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Bruins notebook

Bitz has been valuable piece

Forward continues to lay it on the line

BYRON BITZ: Complements Savard BYRON BITZ: Complements Savard
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / December 4, 2009

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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.’’

His hat in the rings?
Considering the numbers that Miikka Kiprusoff has posted this season - 15-5-3, 2.27 goals-against average, .925 save percentage - it’s a good bet that the Calgary netminder will be Team Finland’s starting goalie when the puck drops for the Winter Games in Vancouver. But the 33-year-old said last week that if he isn’t named the No. 1 goalie, he’d prefer to bypass the Olympics and rest instead.

“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?’’

Head games
At the conclusion of a few practices this week, Tim Thomas has paired up with Matt Hunwick, and with goaltending coach Bob Essensa overseeing the action, Hunwick would wrist puck after puck at Thomas’s head. Thomas then would steer the pucks with his head to his left and right.

“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.

Breather for Chara
Zdeno Chara was the only Bruin not to practice yesterday, though he skated on his own after practice. Julien termed it a “maintenance day.’’ Chara was shaken up momentarily Wednesday when he was struck by an Andrej Meszaros slap shot, but the captain didn’t miss any shifts . . . Vladimir Sobotka practiced yesterday. Sobotka felt better than he did Wednesday, when he was limited to 7:14 of ice time because he was under the weather . . . The Canadiens will conclude their 100th anniversary celebration with a pregame ceremony tonight at the Bell Centre. Because of the festivities, the game will start at 8 p.m. “We should be kind of glad that they thought we were a good opponent for that game,’’ Julien said. “There’s a good rivalry between the two organizations. It’s exciting for the fans of both cities. At the same time, it’s really their anniversary, not ours. We’ve got to make sure we don’t get caught up in all that hoopla and we focus on our game.’’

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

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