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Bitz up for promotion

He joins Savard with heady play

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / November 24, 2009

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ST. LOUIS - For the Bruins coaching staff, it wasn’t so much Byron Bitz’s hands or wheels that earned him the promotion to top-line duties alongside Marc Savard last night. It’s been Bitz’s head - specifically, how he thinks when it comes to getting pucks in and out of the offensive and defensive zones.

“You can tell a lot from the two blue lines,’’ said vice president Cam Neely. “Are you getting it out and are you putting it in properly? That’s where coaches hate turnovers. At both blue lines. Generally speaking, you can get a feel of a guy’s hockey sense from where he’s putting the puck, where he’s going to get the puck, and how he’s getting it in and out of the zones.’’

Since his promotion from Providence Jan. 10 (Bitz has not returned to the AHL since), the 6-foot-5-inch, 215-pounder has been a fixture on one of the Bruins’ grind lines.

This season, Bitz had found a home on the right wing alongside Shawn Thornton and Steve Begin, using his size and hockey sense to play a straightforward game.

Bitz credited Cornell coach Mike Schafer for instilling a structured, defense-first system in Ithaca. It’s a style that Bitz has brought with him to the pro game.

“He really preached not turning the puck over and being good defensively,’’ Bitz said. “If you didn’t do that kind of stuff, you just wouldn’t play. It was important that you be good defensively and really take care of the puck. I think that was where my puck-possession game evolved. That stuff was ingrained in me for four years. You had to do that stuff. Thankfully, it’s kind of carried over and I’ve made that a strong point of my game.’’

With Savard back in the lineup last night and needing a right-hand man, the Bruins turned to Bitz and his no-frills game, hopeful that the 25-year-old’s approach would lead to scoring opportunities for the new No. 1 line. Bitz skated 16 shifts for 13:38 of ice time, with the Blues blocking both shots he took. In the second period, Bitz dropped the gloves with Barret Jackman behind the St. Louis net.

“What he’s done - and there are other players who could take notice - is that he’s kept his game very simple,’’ Neely said. “He doesn’t try to do more than he should. He’s been very smart with protecting the puck, getting the puck out, and getting it in. Obviously his confidence has risen over time. He’s just a smart player.’’

The Bruins have tried Marco Sturm, Blake Wheeler, and Michael Ryder on Savard’s right side this season. Bitz doesn’t have the offensive pedigree of the other right wings, but the Bruins aren’t necessarily looking for the Saskatchewan native to develop into a sniper. Instead, they believe his puck-protection skills, grinding work along the walls, and smart play can open up space for Savard and Sturm.

“It will be interesting to see how he does with a playmaker like Savard,’’ Neely said. “His game will have to change a little bit to play with a guy like Savard. But you don’t want him to feel like he’s got to, all of a sudden, become a goal scorer. Goal scorers usually score in every league, all the way up. Rarely does somebody become a goal scorer at this level. But he can certainly take advantage of his size and strength and get opportunities by going to those dirty areas.’’

Thomas backs up
Tim Thomas participated in yesterday’s morning skate without limitations, but he has not progressed enough to merit a start over Tuukka Rask, who made his fourth straight appearance last night. According to a team source, Thomas has an injured right hand.

“It’s one of those injuries that we have to allow him to get better,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “Yet it could be something that could be cured on a day-to-day basis.’’

Rask (5-2-1, 2.31 goals-against average, .917 save percentage entering last night) made four straight starts for the first time as an NHLer.

Sobotka sits
With Savard back, Vladimir Sobotka was a healthy scratch after appearing in 15 straight games. “There’s no doubt in my mind that he could be inserted at any time and he’d be a help to our club,’’ Julien said. “That’s the good news about it. What’s tough is trying to tell a player that you’re playing well but you’re probably not going to be in the lineup tonight. He’s a young player. He knows what it’s all about. We’re going to keep him focused.’’ . . . The Bruins were 3 for 3 on the penalty kill, limiting the Blues to six power-play shots . . . The Wild, who will host the Bruins tomorrow, acquired Guillaume Latendresse from Montreal for Benoit Pouliot yesterday in a trade involving two young but underachieving forwards . . . Milan Lucic led all players with five hits.

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

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