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Fluto Shinzawa | Hockey notes

Retrievers must be dogged

Defensemen work on underappreciated skill

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / March 23, 2008

When Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli evaluates the skill set of Matt Lashoff, he sees a 21-year-old prospect who has some of the skating, vision, and stickhandling required of successful, puck-moving NHL defensemen.

What Lashoff has yet to master, however, is a skill that can take defensemen years to develop: the underappreciated art of puck retrieval.

Lashoff, brought up to Boston on emergency recall when Zdeno Chara went down with an upper-body injury, was sent back to Providence Thursday. Lashoff is hoping that his next promotion to Boston becomes permanent, and he acknowledges that focusing on puck retrieval might help him stay.

"It's probably something that's ignored," Chiarelli said of the puck-fetching instruction defensemen receive at lower levels. "They incorporate it into their drills. But it's not something that's stressed."

Therefore, it's not surprising that only a handful of NHLers are considered elite at turning, sprinting into their zone, retrieving pucks, and starting the breakout.

Anaheim's Scott Niedermayer makes it look seamless. Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom has few peers. San Jose's Brian Campbell is considered a one-man breakout whose departure from Buffalo has left the Sabres struggling to move pucks crisply from defense to offense. Washington's Mike Green is an up-and-coming puck mover who could be one of the league's brightest stars if he continues to develop.

On the Bruins' roster, Chara has proven to be the most effective retriever this season, although Andrew Ference isn't far behind and Dennis Wideman has shown improvement.

"It's hard to do," said Chiarelli. "It's hard to go back there at full speed and gather the puck, especially when it's on the boards or sitting on the wall, without breaking a stride. Then you have to turn up the ice and make a play."

As challenging as the skill may be, it's one Boston defensemen have to manage if the Bruins want to succeed during the stretch run. Because of the way the Bruins gum up the neutral zone, opposing clubs looking for operating room often chip pucks past the traffic. That forces the Boston blue liners to turn and go back for it. If they hesitate or make the wrong play, a forechecker can cause turnovers and create scoring chances.

Here are some of the steps a defenseman going back for a puck must take: Make a quick turn and sprint for the puck. Take a peek over the shoulder to read the forecheck and determine where your partner has set up. Listen to the goalie, who can see the forechecker coming and yell out instructions ("hard" and "reverse" are two of the buzzwords a netminder might shout). Settle the puck, which might still be rolling. Keep the puck on the stick blade while fending off a check by turning away from the hit. Dish the puck to your partner if the forechecking heat is too strong. Start the breakout with a crisp pass to a winger on the wall or the center in open ice, or carry the puck out. Or, in a last-ditch effort, rim the puck along the boards, hoping there's enough steam behind it to clear the zone.

Got all that?

"It's something the better-skilled players can just do," Chiarelli said. "They're good at it.

"Some D have trouble. Someone who's really improved on it is Wideman. He doesn't get pancaked as much this year. He would stop his feet from moving and wait for the other guy. He's not doing that as much.

"Somebody who's struggled at it but is getting better is Mark Stuart. When he goes around, he stops moving his feet, plants, gets the puck, then glides. Once he's got the puck, then a guy can catch up and hammer him if he's stopped."

For his part, Lashoff has been starting from the beginning: going back with greater purpose to gain that extra split-second, but also reading the play and having an idea of what he'll do before he arrives at the puck.

"The last time I got sent down, I sat back and thought about why," said Lashoff. "I really looked at it and what I need to do better. The main thing was going back for the puck a lot quicker, getting that extra step, and getting back so I have more time to make my plays. It's something I've consciously worked at.

"It's tough to get a tag as an offensive guy. I don't want that. Before, people would say, 'Go back for the puck,' and I'd say, 'OK, I'm going back hard.' But I wasn't realizing the sense of what it was. If I concentrate on going back, once I get the puck, I think my hockey sense will take over."

Blow-by-blow analysis

When Milan Lucic considers his 13 big-league fights this season, the Bruins rookie doesn't have any trouble picking out his three favorites: an Oct. 18 win over Tampa Bay's Nick Tarnasky; a Dec. 15 victory over Columbus's Jared Boll; and a March 8 beatdown of Washington's Matt Bradley.

Last week, Lucic took a few minutes to look over his bouts (available at hockeyfights.com) and explain what went on during each one.

Against Tarnasky, Lucic overwhelmed the forward with a series of quick rights before scoring the takedown: "Only because it's the first home game. It's the first shift as a Bruin at TD Banknorth Garden. It's one where I asked him to fight. It's 0-0, I'm trying to get the momentum going. Obviously, it was pretty entertaining."

Against Boll, Lucic connected with several big-time rights, then popped the youngster with a few lefts while grabbing his jersey: "This one I liked because I don't like him. We had a heated battle that started in the [Memorial Cup] last year. I saw him come off. As soon as I got on, I asked him to fight right away.

"This dates back to the Mem Cup, when nothing really happened but he was calling me some names I didn't like. I really wanted to get at him. It was another one where we were just throwing. With getting some good rights in, I also got in some good lefts."

Against Bradley, Lucic lined up with the forward for the opening faceoff, removed his helmet, and started with a series of straights and uppercuts: "I asked him to fight. He's already agreed to it, and you can hear how the crowd's getting into it.

"I have no clue if he's a righty or a lefty. But I know he's willing. I know I'm going to go in there, throw, and try to get our crowd and our players into it. We're playing desperate at this point."

Ovechkin getting results with off-the-wall approach

Just as Wayne Gretzky found a certain patch of frozen real estate that he preferred - the Great One's skills came to life behind the net - Washington's Alex Ovechkin has discovered a space where he likes to operate: the left-side wall.

"He likes to roam high and stretch and back your D up to make more space for his guys to move the puck," said coach Claude Julien after his Bruins snapped Ovechkin's eight-game scoring streak last Sunday. "We were very alert to make sure we didn't let him get behind us.

"At the same time, our other guys did a great job in the neutral zone of taking away their speed that they normally get when Ovechkin stretches your D out. I thought we did a good job that way."

When the Capitals kick off their breakout, Ovechkin can often be found in motion against the boards, tiptoeing behind defensemen as he waits for long-distance passes.

Ovechkin, who leads the league with 60 goals, positions himself along the wall, and signals with the blade of his stick where he wants his defensemen to pass the puck.

If he holds it to his right, Ovechkin plans to stay against the wall and wants the puck on the outside, where he can take a pass and zoom in for an off-wing shot. If Ovechkin opens up his blade to his left, it indicates he's ready to cut into the middle.

"He likes to be in full stride," said an NHL assistant coach. "He doesn't like the puck when he's standing still."

Etc.

Rewarding year for Wideman
This summer should be interesting for Dennis Wideman. For the first time, the Boston defenseman is headed into the offseason with prospects of a significant raise, based on his breakout 2007-08 season. Wideman, who has set career highs in goals, assists, points, and minutes per game, has several options: accept a one-year qualifying offer and hope he has another solid season in 2008-09; sign a multiyear extension; or go to arbitration. Wideman is the only NHL-ready puck-moving defenseman in the organization, making him a valued commodity. But he's only started to blossom this season, an indication that the Bruins might prefer to go to arbitration rather than sign him to a long-term extension. Comparables to the 25-year-old defenseman (age, games, minutes, points per game) include Chicago's Brent Seabrook, Minnesota's Brent Burns, and Detroit's Niklas Kronvall, who all average north of $3 million per year. Wideman's market value should also become clearer based on the numbers discussed this summer for Washington's Mike Green, Ottawa's Andrej Meszaros, and Nashville's Ryan Suter, all restricted free agents. One statistic in Wideman's favor: minutes played (1,846 entering last night, 11th in the league).

Going green
As of the most recent count, 523 NHLers have signed up for the Players Association's Carbon Neutral Challenge, a program that Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference helped initiate. "We were hoping that five or six guys per team would be great," said Ference. "We thought to get 80 guys would be awesome. We've blown that out of the water." The NHLPA, with assistance from the David Suzuki Foundation, estimates that a player is responsible for 10 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per season (air, bus, and car travel). To offset the emissions, each player pays $29 per ton ($290). The NHLPA has collected the money and sent it to Planetair, a Montreal company that invests in green projects, such as wind farms and tree planting. "Some of the criticisms of going carbon neutral is that you're paying for your sins and not really solving the problem," said Ference. "You're still doing something that creates emissions. But we still figured that we're doing something where there are a lot more positives than negatives. We're doing something that, as a group of guys, we believe in."

Carter stays put and gets going
Had Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle waived his no-trade clause, Philadelphia forward Jeff Carter would be wearing the blue and white of the Maple Leafs. Toronto interim general manager Cliff Fletcher had agreed to send the puck-moving defenseman to Philly for Carter and a first-round pick prior to the Feb. 27 trade deadline, but Kaberle declined to waive the clause. In hindsight, the non-trade has worked out well for the Flyers and Carter, who had scored 10 points in the 11 games following the deadline (he had averaged 0.58 points per match before then). One GM, who likes Carter's game, said money was the primary reason Philadelphia GM Paul Holmgren was looking for a taker for the 23-year-old Carter, who will be a restricted free agent at year's end. Carter was selected in the same draft as teammate Mike Richards, who turned heads by signing a 12-year, $69 million extension this season. Carter's career statistics are similar to Richards's, and he will most likely be looking for a similar salary number.

One is still out there
When Hingham native and Boston College alum Brian Boyle made his NHL debut for Los Angeles Feb. 2, it left Rangers prospect Hugh Jessiman as the lone first-round pick from the historic 2003 draft yet to appear in a big-league game. Jessiman, the 12th overall pick from that year, is currently playing for Hartford, New York's AHL affiliate. The 2003 meat market (the Bruins selected Mark Stuart in the first round, Patrice Bergeron in the second) already is considered a once-in-a-generation draft. Some of the notables: Anaheim drafting Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry in the first round, Philadelphia nabbing Carter and Richards in the first, and Montreal finding Jaroslav Halak in the seventh.

Loose pucks
One rule change the NHL should consider: Combatants must remove their helmets before dropping the gloves for a fight. Players in the major junior leagues get rid of their lids before fighting to keep their knuckles from clanging off helmets and visors. Some NHL grapplers spend a good percentage of their bouts trying to rip off their opponent's helmet. Might as well take them off in the first place . . . No surprise that Columbus named franchise forward Rick Nash its captain following the departure of Adam Foote. One Bruin veteran picked Nash when asked which player he'd select if he were starting a club . . . The hard luck continues for ex-Bruin Brad Stuart, who'll miss the rest of the regular season with a busted finger, although Detroit is positioned to make a deep playoff run. Nothing's gone right for Stuart since he failed to reach agreement on an extension with the Bruins last year . . . Carolina's postseason chances didn't look good when captain Rod Brind'Amour shredded his left knee Feb. 14, knocking him out for the season. But during Brind'Amour's absence, No. 1 center Eric Staal has exploded, registering five 3-point games . . . According to a source familiar with the situation, Bruins alumni have been given as many as 100 complimentary tickets per game for select contests this season, a number that has padded attendance figures at TD Banknorth Garden . . . Among the four Bruins who will be restricted free agents after this season, only Petteri Nokelainen is not eligible for arbitration.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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