|BYRON BITZ: Complements Savard|
Bitz has been valuable piece
Forward continues to lay it on the line
Tonight will be the sixth time that Byron Bitz serves as Marc Savard’s right-hand man on the Bruins’ No. 1 line, with the aim being a little crisper execution against Montreal than they showed against the Lightning Wednesday.
“I thought Bitzy had an average night, to be honest with you,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “It wasn’t his best game, mostly because he didn’t seem to have some jump. That seems to happen once in a while.
“Having said that, I think he’s been pretty good there. He’s been smart. He’s been going to the net. He’s created a lot of things for that line. He’s strong in his own end, getting the puck out along the boards, and going on the attack.
“You’ve got to give guys a little bit of time. You’ve got to give them a chance. It’s a lot easier to do that when you’re winning hockey games. You remain a little more patient. When you don’t win hockey games, you make changes because you’ve got to find solutions.’’
Bitz, a fourth-line fixture prior to his promotion last week, isn’t a traditional first-line wing. But while he might be lacking in hands and skill, he’s shown hockey sense, puck-possession ability, and a willingness to work - qualities the coaching staff believe make the big wing a good space-clearing fit for the pass-first Savard.
“We’re talking about what we need to do more,’’ said Bitz, who has been joined by Blake Wheeler on the line the last three games. “If we can get [Savard] the puck a little more in the offensive zone, we’ll be better off.’’
Wheeler, one of the better Bruins of late, ripped off six shots against the Lightning. The belief is that his size, speed, and skill can complement Savard’s playmaking and Bitz’s puck-possession game. If the three can bring their games together, Bitz sees a line that can control the puck in the offensive zone and wear down opposing defensemen.
During one shift against Tampa Bay, Bitz and Wheeler cycled the puck low, then got it to Savard behind the net. Bitz went to the front of the net and took a clever feed from Savard, but couldn’t handle the pass.
“Went between my legs and I couldn’t get a shot off, but it was a great play by him,’’ Bitz said. “It was just communicating. Me and Wheels were working, finding Savvy, and working that cycle game that makes us effective.’’
“Big topic in Finland,’’ said fellow Finn Tuukka Rask.
If the unexpected takes place and Kiprusoff doesn’t win the starting job, Rask (7-2-2, 2.02 GAA, .929 save percentage) could be a dark horse candidate to make Finland’s roster. The 22-year-old would be in competition with Minnesota’s Niklas Backstrom (10-9-3, 2.65 GAA, .909 save percentage), Tampa Bay’s Antero Niittymaki (6-3-3, 2.18 GAA, .931 save percentage), and Nashville’s Pekka Rinne (11-6-1, 2.61 GAA, .907 save percentage).
Finland may not have the overall depth of the Canadian, Swedish, and Russian rosters, but goaltending should be one of its strengths, and Rask has played himself into the conversation.
“There’s still a lot of goalies out there,’’ Rask said. “Who knows?’’
“Once every couple years, I do that to remind myself that it doesn’t hurt,’’ Thomas said. “It takes away the flinchies. I’ve heard of boxers’ trainers making them keep their eyes open in the shower so they learn to keep their eyes open when something’s coming right at your face. It’s natural to close your eyes.’’
When Thomas was a boy, he said, his goalie coach would have him lie on the ice facing upward. The coach would then drop pucks on his mask so Thomas could get used to seeing rubber heading toward his face.
“When the puck gets right here,’’ said Thomas, pointing to just in front of his face, “everybody in the world is going to close their eyes for a second. But you want it so that you close your eyes but don’t flinch.’’
Thomas estimates that several times per season, he’s taken pucks off the mask and placed the rebounds out of the danger areas.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.