getting past the first round for the second straight year for the first time since the 1990-91 and '91-'92 campaigns alters the perceptions of the Bruins' season. It no longer feels like they collectively skated backward this year after leading the Eastern Conference in points last year. They have redeemed themselves, and now you can throw their seeding out the window.

If the Habs can eliminate the Capitals tomorrow, the Bruins would actually be the higher seed in their second-round playoff series and have home-ice advantage while hosting the Flyers.

If the No. 1-seeded Capitals win, the Bruins draw wanton winger Matt Cooke and the Penguins, which with Marc Savard cleared to come back from the concussion he suffered at the hands of Cooke on March 7 would make for a great pucks plot twist.

The Bruins would probably be favored against the Flyers, their Winter Classic foil, and not against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, but it doesn't really matter who is favored when hockey goes hirsute and playoff beards are in vogue.

"Because I think our league is much more evened up," said slick Slovakian Miroslav Satan, who potted the game-winner in overtime of Game 4 and tipped home the eventual game-winner last night. "There is not too much difference between team No. 3 and team No. 6, or 2 or 7, a few points. If you really focus in on the playoff series and are able to improve a thing or two you have a chance against higher-seeded teams."

That's the magic of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Bruins benefiting from a lucky seven

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 20, 2010 11:43 AM
Welcome to the Bizzaro Bruins, a physical team that finishes checks, stands up for each other, finds a way to score timely goals, plays well at home, has a crowd-pleasing, dangerous defenseman named Dennis Wideman, and benefits from good fortune.

Who are these guys and where are the Bruins?

This wasn't the brand of hockey the Bruins' faithful had become accustomed to this season, but it was the brand of hockey they were treated to last night in a stirring 2-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres that now has the Bruins leading the best-of-seven Eastern Conference playoff series by the same score with Game 4 tomorrow at the Garden.

The momentum in the series is now wearing a Bruins sweater. Everything is coming up Black and Gold these days, a franchise that was snake-bitten and perpetually rolling snake-eyes is now enjoying a lucky seven.

Not even the most optimistic Spoked-Believer could have hoped for a week like the one the Bruins have enjoyed. The last seven days of good karma on and off the ice on Causeway Street would be enough to make even Harry Sinden smile.

It started last Tuesday, when the ping-pong balls bounced (out of) the Bruins' way in the NHL lottery, and they kept their coveted top two draft spot -- Toronto's tariff for Phil Kessel -- and were guaranteed the opportunity to draft either franchise forward Taylor Hall or franchise forward Tyler Seguin, or perhaps the hybrid of "Tyler Hall" that I overhead a man adorned in a Milan Lucic jersey talking about outside of the Garden last night.

The outrageous fortune continued with Sunday's three-goal third period to erase a 3-2 deficit and steal home-ice advantage from the Sabres. Yesterday brought the news that concussed center Marc Savard, who has battled headaches since being leveled by wanton Penguins winger Matt Cooke on March 7, is back skating on his own; Savard certainly looked and sounded like a man who plans on playing playoff hockey this spring. He was lustfully griping a stick in the locker room postgame.

Hours after Savard's feel-good update, the Bruins took to the ice in their own rink and rattled the Sabres. No small feat for this version of the Spoked Bs, which made home ice advantage an oxymoron in Boston. The Bruins had the worst home record of any of the NHL's playoff entries.

They now have won as many times in their own building this month (they closed the regular season by winning their final two homers, beating Buffalo and Carolina) than they did in the prior three months of 2010.

No team in this town needed a change of fortune more the Bruins, who have had the misfortune of being the laggard on the Boston sports scene in the 21st century.

No player on the Bruins needed a change of fortune more than Wideman, a whipping boy who was booed mercilessly his own building and became the poster boy for the underachievement and disappointment of a Bruins season that started with Stanley Cup aspirations and deteriorated to Dixie cup (one and done) expectations.

Last night, the besieged blue liner figured in both Boston goals. He blasted home the first goal for the Bruins, also his first career playoff goal, and got an assist on Patrice Bergeron's game-winner, which came off a feed from the ageless Mark Recchi.

"Obviously, it feels good to play well. Some of [the criticism] was a little harsh at times, but you don't have that if you're playing your best," said Wideman. "I went through a tough start of the year, and you just have to put that behind you. It's the playoffs, you got to win now."

A puck-lugging Murphy's Law with the plus-minus to prove it (-14) most of this season, Wideman acknowledged that the goal, which came when he took a risk and jumped up into the rush for a one-time feed from Vladimir Sobotka, probably wouldn't have happened for him two months ago.

"It probably would have bounced over my stick or I would have hit the D or missed the net, one of the three," he said.

But like his team's, his luck has changed. They say good luck is the residue of design. In this case, it's the residue of redemption.

People spent so much time booing Wideman that they haven't realized that he has shown some signs of promise in the last three weeks or so -- again like his team.

"He's playing well right now," said fellow defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who delivered the hit of the series in the second period when he trucked Matt Ellis in Buffalo's end. "Hearing the boos throughout the whole season when he got the puck wasn't really helping out. He has stepped up and is playing really well."

No one is nominating Wideman for the Norris Trophy, but let's not forget that last season he was a plus-32. That wasn't lucky. It was skill.

He was plus-2 last night and with a dearth of healthy defensemen the Bruins wouldn't have won without him. Last night, the Garden crowd that had ridden him most of the season roared for Wideman -- when he tied the game, 1-1, at 15:17 of the first period and again when he was announced as the third star of the game.

The redemption of Dennis the Menace ranks up there with any other positive pucks omen for the Bruins over the last week.

Maybe spring has finally brought a reward for the Sisyphean season the Bruins and their fans have endured. Both deserve a little good fortune for a change.

They've earned it. 

Hope springs for Bruins

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 13, 2010 05:29 AM

After all the Bruins have been through this season -- the injuries, the inconsistency, the offensive impotence, the tepid response to L'affair Matt Cooke -- they still have the opportunity to advance the cause on Causeway street, to make us feel that they're headed in the direction of Stanley Cup contention, instead of a disappointing U-turn to mediocrity.

The Winter Classic doesn't have to be the high-point of hockey in the Hub in 2010. Hope can spring anew for the Bruins and their loyal fans.

All it takes to restore the faith and alter the perception of a season that started out with Stanley Cup aspirations and predictions (thanks, Sports Illustrated) -- but is nearly certain to end short of hoisting Lord Stanley's hallowed hardware for the first time since the Nixon presidency -- is a few lucky bounces.

The first is needed tonight in the NHL Draft Lottery, also known as the Taylor Hall-Tyler Seguin Sweepstakes. Thanks to the Phil Kessel trade with Toronto, the Bruins have the Maple Leafs' first-round pick and an 18.8 percent chance of pulling down the first overall selection for the first time since they drafted Joe Thornton No. 1 overall in 1997.

The Bruins desperately could have used Kessel's 30 goals this season -- a mark that no Bruin came close to reaching -- but the pain of Kessel's absence is greatly eased by the fact that Toronto finished the season with the second-worst record in the NHL and under the NHL's loser-rewarding lottery, that guarantees that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli will bring home no worse than the third pick.

This is a deep draft headlined by two bona fide franchise forwards in Hall, a high-scoring left wing, and Seguin, a slick center, that could boost a Bruins' attack that couldn't find the back of the net with a GPS (league-low 196 goals) at times this season. The home loss to the Florida Panthers on April 1 comes to mind.

Imagine adding Steven Stamkos to this Bruins squad? That's what could happen if they get the opportunity to draft Hall or Seguin. Even if they drop to No. 3, Chiarelli could make like Dealin' Danny Ainge and dangle the draft pick for some proven talent and a franchise facelift.

No one will remember how the Bruins finished or where they finished if they end up with a franchise player.

However, winning a round of the playoffs would certainly go a long way toward making us Spoked Believers for 2011. And the sixth-seeded Bruins got the best possible first-round matchup by drawing the Buffalo Sabres.

The Bruins have a margin of error that is thinner than Kate Moss, which means if they're going to win a playoffs series for the second time since 1999, goalie Tuukka Rask is going to have to be a Black and Gold barricade.

Luckily for the Bruins, that's pretty much what he was this season against the Sabres, going 4-1 with a 1.43 goals-against average and a .954 save percentage.

The Bruins went 4-2 against Buffalo this season and it was Tuukka Time in each of the wins.

That's the good news.

The bad news is that Buffalo was ninth in the NHL in goals scored, and if you watched one moment of Olympic ice hockey you know that Sabres goalie Ryan Miller is the best in the world right now.

Plus, in two of the games that the Bruins beat the Sabres, it wasn't Miller time; Patrick Lalime and rookie Jhonas Enroth got the call in between the pipes. Like us, both of those goalies will be spectators for this series.

In the four games Miller did play against Claude Julien's club, he was 2-0-2 with a 1.71 GAA and .947 save percentage. One of Miller's losses was in a shootout and the other was in overtime on a tip-in by Patrice Bergeron. The Vezina Trophy candidate never allowed more than two goals in a game against the Bruins this season.

But that doesn't make him all that different from a lot of goalies. This figures to be a low-scoring series, and with a few breaks, the Bruins can beat Miller and the Sabres.

Both games the Bruins lost to the Sabres were by a goal, and while Buffalo does have a balanced offensive attack no one is going to confuse the Sabres with the Penguins or Capitals.

If this Bruins team with more grit and spirit than skill and skating and without its best player (Marc Savard) wins a round of the playoffs, then they deserve a round of applause.

If they don't, then it's okay. As long as they don't bungle the draft.

If they lose both the playoff series and the opportunity to jump-start the franchise via Toronto's draft pick ... it's called Bruins.

Ten for the Weekend

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff April 2, 2010 02:01 PM
It's hard sometimes to just limit the discussion to one timely topic, especially when your sports attention span is short and your mind is flipping through thoughts, opinions and postulations like an iPod Touch stuck on shuffle. Why only listen to Drake, when you can throw a little Carolina Liar into the mix?

So, with that in mind and a bountiful sports weekend on tap, here are Ten for the Weekend (that sounds like a cool name for a band). Unlike when you listen to your iPod, feedback is a good thing here, so feel free to chime in with comments.

1. NCAA men's tournament expansion -- Hate the idea of the men's NCAA tournament expanding to 96 teams. The purpose of the tournament is to crown a champion, not deliver television content. There is virtually no chance that any team on the wrong side of the 65-team bubble was robbed of an NCAA title. With the tournament's TV contract having an opt-out clause, this is a straight cash grab by the NCAA.  It's also completely hypocritical to dismiss the idea of a football Final Four with a "plus-one" because it would increase missed class time and then say expanding the tournament and adding an extra level of games won't result in a significant increase in missed class time. The NCAA has run infomercials during the tournament with the slogan, "We put our money where our mission is." Let's not be naive, the mission is to make money.  

2. Cavalier attitude -- Anybody else think the Celtics need to beat the Cleveland Cavaliers at TD Garden on Sunday to set themselves up for a playoff run? The Celtics haven't beaten a fellow Eastern Conference contender since Christmas Day in Orlando, and haven't beaten a legitimate title contender at home all season. There are some encouraging signs from the Green, mainly that Kevin Garnett looks more like Kevin Garnett, and Celtics coach Doc Rivers has done a great job of keeping the faith. However, his team needs to stop talking like champions and start playing like champions. They need the confidence boost and street cred from beating the LeBrons.

3. It's called Bruins -- Saturday's game in Toronto is mission critical for the Bruins. They need to win to keep pace in the playoff chase and to make sure the first-round pick they have from the Maple Leafs, currently second-to-last in the NHL with 71 points, provides them the best chance of winning the NHL Draft Lottery and landing Taylor Hall or Tyler Seguin. If the Bruins end up out of the top two in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft (wonder if there is an exit draft) the Phil Kessel trade could come up empty, like the Bruins offense. The Bruins have Toronto's 2011 first-rounder, but the Internet buzz is the 2011 class of NHL prospects could be one of the weakest in recent years.

4. Go BC -- Ruffled some Eagle feathers at The Heights with my last foray into Boston College basketball, but Al Skinner is no longer in place and the search is on for his replacement. The list of candidates that athletic director Gene DeFilippo has put together is intriguing with Steve Donahue of Cornell, Chris Mooney of Richmond and former BC assistants Bill Coen (Northeastern) and Ed Cooley (Fairfield). Another named should be added to the list, Dayton coach Brian Gregory, who led the Flyers to the NIT title last night. DeFilippo told WEEI he wants a coach like Michigan State's Tom Izzo. Gregory was associate head coach at Michigan State under Izzo and is regarded as a good recruiter and game manager.

5. Opening Night -- The Red Sox open their season and the entire major league baseball season against the Yankees at Fenway on Sunday night. Sure, the Sox and Yankees have opened the season before (2005 at Yankee Stadium), but it seems like a waste of the greatest rivalry in North American sports. Opening Day is always special and so are Sox-Yankees games. Why combine the two? Save some of the AL East's internecine struggle for later, when the baseball season has grown tedious with the Torontos and Baltimores.

6. Line 'em up  -- It's quite interesting that Terry Francona came out and said he'll bat J.D. Drew sixth behind David Ortiz in the Red Sox order to start the season. Francona is traditionally not a fan of grouping lefthanders together for matchup reasons, and the decision to bat Drew and his mighty .OPS behind Big Papi speaks to the uncertainty surrounding what the team can expect to get out of Adrian Beltre, he of one extra-base hit in 42 spring at-bats. But spring stats are bogus. Before the 2007 season, during which he set career-highs for runs driven in (120) and batting average (.324) and won the World Series MVP, Mike Lowell batted .170 in 53 spring ABs.

7. Women's equality -- If you haven't been watching the women's NCAA tournament you've missed some great basketball. It doesn't get much better than the buzzer-beating lay-up from Stanford's Jeanette Pohlen to send the Cardinal to the Final Four. The female Final Four, which tips off Sunday, has great story lines. Baylor, which has 6-foot-8-inch dunking machine Brittney Griner, takes on Connecticut, and Oklahoma, which boasts some famous kin on the court in Abi Olajuwon (daughter of Hakeem) and Carlee Roethlisberger (sister of Ben), faces 35-1 Stanford. But the whole tournament has an air of inevitability thanks to UConn, which has won 76 straight games, and won its tournament games by an average of 47 per game. The women's game needs more parity  to match men's March Madness.

8. Tiger Woods tell-all -- Things just keep getting worse for Tiger Woods as he gets caught in the intricate web of lies he spun to fuel his philandering lifestyle. His mistresses should just get together and do a TV tell-all "The Bachelor"-style and have Chris Harrison host. Monday's press conference at Augusta National is Woods's last chance to really set the record straight. He doesn't have to go into the salacious details, but he needs to stop with the cover-up because his former consorts are more than willing to reveal his dirty little secrets. Take the hit, Tiger and move on.

9. Coaching 'em up -- You often hear about a coach having to coach up his young players, but you wonder if Patriots coach Bill Belichick is doing a little bit of that with his staff. Belichick is going to have a greater role in the defense this season, which, now like the offense, doesn't have a coordinator. Locker room unrest, lack of a pass rush, and a banged-up Tom Brady were among the reasons the Patriots went 10-6 last season, but don't underestimate the role that callow coaches had in the team's tough season. Like the players, the coaches around Belichick must progress this year, especially quarterbacks coach Bill O'Brien and secondary coach Josh Boyer.  

10. Kelly green -- It's awfully hard to meet, talk with or watch Red Sox uber-prospect Casey Kelly and not come away impressed. The Sox want to tread carefully with Kelly, who won't turn 21 until Oct. 4, but you have to wonder if Junichi Tazawa's Tommy John surgery opens up the possibility that we could see Kelly in the big leagues this season. Even though the Sox rotation looks stacked now, if Tim Wakefield's back acts up or Daisuke Matsuzaka continues to be plagued by nagging injuries the internal options for the Sox are not overwhelming (Boof Bonser? Michael Bowden? Kason Gabbard?). We might see Kelly, who will begin the season at Double A Portland,  sooner than we or the Red Sox had hoped. 

In Bruins and Celtics, we can't trust

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 26, 2010 02:46 PM
If you are of a certain age and lived it or if you only glimpsed the tumultuous time period on the History Channel, you recall the counterculture cry from the 1960s -- don't trust anybody over 30. If you're a Boston sports fan in 2010, don't trust any team that plays its home games at TD Garden.

The only consistent element of the seasons for either the Bruins or the Celtics has been their inconsistency.

The Bruins and the Celtics have been tougher to figure out this season than the federal tax codes. Just when you're ready to write them off they respond and reel you back in. Just when you're ready to expect a return on your emotional investment in their ability to fulfill the expectations they engendered back in October they let you down.

Watching these teams play is like taking a Rorschach test every game. One gets a massive migraine trying to figure out the eventual form of the Garden denizens.

Anything goes in this Jekyll and Hyde hoops and hockey season.

Case in point: the Bruins' 5-3 home loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning last night. The Bruins had finally engendered some goodwill after incensing and alienating their fans base with cause celebre Matt Cooke by picking up a pair of pivotal playoff-positioning wins over the Rangers and Atlanta Thrashers. Then they catch a collective skate edge on home ice against Tampa Bay in a game in which they outshot the Lightning, 50-18, and forced us to remember why they're a maddening and middling team.

The Celtics, winners of five of six, are playing arguably their best basketball of the season right now -- tight defense, crisp ball movement and some actual rebounding -- but would anyone really be that shocked if they lost tonight to a Sacramento Kings team that is without its best player, Tyreke Evans? This is a team that lost to the lowly Nets at home and has had more dead spots in play this season than the parquet floor of the old Garden.

How can you know which version of the Bruins or Celtics will show up when they don't know which of their players will on any given night?

For the Bruins, you don't know if you're going to get David Krejci, circa 2009 and the Winter Olympics, or the Blank Czech that has skated through a good portion of this season. Ditto for Milan Lucic, who has lost some of his punch, both pugilistically and offensively after looking like Cam Neely Lite late last season.

It's not a coincidence that in the three highest-scoring games the Bruins have had this month -- a 5-1 win over the Flyers on the road, a 5-2 win over the Hurricanes on the road and a 4-0 thrashing of the Thrashers -- Krejci had a goal and an assist in each.

Krejci is a prime example of the Bruins' split-personality play. Playing away from the Garden, Krejci has been at home with 12 goals and 17 assists and is a plus-15. But playing at home he's looked lost like the rest of the Bruins, whose win over the Rangers last Sunday was their first in regulation on Garden ice this decade, with a 3-12, minus-12 next to his name. Same guy, two completely different players.

With Paul Pierce regaining his form the Celtics have once again looked like a formidable team, but you just don't know which version of Pierce or Kevin Garnett you're going to get on a night-to-night basis. One night KG goes for 10 points and three boards in a loss to the Jazz and looks like a ticket to nowhere. Two nights later, he drops 20 points and pulls down 10 boards against the Denver Nuggets, his first 20-10 game since December, and resembles the Big Ticket of old.

Pierce has been a consistent scorer his entire career, but the only thing consistent for him this season has been his attempts to overcome nagging injuries. With complete convalescence his consistency seems to be returning (he is averaging 24.4 points per game in his last five games), but excitement about Pierce and the Celtics could fade fast with San Antonio in town Sunday and Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City at the Garden Wednesday.

Plus, to paraphrase the counterculture catchphrase, don't trust a team that relies on three superstars over the age of 30, especially when two of those three, Garnett and Pierce, can't rely on their bodies to respond game in and game out.

It would be nice to have some semblance of reason, order or logic to the way our winter sports teams play, but that might be too much to ask this year.

These schizophrenic franchises will probably continue to drive us mad, as the emotional roller-coaster continues to corkscrew on Causeway Street. Break away from the Garden parties if you can for your own sanity, but chances are you can't.

Like a boyfriend or a girlfriend that keeps you hanging on, the Bruins and Celtics know exactly what to do to keep you interested, even if you know it's probably not going to work out well in the end.

For Bruins, it has to be payback time

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 18, 2010 08:26 AM

Call it retribution, call it revenge, call it retaliation, call it all of the above, but tonight it better be called Bruins.

The Bruins host the Pittsburgh Penguins at TD Garden tonight and Penguins wanton winger Matt Cooke, who leveled Bruins center Marc Savard with a blindside hit on March 7, knocking Savard out cold and most likely out for the season with a Grade 2 concussion, is pucks public enemy No. 1.






The Garden will resemble the Roman Coliseum as bloodthirsty Bruins fans crave revenge on Cooke, who skated by without a penalty or incredulously any type of suspension from the somnambulant NHL for his cheap shot on Savard.

The NHL did nothing to Cooke. The Bruins can't afford to do the same. This is the defining moment in the Bruins' season. They have to stand up for themselves. They have to stand and deliver. They have to stand for something, or the Black and Gold bandwagon will be abandoned.

This has been a disappointing season for the Bruins on many levels. A team that some outlets picked to play for the Stanley Cup is clinging to the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference with 13 games left to play, goal-starved and goalie waffling. The Bruins aren't going to win the Stanley Cup. They probably aren't going to win a playoff round, especially with Savard out. The one thing the Bruins can win this season, or more accurately win back, is the respect of their fed-up fan base.

Bruins players (hello, Michael Ryder) have been savaged on local sports talk radio for not immediately coming to Savard's defense on March 7, when Cooke leveled him in the third period. The team's explanation for inactivity is understandable, if not likable.

The Bruins were locked in a one-goal game in the third period during a season when points have been harder to come by than a parking space on Newbury Street, and the NHL's instigator rule would have put them at a disadvantage against the high-powered Penguins.

If the Bruins had rallied to win the game in Pittsburgh, maybe their lack of response wouldn't have been so glaring, but they lost, 2-1, and their act of discretion looked like apathy without any points to show for it, especially in a season where the team tried to evoke memories of the Big Bad Bruins with the slogan, "Big and Bad are Back."

Hard to say that when no one had Savard's back.

The Bruins, who enter tonight's game with a three-point lead over the New York Rangers for the final playoff slot in the East, need the points just as much now as they did then, but it's more important to prove a point -- that they're a team that won't be pushed around or victimized by the Matt Cookes of the world -- than it is to earn two points for the win.

Pride and principle aren't measured in the NHL standings, but they count.

Cooke must get his comeuppance tonight, or the Bruins must follow a hockey version of Hammurabi's Code and exact their revenge on Penguins star Sidney Crosby. No one is advocating or calling for cowardly drive-by hits like Cooke's or intentional attempts to injure on either Penguin, but hard-nosed "legal" hits on Crosby all game long, and an open invitation to Cooke to toss the gloves and show some guts for once.

Such a plan of attack by the Bruins could not only result in a black eye for Cooke, but for NHL disciplinary czar Colin Campbell and league commissioner Gary Bettman, especially if Crosby, the game's golden goose, is injured because the Bruins had to take matters into their own hands.

Let's not forget that Cooke shouldn't even be on the ice for this game. Campbell should have suspended him, just like he did Alex Ovechkin for a far less devious hit on the Blackhawks Brian Campbell last Sunday, a week after Cooke's hit on Savard.

Even Cooke's teammate, former Bruin Bill Guerin, came out and said he expected Cooke to face a suspension for the hit.

Now, the league is covering its public relations derrière with a diversionary tactic by trying to rubber-stamp the new rules the league's general mangers have recommended to prevent hits like Cooke's. The move is as transparent as the plexiglass that rings NHL rinks.

So, is the presence of Campbell at this game designed to intimidate the Bruins into either a tepid response for fear of suspension or no response at all?

But if you're a Bruin with an ounce of pride like defenseman Mark Stuart, who got in two fights in Philly the game after the Cooke incident, who do you want to let down -- your fans or Campbell?

You'll only have to answer to Campbell once. You'll have to answer to Bruins fans for the rest of your career if you back down. Seems easy to me.

The Penguins are certainly preparing as if the Bruins will respond. Pittsburgh enforcer Eric Godard, who hasn't played since Jan. 25 due to a groin injury, has been skating and practicing with his team this week and could return just in time to offer the Penguins some protection.

It might do both teams some good to get on with the vengeance and then vamoose. Since Cooke's cheap-shot hit on Savard, the Penguins have dropped three of four.

That's called karma.

But that's not enough.

It's time for the Bruins to practice what they PR preach -- a return to old-time hockey -- or a season that is already a let down will become embarrassing.

Cooke, NHL to blame for hit on Savard

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff March 9, 2010 01:09 PM
Hockey players like Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke are referred to as instigators or agitators. For them, the edge isn't just what is on the bottom of their skate, it's where they make their living. They skate not to the red line or the blue line, but to the border line. Players like Cooke are an accepted part of the NHL and that's part of the problem.

The euphemism for Cooke's style of play is "chippy," a term that conjures up play that is aggravating but largely innocuous. A player like Cooke is anything but the latter, as Bruins center Marc Savard learned. Cooke is dangerous, and his play goes unchecked because of some kind of primitive pucks code.

Cooke has a history of the kind of borderline blow that he leveled Savard with during the third period of the Bruins' 2-1 loss to the Penguins on Sunday, a shoulder-to-the head check of an off-balance and unsuspecting Savard that knocked him unconscious and rendered him the recipient of a Grade 2 concussion. (Patrice Bergeron's nearly career-ending concussion at the hands of then Flyer Randy Jones was Grade 3.)

The Penguins wanton left wing was suspended for two games earlier this season for a very similar hit on Artem Anisimov of the New York Rangers during a Nov. 28 game. Unlike on Sunday, Cooke received a penalty for the Anisimov hit -- he got two minutes for interference. Anisimov got a headache and his empty helmet got spun around like a top on the ice. Cooke was also suspended for two games last season for a hit on Carolina's Scott Walker.

The NHL has done a lot of things to try to clean up the game over the years. The old joke about going to see a fight and a hockey game breaking out hasn't applied for a long, long time. The league has had two referees to call penalties for more than a decade. Infractions like hooking, high-sticking, and interference are whistled with almost religious devotion to the rule book, yet Cooke can deliver a hit like his blow to Savard and literally just skate by?

Unacceptable, NHL.

In the short-term, NHL prince of punishment Colin Campbell has to put Cooke on ice for at least half of the Penguins remaining 16 games, for the totality of his actions as an NHLer. It might also serve to prevent another regrettable incident since the Bruins and Penguins play March 18 at the T.D. Garden.

Moving forward, the NHL needs to legislate plays like Cooke's out of the game.

The puck is black and the ice is white and the NHL rule book shouldn't have any shade of gray when it comes to dangerous hits to the head.

NHL general managers convened a three-day summit that began yesterday and on the agenda was head shots like Cooke's. The GMs can't pass any rule changes by themselves, but they should propose what the NFL did last year, which was make it illegal for a player to strike another "defenseless" player or hit him from the blindside with their head, shoulder or forearm in the head and neck area.

Make the penalty an automatic five-minute major, which is the NFL equivalent of a 15-yard personal foul penalty, and at least a two-game suspension. The actual length of the suspension would be at the discretion of Campbell.

Let's be clear. We're not talking about some guy skating at center ice with the puck on his stick and his head down and getting smoked head on. That's just part of hockey. We're talking about hits outside of a player's possible field of view, the NHL equivalent of a peel-back block in the NFL.

That's the long-term way to deal with cretins like Cooke, but there also needs to be a change in culture.

There is a Bruins fan blog that chronicles Cooke's questionable ice capades. We can't link to it because it uses inappropriate language to describe Cooke, but the YouTube images are telling. Cooke is not an accidental tourist to the territory of borderline play.

There is footage of Cooke leg-whipping Carolina's Erik Cole during last year's Eastern Conference Finals. There is Cooke, then a member of the Vancouver Canucks, driving Mathieu Roy into the boards from behind with an elbow during a 2008 game. There is Cooke kicking Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood in the face mask with his skate.

There was also a claim that Cooke bit a Flyers' player earlier this year.

At best, Cooke is a repeat offender of reckless and careless play, at worst he is a recidivist cheap-shot artist. Either way, he needs to be sent a message by taking a seat.

A sad side note to Cooke's conduct is that he above most players should know better. Twice before he has borne witness to serious head injuries.

On Feb. 21, 2000, Cooke watched as then Bruins player Marty McSorley swung his stick and struck then-Canuck Donald Brashear in the back of the head. Brashear suffered a concussion and memory lapses. Cooke, then a 21-year-old forward, scored the go-ahead goal in that game, a 5-2, Bruins loss.

Cooke was present for hockey infamy again four years later. On March 6, 2004, Cooke saw Canucks teammate Todd Bertuzzi's vicious sucker-punch attack of Avalanche agitator and former Harvard hockey player Steven Moore. Bertuzzi hit Moore in the back of the head and then drove him face first into the ice. Moore suffered three broken vertebrae in his neck and a concussion and has not played since.

Earlier in that game, Cooke fought Moore, part of attempted retribution for...a hit to the head Moore had put on Vancouver star Markus Naslund three weeks earlier.

If Cooke won't be compelled to change his ways then the NHL has to change its.

Bruins' lack of offense proves unbearable

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 3, 2010 02:28 AM
(Note: This column originally ran on Tuesday, Feb.2 and has been adapted and updated to reflect the Bruins' 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals on Tuesday night.)

The Bruins credo for this year was "Big and Bad are Back." Well, the marketing minds on Causeway Street were 50 percent right. The Bruins are bad. So much for the Year of the Bear. More like the unbearable year.
 
With their 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals last night at TD Garden, a place where they're still looking for their first win in 2010, the Bruins (0-6-2 in their last eight) tied the 1955-56 edition for the second-longest losing streak in franchise history. We're talking about a team that first laced 'em up when Quiet Cal Coolidge was in the White House. The club-record for futility, 11 straight, was set in the team's inaugural season of 1924-25. 

Yet to listen to the Black and Gold apologists and optimists around here the Bruins are a player away from being a Stanley Cup contender. Ilya Kovalchuk is the cure-all. The Bruins have just slipped on a rough patch of ice during the season and they can still get up and make a run to the Stanley Cup Finals like the Pittsburgh Penguins did last year.

Nothing but Nyet there.

The reality is the Spooked B's have little shot at Lord Stanley's cherished chalice. What other conclusion can you arrive at after watching them rappel down the Eastern Conference standings during a 1-9-2 stretch and not score a win sans shootout in 28 days? They'll try again tomorrow against Les Canadiens.

The problem for the Bruins is not a lack of grit or heart or effort. It's not solely injuries. No, like the 2004 Red Sox, pre-Nomar trade, the Bruins have a fatal flaw. For the '04 Sox it was defense for these Bruins it's offense with a big, fat capital O.

The last time the Bruins won a Stanley Cup, 1972, they led the NHL in goals scored (330), had the league's leading goal scorer (Phil Esposito with 66) and the top two point-producers (Espo and some guy named Orr). Those were the Big, Bad Bruins because they hit you where it hurt the most -- the back of the net.

You can backcheck, netural-zone trap and play the body all you want if you're Bruins bench boss Claude Julien, but if you don't have players that can place that little piece of vulcanized rubber into the goal it's all for naught.

Offensive ineptitude . . . it's called Bruins. They rank last in the NHL in goals with 125. During their eight-game skid they've scored 12 goals total. You have a better chance of driving home in the Garden Zamboni than you do of seeing the Bruins win if they trail going into the third period. The Bruins are 2-17-3 when trailing after the second intermission.

Offense is the new black in the NHL, and I'm not sure that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli got the memo. The Bruins keep talking about how Milan Lucic is exactly the type of player they want. Maybe, that's the problem. As much as "Looch" is beloved here for his rugged and relentless style, he is being paid a lot of money for a winger who has never scored 20 goals in a season. Lucic, who scored 17 goals last season and has 3 goals and 5 assists this season, was signed to a three-year, $12.25 million extension in October.

In the 12 games since he's come back from a high ankle sprain, Lucic has just one goal and three points. He hasn't had a multi-point game yet this season, while missing 32 games to injuries. Everybody compares the kid to Cam Neely, but there is no evidence he will ever score enough to be a true top-line winger.

The Bruins other big off-season re-signing was center David Krejci, who has regressed after a breakout 2008-09. The crafty Krejci, inked to a three year, $11.25 million deal, has 10 goals and 18 assists in 50 games.

Krejci had the Bruins only goal against the Capitals, but missed a first period penalty shot that could have put the Bruins up 2-1, sending the puck so far right of the net on his penalty shot it could have hit Rush Limbaugh.

Krejci is supposed to be one of the Bruins' most skilled players.

The easy out to explain the Bruins' offensive impotence is to point to injuries to No. 1 liners Lucic and Marc Savard. Well, with Lucic in the lineup the Bruins still have a losing record (8-12-2). They're over .500 with Savard, but it's not as good as you would expect (15-12-4).

Savard is one of the best setup men in the league, but his talents are wasted with Phil Kessel, who scored as many goals as the Bruins last night, and his 36 goals skating north of the border. It's pretty telling that when Savard returned from his partial MCL tear that one of his partners on the first line was well-traveled winger Miroslav Satan, who was out of the NHL until the Bruins hung out the offense wanted sign in January.

If you want to see how far the Bruins are away from contending for the Cup then all you had to do was watch Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, winners of 11 straight, turn it on in the third period and leave the Bruins in their wake.

The Eastern Conference-leading Caps are the polar opposite of the Bruins, as they lead the NHL in goals with 214. Along, with the Penguins, they're the poster children for the New NHL, skill and skating.

The Bruins are bereft of both. Patrice Bergeron is the Bruins' leading point producer with 33 points. That would place him eighth on the Capitals in points behind with former Bruin Mike Knuble, who netted Washington's first goal last night. The Caps have eight players with 30-plus points, led by Ovechkin (36 goals, 41 assists).

Chiarelli built this flawed team on a flawed belief -- that it had enough offense without Kessel -- and now he has to fix it. But there is no quick fix for this season. Don't give up valuable assets for instant offense from an aging sniper like Carolina's Ray Whitney. It's better to sit tight, clutch Toronto's draft picks, and retool for the 2010-11 campaign.

Meanwhile, the Bruins' play will continue to be offensive.

Bruins play of late simply offensive

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff February 2, 2010 02:08 PM
The Bruins credo for this year was "Big and Bad are Back." Well, the marketing minds on Causeway Street were 50 percent right. The Bruins are bad. So much for the Year of the Bear. More like the unbearable year.
 
With a loss tonight to the Washington Capitals at TD Garden, a place where they're still looking for their first win in 2010, the Bruins (0-5-2 in their last seven) would tie the 1955-56 edition for the second-longest losing streak in franchise history. We're talking about a team that first laced 'em up when Quiet Cal Coolidge was in the White House. The club-record for futility, 11 straight, was set in the team's inaugural season of 1924-25. 

Yet to listen to the Black and Gold apologists and optimists around here the Bruins are a player away from being a Stanley Cup contender. Ilya Kovalchuk is the cure-all. The Bruins have just slipped on a rough patch of ice during the season and they can still get up and make a run to the Stanley Cup Finals like the Pittsburgh Penguins did last year.

Nothing but Nyet there.

The reality is the Spooked B's have little shot at Lord Stanley's cherished chalice. What other conclusion can you arrive at after watching them rappel down the Eastern Conference standings during a 1-8-2 stretch and not score a win sans shootout in 28 days?

The problem for the Bruins is not a lack of grit or heart or effort. It's not solely injuries, although 119 man-games lost and rising, thanks to Mark Stuart's busted pinkie, is enough to make any coach or general manager reach for the Alka-Seltzer. No, like the 2004 Red Sox, pre-Nomar trade, the Bruins have a fatal flaw. They can't score.

The last time the Bruins won a Stanley Cup, 1972, they led the NHL in goals scored (330), had the league's leading goal scorer (Phil Esposito with 66) and the top two point-producers (Espo and some guy named Orr). Those were the Big, Bad Bruins because they hit you where it hurt the most -- the back of the net.

You can backcheck, netural-zone trap and play the body all you want if you're Bruins bench boss Claude Julien, but if you don't have players that can place that little piece of vulcanized rubber into the goal it's all for naught.

Offensive ineptitude . . . it's called Bruins. They rank last in the NHL in goals with 124, 12 fewer than the next best (or worst) team, the Tampa Bay Lightning. During their seven-game skid they've scored 11 goals total. You have a better chance of driving home in the Garden Zamboni than you do of seeing the Bruins win if they trail going into the third period. The Bruins are 2-17-3 when trailing after the second intermission.

Offense is the new black in the NHL, and I'm not sure that Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli got the memo. The Bruins keep talking about how Milan Lucic is exactly the type of player they want. Maybe, that's the problem. As much as "Looch" is beloved here for his rugged and relentless style, he is being paid a lot of money for a winger who has never scored 20 goals in a season. Lucic, who scored 17 goals last season and has 3 goals and 5 assists this season, was signed to a three-year, $12.25 million extension in October.

In the 11 games since he's come back from a high ankle sprain, Lucic has just one goal and three points. He hasn't had a multi-point game yet this season, while missing 32 games to injuries. Everybody compares the kid to Cam Neely, but there is no evidence he will ever score enough to be a true top-line winger.

The Bruins other big off-season re-signing was center David Krejci, who has regressed after a breakout 2008-09. The crafty Krejci, inked to a three year, $11.25 million deal, has 9 goals and 18 assists in 50 games.

The easy out to explain the Bruins' offensive impotence is to point to injuries to No. 1 liners Lucic and Savard. Well, with Lucic in the lineup the Bruins still have a losing record (8-11-2). They're over .500 with Savard, but it's not as good as you would expect (15-11-4).

Savard is one of the best setup men in the league, but his talents are wasted with Phil Kessel and his 36 goals skating north of the border. It's pretty telling that when Savard returned from his partial MCL tear that one of his partners on the first line was well-traveled winger Miroslav Satan, who was out of the NHL until the Bruins hung out the offense wanted sign in January.

If you want to see how far the Bruins are away from contending for the Cup then watch Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals, winners of 10 straight, whip up and down the ice tonight at the Garden like an over-caffeinated cab driver speeding through the Tip O'Neill Tunnel.

The Eastern Conference-leading Caps come to town with the NHL's top power play unit and a glut of goals, an NHL-best 210. Along, with the Penguins, they're the poster children for the New NHL, skill and skating.

The Bruins are bereft of both. Patrice Bergeron is the Bruins' leading point producer with 33 points. That would place him seventh on the Capitals in points, tied with former Bruin Mike Knuble. The Caps have eight players with 30-plus points, led by Ovechkin (35 goals, 41 assists).

Chiarelli built this flawed team on a flawed belief -- that it had enough offense without Kessel -- and now he has to fix it. But there is no quick fix for this season. Don't give up valuable assets for instant offense from an aging sniper like Carolina's Ray Whitney. It's better to sit tight, clutch Toronto's draft picks, and retool for the 2010-11 campaign.

Meanwhile, the Bruins' play will continue to be offensive.

Boston sports the Hub of Hurt

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff January 14, 2010 01:32 PM
Ouch.

It's painful to be a Boston athlete -- or sports fan -- these days. Maybe, there is something in the (dirty) water, but it seems like every time you peruse a story about one of the local professional sports outfits, it reads like the waiting list in the emergency room at Mass General.

Welcome to the Hub of Hurt, where the disabled list is only a day away.

We know that Boston has some of the finest medical facilities in the country, but that doesn't mean our local pro athletes have to use them. The NFL is planning to build a stadium to lure a franchise to Los Angeles in a place called the City of Industry, Boston has become the City of Injury. The injury bug has bitten the Hub like one of those vampires from the vapid "Twilight" series.

Let's assess the carnage.

The Celtics are at the point where they're going to have to start scouting local YMCAs to fill out their bench for tonight's game against the Chicago Bulls. Kevin Garnett has missed seven games with a hyperextended right knee and aptly named coach Doc Rivers said last night that the earliest Garnett could return is Wednesday against the Pistons. Rasheed Wallace was doing a bang-up job filling in for Garnett until he got banged up (sore foot). The Celtics ruled him out for tonight's game. Swingman Marquis Daniels had surgery Dec. 9 to repair a torn ligament in his left thumb and won't be back until after the All-Star break,

Let's not forget the mysterious knee infection that rendered Paul Pierce idle for two weeks. By the way, Pierce bruised his knee last night against the Nets. It was an omen for this Celtics season when forward Glen Davis broke his thumb in a fight with a friend on the eve of the season opener.
 
Maybe the Garden needs a triage set up because the Bruins have it just as bad, if not worse, than their arena mates. The Black and Gold are the Black and Blue. The Bruins have been playing shorthanded all year and what's left of the team is skating on the Left Coast.

The B's are without top center Marc Savard (sprained medial collateral ligament in his right knee), leading scorer Patrice Bergeron (broken thumb) and defensemen Andrew Ference (torn groin) and Mark Stuart (broken sternum). All you need to know about the current state of the Bruins is that Milan Lucic is one of their healthy players.

The Patriots have plenty of time to heal up after being knocked out of the playoffs by the Ravens last Sunday. They'll need it. Quarterback Tom Brady had as many injuries (ribs, broken right ring finger, shoulder) as he did play-calling collaborators (Bill O'Brien, Bill Belichick, Nick Caserio). That terrible turf at Houston's Reliant Stadium robbed the Patriots of Wes Welker, who suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in the regular-season finale, and won't be ready for the start of the 2010 season.

Even the Red Sox, who haven't played a game since last October, have felt the sting of injuries in recent months. The Texas Rangers rescinded a trade for Mike Lowell after determining that Lowell's thumb injury was more serious than anyone realized. Lowell had surgery on the thumb -- the hands-down winner of the most damaged digit award --  to repair a torn ligament Dec. 30. Last week, pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka revealed he hid from the Sox that he injured his leg while training for the World Baseball Classic. So, technically that's a new injury.

Heck, even owners are not immune. Patriots owner Robert Kraft was spotted after New England's loss to the Ravens on crutches. Per Patriots policy, his injury is undisclosed, of course.

The way things are going around here I think I'm going to get carpal tunnel syndrome writing this sentence. It's a good thing that President Obama is overhauling health care using the Massachusetts universal model.

Injuries are the one great variable that can undermine the best-laid plans of any sports team. You can't see them coming, and you can't control them. The Patriots learned that the hard way in 2008, when Brady was lost for the season just 15 offensive snaps in with a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee.

Looking back the turning point for the 1980s Celtics may have been Kevin McHale playing on a broken foot for the last three months of the 1986-87 season. He was never quite the same player and the Celtics never returned to the NBA Finals with the original Big Three.

The Red Sox might not have had to wait 86 years to break the Curse if it weren't for Vern Ruhle. Jim Rice missed the 1975 postseason after the Tigers' Ruhle plunked him with a pitch during the last week of the regular season, breaking his wrist.

Do you think the Bruins would still be working on a 37-year Stanley Cup drought if it weren't for Cam Neely's ossified hip? Probably not.

The team most in danger of having its season undermined by injuries is the Celtics. Unlike the Bruins or Patriots, they're a legitimate championship contender if healthy, but that is a big if. The Green already lost one opportunity to win Banner 18, after Garnett's knee relegated him to the role of spectator for the 2009 playoffs.

Rivers was asked what he'd like to see the team do at the trade deadline to improve. He reminded the media he hasn't seen his team yet.

“I love our team. I don’t think we’ve had our team intact all season, our top eight guys," said Rivers. "So I’m looking forward to actually seeing that group. I think we will, and it’s going to happen really soon and I’m really looking forward to that."

Hopefully, Rivers is right and the Celtics and their Boston pro sports brethren prove to be quick healers or it's going to hurt to be a Boston sports fan for a while.

2010 could be the Year of the Bear

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 31, 2009 11:51 AM
The Patriots are preparing for a possible Super Bowl run, the Red Sox just lost their leading home-run hitter from last season, the Celtics just concluded a disastrous road trip that saw the Big Three reduced to the healthy one (Ray Allen), and the biggest buzz on the Boston sports scene is being generated by ... the Bruins.

With apologies to the inimitable Kevin Paul Dupont, Boston is really a Hub of Hockey with the New Year's Day (weather permitting) staging/skating of the Winter Classic -- or as Bruins coach Claude Julien facetiously referred to it last night "the famous outdoor game"  -- at Fenway Park, where the infield is now an ice sheet.

It seems like a good omen that the Bruins are in line to be the first of the major Boston sports teams to play in the new decade. This decade they were the hockey have-nots of the aughts, Boston sports' forgotten fourth line rolled out behind the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics. That's what happens when you win a single playoff series while your sports brethren combine for six championships.

Granted, the Celtics didn't exactly cover themselves in green glory before the arrival of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, but they did advance to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2002.

The Bruins, who have the current longest championship drought in Boston pro sports, last winning the Stanley Cup in 1972, start 2010 front and center at Fenway, and they have their Winter Classic date with the Philadelphia Flyers to thank. The NHL still deserves some ridicule for having its games on a remote cable outpost (Versus) that used to be known as the Outdoor Life Network, but it has breathed new life into the game by bringing it outside.

The Winter Classic, now in its third year, has been an Instant Classic. Having the Bruins face-off against the Flyers at Fenway has generated more curiosity from the casual sports fan than when the NHL All-Star game was at the Garden (then FleetCenter) in 1996.

That's what this game is all about for the NHL and the Bruins, capturing the casual fan and hanging on to them after the Fenway rink and its publicity have melted away.

Puck purists love the idea of the Winter Classic because it returns the game to its rustic roots. It's pond hockey, NHL-style. But those fans would watch or attend the game whether it was being played at Fenway, the Garden or the Frog Pond at Boston Common.

The true appeal of the Winter Classic and the hubbub it generates for the Bruins is that fans who normally wouldn't watch or attend an NHL hockey game or abandoned the sport at some point are fascinated by the unique nature of the event. Last year's, Winter Classic at Wrigley Field between the Blackhawks and Red Wings drew a 2.5 rating on NBC, the highest for an NHL regular-season game in 13 years.

There will be people tuning into this game or attending it whose familiarity with a left winger starts with Nancy Pelosi and not Marco Sturm. The players understand that.

"It's something that showcases our game, not just because of the venue or the event, but more so because of the coverage and the publicity that we get," said Bruins right wing Blake Wheeler, who hails from the American hockey hotbed of Minnesota, where every lake, pond or stream is a hockey rink in waiting.

"It's great for our game to be front and center for a couple of hours and showcase the skill and talent that it takes to play our game. Hopefully, it's a really fun game to watch for the fans, so it really draws in the average viewer and really sways them from being a casual fan to a good fan of the game."

Left wing Steve Begin, who played in the Heritage Classic, an outdoor game between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens in 2003 that served as the precursor to the Winter Classic, said that he can feel the excitement in the city.

"Everybody gets excited about it, the media, the fans, everybody. I think everybody is more excited than us," said Begin, one of three Bruins, along with Michael Ryder (Heritage Classic) and Daniel Paille (inaugural Winter Classic) to play in an outdoor NHL game.

"That's been the talk around the city for the last month. It's all good about hockey. Everybody wants to come to that game, everybody wants to watch that game, so it's fun."

This game and the exposure it brings couldn't come at a better time for the Bruins, who have recovered from a slow start to get back on track. The Bruins are ready for their close-up.

The Winter Classic will be Boston's 40th game of the season and in between their .500 start in the first 20 games (8-8-4) and the Green Monster game they've gone 12-4-3. The spoked-B's currently sit five points behind Buffalo for first place in the Northeast Division.

The Bruins already looked like they were playing pond hockey with the effortless way they created scoring chances in a 4-0 thrashing of the Atlanta Thrashers last night.

Top center Marc Savard, who missed time with a broken foot, is rounding back into form, and Sturm has rediscovered his knack for the net with four goals in his last five games, giving him 13 on the season, one fewer than former teammate Phil Kessel, now with the Maple Leafs.

Center Patrice Bergeron, who was named to the Canadian Olympic hockey team yesterday, a feat akin to making the US men's Olympic basketball team, looks fully recovered from the aftermath of the devastating, career-threatening concussion he suffered at the hands of former Flyer Randy Jones two seasons ago.

Already blessed with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in goaltender Tim Thomas, Finnish phenom Tuukka Rask is leading the NHL in goals against at 1.85, after recording his second shutout of the season against the Thrashers.

Maybe, starting with the Winter Classic, 2010 will prove to be the year of the bear. 

Holiday Cheers

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff December 24, 2009 12:56 PM
'Tis the season for giving and tomorrow those of us who celebrate Christmas will unwrap a few gifts from under the tree, but why should our local sports teams be left out of the gift-giving? Whether they've been naughty or nice in our eyes, the teams that bring us joy (mostly) all year long deserve some presents to make the holiday season -- and their seasons -- a little more jolly.

Here are some last-minute gift ideas for each of the five major professional sports teams in town. Yes, Virginia, there is a professional soccer club in town. There is no more appropriate place to start when handing out Christmas gifts than with a team that has red stockings as its emblem.

The Red Sox have already done their holiday shopping, picking up shortstop Marco Scutaro, outfielder Mike Cameron and this year's big-ticket item, pitcher John Lackey. All the focus on improved defense and a stellar rotation is great, but you know deep down on Yawkey Way they'd like to find a big-time, big-name slugger. Let's give the Sox the one gift they really want (well, other than Hanley Ramirez back) --  a trade for Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.

Last year, the Sox missed out on the "it" toy of the off-season, Mark Teixeira. Gonzalez is in the prime of his career at age 27, wants to play for the Sox, has a swing tailor-made for Fenway and has an affordable contract the next two seasons ($4.5 million this season with a club option for $5.5 million in 2011). The last four seasons he has averaged 33 home runs and 100 RBI playing in Petco Park, which it so unfriendly to hitters it might as well be Yosemite National Park. During that same time Teixeira has averaged 34 home runs and 114 RBI.

The last three seasons, Petco Park has finished last or next to last in the majors in ballpark home run factor. During that time Gonzalez has hit .303 with 70 home runs on the road and .253 with 32 home runs on the road. His away slugging percentage is .595, while his home one is .434.

Stocking stuffer: How about the return of Jason Bay? That would relieve some of the pain of having to give up Jacoby Ellsbury to get Gonzalez.

Green and red are the Christmas colors. We've covered the Red Sox, so let's go to the Green.

The Celtics will be playing a Christmas Day game tomorrow against the Orlando Magic. The one gift they'd like is a healthy roster. The startling news yesterday that captain Paul Pierce could miss two weeks after having a procedure to treat a knee infection -- we all learned from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady how tricky knee infections can be -- added to the C's injury woes. Kevin Garnett, who appears to have recovered from the right knee injury that truncated his 2009 season, missed Tuesday night's game against Indiana with a right thigh bruise.

 Boston is already without a pair of key reserves, Glen Davis, who broke his right thumb in an altercation with a friend on the eve of the season-opener, and forward/guard Marquis Daniels, who is out until the All-Star break after having surgery to repair a ligament in his left thumb.

The Celtics have an Eastern Conference-best 22-5 record, and with Rasheed Wallace and a healthy Daniels, their bench is arguably better than the one they have in 2008, when they won their 17th NBA title with James Posey, P.J. Brown and Eddie House, who is still in-house, coming off the pine. The only thing that could derail this team, which relies on a trio of superstars who are all 32 or older, is injuries. That was the case last season with Garnett. Remember that Celtics team had a 19-game winning streak at one point and was 44-11 before Garnett went down.

Stocking stuffer: A jump shot for Rajon Rondo. That's all that's preventing Rondo from reaching Steve Nash, Chris Paul, Deron Williams territory.

The Patriots are in position to give themselves a belated Christmas gift on Sunday -- an AFC East title -- with a win over the Jacksonville Jaguars at Gillette Stadium. It hasn't always been a merry season for the Patriots, but unwrapping the division title would certainly bring some mirth to the House of Hoodie. But what this team could use is a third wide receiver.

Brady has completed 320 passes this year and 174, or 54.4 percent of them, have gone to either Moss or Welker. But that's not the problem. In 2007, Brady completed 52.8 percent of his passes to the dynamic duo. The third receiver spot has been a revolving door with Joey Galloway, Julian Edelman (really more of a slot receiver than a split end opposite Moss), Isaiah Stanback, and now Sam Aiken.

Stocking stuffer: The six-sack performance against Buffalo was great, but the Patriots still could use an elite pass rusher. Julius Peppers, anyone?

This is the season of light, but the Bruins have a hard time lighting the lamp this season. Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli has admitted he thought the team would score more and Congress has had an easier time hashing out health care reform than Claude Julien has had crafting line combinations.

After their six-goal outburst last night the Bruins are 24th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.53. Before the Thrashers game they were last in the NHL in goals scored with 85. Only Carolina and St. Louis have scored fewer. The Bruins don't have a player among the top 60 in the NHL in goals. Last season the Bruins were second in the NHL in goals per game (3.29), scoring 270. Injuries have sapped some of the juice out of the offense, as top center Marc Savard and left wing Milan Lucic have missed a combined 41 games. Before the season is over, the Bruins need a goal scorer. Atlanta scoring machine Ilya Kovalchuck would look good in Black and Gold, but his price tag is too high.

Stocking stuffer: One more puck-moving defenseman. Still wish the Bruins had gotten Tomas Kaberle in the Phil Kessel deal.

The Revolution are a major pro sports team in this town, even if you don't consider there to be anything Major League about Major League Soccer. What the Revolution need is a soccer-specific stadium, so they don't have to play in front of three-quarters empty Gillette Stadium, which has all the soccer ambiance of the Ted Williams Tunnel. MLS will have nine teams out of 16 with soccer-specific stadia in 2010. The league is adding the expansion Philadelphia Union.

Stocking stuffer: How about a few more people paying attention to the Revs?

Black and same old

Posted by Christopher L. Gasper, Globe Staff November 6, 2009 11:12 AM
Just when you thought it was safe to get excited about the Bruins again ...

The Bruins are entrenched as the No. 4 team in town and their 6-7-2 start after a stirring 116-point season and trip to the Eastern Conference semifinals last year isn't helping their little brother status.

Boston sports fans support winners above all else, but deep-down this is still a hockey town at heart.

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People want to root for the Bruins, they want them to be good, to be Stanley Cup contenders -- desperately. So, the Bruins, who were in danger of being shut out for the third straight game for the first time since 1929 before Patrice Bergeron snapped a 192-minute, six-second scoreless drought with 51.7 seconds left, allowing the B's to salvage a point in a 2-1 shootout loss to the arch-rival Montreal Canadiens, are not only squandering scoring chances this season, they're squandering a chance to re-establish their relevance on the Boston sports scene.

Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito and Cam Neely aren't walking through that door, but even with top pivot Marc Savard (broken foot) and lunchpail left wing Milan Lucic (broken right index finger) out the Bruins have to find a way to generate more goals and more excitement.

The only thing more damaging than being middling is being boring.

This was supposed to be the season that the Bruins lifted themselves squarely back into the discussion with the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics. They were coming off a season in which they led the Eastern Conference in points and won a playoff series for the first time since 1999, sweeping Les Canadiens last spring before losing in seven games to the Carolina Hurricanes in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

It was something to build on and hope that Boston could be the Hub of Hockey again.

Instead, 15 games into 2009-10 it looks like the same old Black and Gold, except their scoring touch has gone ice cold. They have the requisite good coaching, grit and goaltending to make the playoffs, but they don't have the starpower or scoring touch to lift Lord Stanley's cherished silver chalice, something they haven't done since 1972, the longest championship drought of any of the four traditional major sports teams in town.

The boys in the spoked-B sweaters seem to get spooked every time they're around the net. Coach Claude Julien admitted his guys are griping their sticks a little too tight.

The last time the Bruins faced Montreal netminder Carey Price before last night he was being hooted out of his own building. Against Boston, he looked like Ken Dryden.

The Bruins, who were second only to the Detroit Red Wings in goals per game last season at 3.29 and had seven players who scored 20 or more goals, including Mark Recchi, acquired in a March trade, rank 27th in the NHL at 2.13 goals per game. Thanks to reigning Vezina Trophy winner Tim Thomas's play in net, Boston is eighth in goals allowed at 2.47.

They are dead last on the power play, which is 0 for its last 20.

There is not a single Bruin among the top 100 in the NHL in scoring. The reborn Bergeron is the team leader in goals (5) and points (9).

The baffling part is it's not like the Bruins are a drastically different team from last season. General manager Peter Chiarelli decided that 36-goal scorer Phil Kessel was too pricey to keep and shipped him to the Maple Leafs in September. He also dealt 22-goal scorer Chuck Kobasew -- and his $2.23 million salary -- to the Minnesota Wild on Oct. 18 in an attempt to shake up his team.

Having Kessel would certainly help, but as Chiarelli pointed out to colleague Kevin Paul Dupont the Bruins wouldn't have been able to insert Kessel, who made his Leafs debut on Tuesday, into the lineup until now because of the surgery he underwent back in the spring for a torn labrum and rotator cuff.

In retrospect, last season may have been the worst thing that ever happened to the young Bruins. It gave them a false sense of self.

"That confidence and stuff you have to work hard and gain it this year," said defenseman Dennis Wideman. "You can't just think about last year and say, 'I had a great year last year, and I'm just good.' That might have been the problem at the start of the year, the first couple of games to start the season, our first couple of games thinking [like that] that could have been what got the ball rolling the way it is -- thinking about last year's success. But you have to start every year brand new."

In fairness, just about everything that could go wrong has gone wrong for the Bruins.

The list of calamities increased yesterday with the news that center David Krejci, who was off to a slow start after being rewarded with a three-year, $11.25 million extension, ccontracted the H1N1 flu virus. The player called up to replace him, Mikko Lehtonen, committed a turnover in his own end that led to Montreal's goal, which of course was scored by former Bruin Glen Metropolit.

Figures.

Savard's was knocked out when he took a shot off his foot in practice. Lucic signed a three-year, $12.25 million extension on Oct. 6 and then broke his right index finger 10 days later against Dallas. Things aren't going to get any easier. The Bruins host Buffalo, which has allowed the fewest goals in the NHL this season (24) tomorrow and then face-off against the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins at TD Garden on Tuesday.

Suddenly, there are plenty of available seats on the Bruins bandwagon, but the players aren't panicking.

"We definitely know we have a team here that can contend," said right wing Michael Ryder, who scored 27 goals a year ago. "We have a couple of injuries right now, but that's nothing to look at it. It's just the little things here and there. We're not scoring goals right now. We're not giving up very many goals, that's a good thing. We're still good defensively. It's just a matter of trying to put the puck in the net."

Both the savvy Savard and Lucic can help them do that, but they aren't likely to return before the end of the month. So, the Bruins will have to turn things around with what they have. The question is will anybody outside of the die-hard fans be paying attention if and when they do?

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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