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Saturday, April 9, 2016

With Everything to Play For, Rask Sits Out (Illness) & B's Predictably Fall Flat on Their Face

Before the all-important game against the Senators (38-35-9) had even started this afternoon, you knew that something was up when the Bruins (42-31-9) called up goaltender Jeremy Smith from Providence on an emergency basis. Apparently Tuukka Rask was very sick and after taking a few shots during warm-ups, he simply couldn't continue. He left for the dressing room, never to be seen again today (and possibly much longer this off-season). If you can believe it, things only got worse from that ominous beginning as Ottawa blasted Boston 6-1 in the regular season finale at TD Garden.

This isn't to say that backup goaltender Jonas Gustavsson (30 saves) is solely to blame for the loss. In fact, I don't think the outcome wouldn't have been any different with Rask in goal since Boston's terrible defense had to remind everyone once more just how hopeless they were for most of this campaign. Plus the B's finished under .500 at home this season (17-18-6; only other Eastern Conference teams to do that were Buffalo and Toronto). Still, if it was just an illness (bad sushi?) for Rask-the franchise goaltender-you can understand why he'll be hammered on the radio and TV for months if not years to come around here.

The Bruins actually scored first as David Pastrnak made it 1-0 at 5:04 (the second straight game that he'd opening the scoring) on a goal that looked offside but it was reviewed and held up for once. Brad Marchand and Max Talbot assisted on Pastrnak's 15th goal of the season as he got behind Ottawa's defense and then beat Andrew Hammond (39 saves) upstairs. Boston led 1-0 after the first period but they were outshot 17-10 so you knew that eventually the roof would cave in if they kept allowing that many quality chances.

Sure enough, the mighty Senators (who had nothing to play for but pride) hit the B's with a flurry of four goals in a span of 8:18 in the second period to put it way out of reach already. It was a microcosm of Boston's disappointing season as goon Chris Neil outhustled them to jam in the tying goal at 1:42, Nick Paul and Ryan Dzingel assisted on his fifth goal of the season. After that, Ottawa scored three virtually identical goals all on re-directed shots. Zach Smith tipped in Erik Karlsson's shot at 5:54 for his 24th goal of the season and Karlsson's NHL-leading 66th helper with Fredrik Claesson picking up the second assist. Less than three minutes later, Puempel re-directed a pass from Phil Varone with Buddy Robinson (are those real people?) for his second goal of the season. Mika Zibanejad put the final nail in Boston's coffin by tipping in a pass from Mike Hoffman at 10:00 for his 21st goal of the season. Bruins head coach Claude Julien took his timeout but by then, it was long over and you have to feel the same way about his storied tenure in Boston (remember he is the team's all-time winningest coach).

Other than rookie defenseman Colin Miller's fight with Mike Kostka, the Black and Gold showed barely a pulse or any semblance of heart in the third period. Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Smith both added empty-netters as Julien tried to coax a goal out of his power play unit but nothing worked in this miserable performance for his club. Ironically, Detroit (41-30-11) lost 3-2 at the Rangers (46-27-9) this afternoon which meant that a Bruins win would have gifted them third-place in the Atlantic Division. Instead the Red Wings clinched a playoff spot for the 25th straight season (extending their American pro sports record). Now the B's are down to their last hope: they need the Flyers (currently tied 1-1 at Pittsburgh in the second period) to lose today and also tomorrow night at the Islanders (45-26-9). If Philly is able to scratch together two points between those two tilts, they will get the second Wild Card in the Eastern Conference and the rough prize of the Capitals (55-17-8) in the first-round of the playoffs.

If Boston doesn't get that aforementioned miracle and they miss the postseason for the second year in a row, there is no chance that Julien keeps his job here again, right? Clearly, it is not all his fault that the front office made some terrible moves (trading for Jimmy Hayes, not having more NHL-ready defensemen, etc) and many of his players underperformed but he tapped dance past the firing line last summer and I don't think that he could make that magic happen again, especially so soon thereafter. This franchise has so many issues at the moment but unfortunately for Cladue, getting rid of him would be the easy first move for GM Don Sweeney.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

With Their Backs Against the Wall, the Bruins Respond With a Big-Time 5-2 Win vs. Red Wings

For such an arbitrary number like 82, it is still amazing that the entire 2015-16 Bruins season comes down to Saturday's finale vs. Ottawa (37-35-9). After peeing down their leg in Tuesday's 2-1 shootout loss to the Hurricanes (35-30-16), Boston (42-30-9) bounced back in a huge way with a 5-2 victory against the Red Wings (41-29-11) tonight at TD Garden. They picked a fine time to play their best home game of the season (17-17-6) since they had very little margin for error remaining.

Philadelphia's (39-27-14) 3-2 overtime loss to Toronto this evening means that the B's currently are the second Wild Card in the Eastern Conference. At the risk of giving you an ice cream headache, Boston is also tied with Detroit for points (93) but the Red Wings have one more regulation plus overtime win (39) than them which is the first tiebreaker. While the Bruins are playing the Senators on Saturday afternoon (12:30, NESN), Detroit will be at the Rangers and later on the Flyers host the Penguins (48-25-8). It's quite possible that nothing will be decided in terms of the second Wild Card until Sunday night when Philadelphia travels to Brooklyn to face the Islanders (45-26-9) in one of only two games leaguewide that day.

Haha got that all? Good, me neither. For once, it was nice though to see the Bruins play with some urgency. Hell, they scored more goals in the first 2:44 against the Red Wings than they did in 65 minutes vs. the Hurricanes. David Pastrnak broke free for a breakaway and tucked in a backhander past Jimmy Howard at 1:25. John-Michael Liles hit him with a stretch pass and Colin Miller had the other assist on Pastrnak's 14th goal of the season. Before you could say 2016 Bruins Seventh Player Award winner Brad Marchand (which he picked up before this game), he buried his team-leading 37th goal of the season at 2:44 on a one-timer from Torey Krug and Patrice Bergeron.

Speaking of Krug, he broke an absurd 54-game goal-less stretch by making it 3-0 Bruins at 5:02 in the second period. His power play goal was his fourth tally of the season and first since Dec. 5, 2015 vs. Vancouver. Loui Eriksson and David Krejci notched the helpers on the goal that hopefully gets Krug back on track. Detroit clearly gave everything they possessed to pick up a vital 3-0 win last night vs. Philadelphia so they had nothing left for this one (as evidenced by their 15 total shots on goal). Defenseman Alexey Marchenko cut it to 3-1 Boston at 6:59 of the second when his shot from the point eluded Tuukka Rask (13 saves).

Boston was up 3-1 after two periods and they sealed it early in the third with another flurry of goals. Lee Stempniak put it a rebound 20 seconds in (from Krug and Marchand) for his 19th goal of the season and Eriksson deflected in Krejci's redirect from Spooner 25 seconds later for his 30th goal of the season. That ended Howard's outing and forced Detroit to use former starter Petr Mrazek for almost all of the final frame. Good luck figuring out which of those guys will start vs. New York. It's the second time in Eriksson's career (36 in 2008-09 with Dallas) that he's reached that plateau and it also meant that the Bruins have a trio of 30-goal scorers for the first time since 2002-03 (Marchand, Bergeron and Eriksson). Rookie forward Andreas Athanasiou potted a garbage time goal if I've ever seen one with 1:23 left in regulation that made it 5-2 Bruins.

So there we go, everything hinges on Saturday for the Black and Gold. To make things easier on themselves, a one-sided regulation win like this would keep that good mojo going for whatever it's worth (absolutely nothing). All they can control is themselves but Boston will need some more help to reach the 2016 postseason. Otherwise, to miss the playoffs for the second straight year (and to do it in the last possible game) would make for another brutally long off-season for everyone (players, coaches, front office, fans, media, etc). Plus, there is no way that head coach Claude Julien could keep his job, right? As the late great Raiders owner Al Davis always said, "just win baby!"

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

In Essentially a Must-Win Scenario, the Bruins Fall 2-1 in a Shootout to the Hurricanes

With the 2015-16 regular season boiled down to three final home games that will ultimately decide their playoff fate (in or out), Boston (41-30-9) fittingly didn't get the job done on step one but they left themselves a bit of hope as they lost 2-1 to Carolina (35-29-16) in a shootout this evening at TD Garden. The fraudulent point "earned" by the B's ties them with Detroit (40-28-11) and Philadelphia (39-26-13). The problem is that the Red Wings have two games in hand and the Flyers have a game in hand on the Black and Gold. As luck would have it, Detroit hosts Philly tomorrow night (8, NBC Sports Network) as well.

Boston hadn't appeared on their home ice in nearly two weeks but somehow they still were the same group that simply hasn't been able to win here all season-long. Hurricanes defenseman Jaccob Slavin made it 1-0 at 18:54 in the first period when his shot from the point beat Tuukka Rask (27 saves). He wasn't screened and the shot wasn't tipped so that's a shot that Rask needs to stop 10 times out of 10. Justin Faulk and BC's Nathan Gerbe assisted on Slavin's second goal of the season (his first since Dec. 8, 2015). The Bruins outshot the Hurricanes 10-8 in the first and had two fruitless power plays. The highlight if you can call it that was a fight between Jimmy Hayes and Brad Malone early in the frame.

The Bruins dominated some more in the second (outshooting the Hurricanes 16-9) but three penalties (including 2 on Loui Eriksson) slowed them down a bit and they still lacked that finishing ability that has eluded them so much lately (other than the first 2 periods in St. Louis and last 2 periods in Chicago). Carolina gift-wrapped a goal to Boston as possibly the worst line change in NHL history led to a breakaway and sweet Peter Forsberg-esque move by Eriksson. Former Hurricane John-Michael Liles assisted on Eriksson's 29th goal of the season at 1:45 of the third period. Zdeno Chara saved the day when he cleared a Brett Pesce shot that trickled by Rask off the goalline.

Carolina had beaten Boston 3-2 in overtime at the Garden on March 10 but this time the B's carried play in the extra session. They outshot the Canes 3-1 but Cam Ward (35 saves) took a trip back in a time machine to about a decade ago and he was really good. He even made a nice diving glove save on Eriksson's rebound. After four scoreless rounds in the shootout, Torey Krug was stuffed and another BC guy (Norwood, MA native) Noah Hanifin ended it with a backhander past Rask. Don't ask me how Brad Marchand, David Krejci or Frank Vatrano weren't any of the five shooters selected by Bruins head coach Claude Julien.

The Bruins will no doubt be paying attention to the Red Wings-Flyers tilt tomorrow night before they host Detroit on Thursday (7, NESN). They'll be rooting for Philadelphia to win in regulation against the Red Wings and I'm pretty sure the B's will reach the postseason if they can beat Detroit and then Ottawa (36-35-9) on Saturday (12:30, NESN). However, as we've learned over and over again with this team, you can't count on any consistently positive results at home.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Bruins Lose Their Fifth Straight Game, 4-1 to the Panthers, Leaving Their Playoff Hopes in Jeopardy

Even in a marathon 82-game regular season, there is never a good time to have a five-game losing streak (all in regulation, their longest such streak in over 6 years) but I'd say that during crunch time of a playoff push is just about the worst possible occasion to completely fall apart. Boston (39-28-8) lost all three of its games in California last week, fell 5-2 to the Rangers (42-24-8) last night at Madison Square Garden and this evening they came home to TD Garden and promptly lost 4-1 to Florida (41-24-9) in another must-win game.

The wonderful pregame ceremony for B's head coach Claude Julien (now the franchise's all-time leader in wins) was one of the only things for Bruins fans to feel good about after Boston failed to gain the all-important season sweep (3-1) of Florida who with the victory went five points ahead of them with a game in hand. As usual this season, a replay didn't go in Boston's favor (same story as the Rangers game) as a possible tying goal by Patrice Bergeron midway through the third period was wiped away and the B's proceeded to disintegrate.

After a scoreless first period, the Bruins broke the deadlock as Ryan Spooner beat Roberto Luongo (34 saves) at 7:42. Frank Vatrano and Loui Eriksson assisted on Spooner's 13th goal of the season (his 1st since March 3 vs. Chicago). Former Bruins great Reilly Smith tied it one at 13:51 as Tuukka Rask (32 saves) couldn't corral a rebound. Victor Trocheck and Jussi Jokinen assisted on Smith's 24th goal of the season (tying him with Jaromir Jagr for the team lead). I know everyone was in favor of it at the time but trading Smith straight up for Jimmy Hayes (13 goals, 16 assists) has been nothing short of a disaster in Year 1. Boston's suddenly useless power play went 0 for 4 and they compounded that by giving up a shorthanded goal to Trocheck at 18:46. Torey Krug got caught up ice and Trocheck was able to roof a shot over Rask's glove. Alex Petrovic had the lone assist on Trocheck's 24th goal of the season.

It has reached the point where I can honestly say after watching so many Bruins goals get called off for various reasons in 2015-16 (offside, goalie interference, no conclusive evidence the puck crossed the line, etc.) that I find it impossible to say what is or isn't a goal anymore in the NHL. Bergeron jammed in a loose puck that clearly was in the net before Luongo fished it out and yet after a lengthy review, the men in stripes deemed it still not worthy (it was ruled no goal initially). Julien has lost his mind over those type of incidents countless times this campaign and the normally unflappable Bergeron was understandably upset.

As you would expect, the momentum flipped and the Panthers quickly put it out of reach as Jokinen tipped in Dmitry Kulikov's shot at 10:56 for a 3-1 advantage (2nd assist to former Bruin Steven Kampfer) and Jonathan Huberdeau's empty-netter at 19:39 ended it. Boston only has seven games left (4 on the road and 3 at home) beginning on Saturday (7, NESN) at Toronto (27-35-11). Yes the Maple Leafs are one of the worst teams in the league but they beat Anaheim (40-23-10) tonight in overtime so it's not like they are a pushover that has given up. The Bruins are at New Jersey (36-31-7) on Tuesday (7, NESN) before a brutal one-two punch of at St. Louis (43-22-9) on Friday (8, NESN) followed by their final road game of the regular season-at Chicago (42-25-7) on Sunday afternoon (12:30, NBC).

If they can survive that gauntlet, their last three favorable tilts are all at the Garden: vs. Carolina (32-28-14) on April 5 (7, NESN), vs. Detroit (37-26-11) on April 7 (7, NESN) and vs. Ottawa (34-33-8) on April 9 (12:30, NESN). The top Wild Card team in the Eastern Conference-the Islanders (39-24-9) have one more point than the Bruins but that's not nearly as relevant as the Red Wings since they are also in the Atlantic Division. Boston is a point ahead of Detroit but the Red Wings have a game in hand which is why that meeting on April 7 seems like it'll be enormously important for both clubs. All that the B's can do is focus on their next game and hope that they can break this killer losing streak otherwise they are going to narrowly miss the playoffs for the second year in a row (which would surely cost Julien his job).

Saturday, March 12, 2016

B's Finally Get Back to .500 Mark (16-16-5) at TD Garden with 3-1 Win/Season Sweep of the Isles

For the first time in 2016 and only the second time this season (Dec. 29 they were 9-9-2 after smoking Ottawa 7-3), your Bruins (39-23-8) are .500 at TD Garden (16-16-5). This afternoon, they beat the Islanders (37-21-8) 3-1 to sweep the three-game season series and at least temporarily go three points ahead of the Panthers (who host the Flyers tonight) and Lightning for first-place in the Atlantic Division.

David Pastrnak is by far Boston's most important young player so it's certainly a major positive to see him healthy and thriving at the NHL level in his somewhat bumpy second season. He scored two goals while Loui Eriksson added three points (1 goal, 2 assists) as the B's never trailed and scored a goal in each frame to beat New York. Tuukka Rask (25 saves) also improved to 7-1-1 in his last nine decisions. Eriksson opened the scoring with a power-play goal at 18:26 of the first period. Boston took advantage of the only power play for either side (the 4th time this season that they haven't allowed a single PP) as Eriksson wrapped around Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss (28 saves) for his 26th goal of the season, assisted by Ryan Spooner and Torey Krug.

Superstar John Tavares tied it for New York at 10:48 of the second period with a sweet backhander. His 26th goal of the season was assisted by Kyle Okposo (after David Krejci turned the puck over behind Boston's net) and it was also Tavares' 200th career NHL goal. The Black and Gold used a late strike in the second period to take the lead for good and go into the third up 2-1. Krejci displayed great patience to hold onto the puck for a while in New York's zone before he found Pastrnak for a sweet one-timer at 19:51. Eriksson had the second assist on Pastrnak's 11th goal of the season.

New York outshot Boston 12-11 in the second period and they ramped that up to 9-6 in the third but Rask and the Bruins' defense got the job done. Of course, it helped that the Islanders were kind of sloppy with the puck all day (19-13 giveaways in their favor). It looked like it would end 2-1 with Boston on top or maybe 3-1 via a late empty netter but Pastrnak took away any doubt with a slap shot at 17:26 that Greiss got a piece of but couldn't stop. Eriksson had the lone assist by banking the puck up the boards to Boston's promising talent.

The B's get two days off for the first time in over month and they'll need it since the dreaded three-game trip to California awaits them next week. Boston is at San Jose (37-24-6) on Tuesday (10, NESN), at Anaheim (37-21-9) on Friday (10, NESN) and at LA (40-22-4) on Saturday (10:30, NESN). All three of those teams are quality sides that will be in the always loaded Western Conference playoffs this spring (they are the top-3 teams in the Pacific Division) and each came to Boston earlier this season and beat the Bruins handily. For that reason alone, the road warrior B's (23-7-3 on the road) won't be lacking for motivation this next week as the regular season winds down. They only have 12 games left and eight of them are on the road, the next home game isn't until March 24 vs. Florida (their only remaining home game in March).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Bruins Reach 1st-Place in Atlantic Division for 1st Time This Season, By Losing 3-2 in OT to Carolina

In the most Bruins of 2015-16 way possible, the team has finally reached first-place in the Atlantic Division for the first time all season yet that is little solace to them after they fell 3-2 in overtime tonight at TD Garden vs. Carolina (31-26-11). Something named Philip Di Giuseppe (which sounds like a side character from The Sopranos) had the game-winning goal at 1:30 for the Hurricanes. Boston still hasn't reached the .500 mark at home (15-16-5) but the point earned from their fourth straight overtime contest was enough to propel them ahead of idle Tampa Bay (83 points) and Florida (who beat Ottawa 6-2 to also reach 83 points). The problem is that the Lightning and Panthers both have two games in hand over Boston (38-23-8) but I guess that we'll worry about that later.

The Hurricanes never trailed as their terrible power play (ranked No. 23 in the NHL coming into this evening) made it 1-0 just 5:06 into the game. Elias Lindholm's shot from the point trickled past Tuukka Rask (25 saves) for his ninth goal of the season. Norwood MA native (and BC product) Noah Hanifin and Riley Nash had the assists after Patrice Bergeron had been called for high-sticking. Carolina led 1-0 despite being outshot 8-5 in the opening frame.

Boston tied it at 5:13 of the second period when Patrice Bergeron hit Loui Eriksson with a beautiful cross-ice pass, right on his tape. Eriksson didn't get much on the one-timer, in fact Cam Ward (30 saves) almost stopped it with his paddle, but it still went in the net. Torey Krug had the second assist on Erikkson's 25th goal of the season (also his 5th NHL season of 50+ points). Ryan Spooner had a breakaway for the B's but his backhander went wide; Carolina came back down the other end of the ice and scored as another BC guy (Nathan Gerbe) poked in a rebound at 8:34. Rask made the initial stop on Chris Terry with Nash picking up another helper on Gerbe's third goal of the season. Carolina was up (2-1) heading into the second intermission.

David Pastrnak did what maybe only he could do on the Bruins when he sniped a shot by Ward's short-side at 5:54 of the third period. David Krejci assisted on Pastrnak's 10th goal of the season with a nice stretch pass along the boards, culminating in a glimpse of Pasta's immense potential that we get to see from time to time. By winning in overtime at Florida on Monday (5-4 on Lee Stempniak's goal) and at Tampa Bay on Tuesday (1-0 on Brad Marchand's tally), it felt like the Bruins were due for a loss. Hanifin-who recently turned 19 and is going to be a superstar in the NHL-actually started the winning play by passing back to Ward (when do you ever see that in hockey?) before Hanifin found Jeff Skinner for a breakaway. Once again, Rask had the first shot covered but Di Giuseppe was there to jam in the rebound through Bergeron (who fell back into the net trying to block it).

The Bruins are back in action on Saturday afternoon (1, NESN) as they host Johnny Boychuk and the Islanders (37-20-8). Boston has had plenty of success against New York these last few seasons but the Isles are 7-1-2 in their last 10 games. New York is in its own divisional race, trying to get second-place in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington with the Rangers two points ahead of them (Islanders have two games in hand though). As B's head coach Claude Julien said after the overtime loss, he expects a better performance from his club on Saturday and so do I. For whatever reason, since the trade deadline Boston has played better against the contenders and slipped a bit against the pretenders (like Carolina, not the band).

Saturday, March 5, 2016

In a Playoff-Like Game (for early March), Capitals Outlast Bruins 2-1 in Overtime on Niskanen's Goal

If we're being positive here (and tonight I feel like going that way), the Bruins (36-23-7) went toe-to-toe with the two best teams in the NHL the last few days on their home ice and earned three out of a possible four points against Chicago and Washington. Tonight at TD Garden, Boston scored first but lost in OT 2-1 to Washington (48-13-4) who in the process picked up their 100th point of the season. Underrated defenseman Matt Niskanen (who is having a great season) scored the game-winning goal at 2:36, his fifth goal of the season from Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johannson.

Yet again, the B's failed to reach the .500 mark at home (15-16-4) this season (something which they haven't done in 2015-16) and more worrisome, they lost defenseman Kevan Miller to what looked like a serious shoulder injury. He's had problems with his shoulders in recent years and he left early in the second period after Alex Ovechkin hit him from behind into the glass. Ovi was assessed a five-minute penalty for boarding while Brad Marchand picked up a two-minute roughing call for sticking up for his fallen teammate. It was a physical contest as Adam McQuaid and Tom Wilson (who leads the NHL in penalty minutes) fought in the first period.

Boston grabbed a 1-0 lead at 7:11 of the first as Patrice Bergeron opened the scoring for the second straight game. Miller corralled a loose puck at the blue line and kept it in Washington's defensive zone. From there, Lee Stempniak got a piece of the puck before Brad Marchand fired a sweet pass across the goal-line to Bergy for the tap-in (his 26th goal of the season).

The Capitals picked up the win primarily for two reasons: their backup goaltender Philipp Grubauer (33 saves) was fantastic and they survived a Bruins 5-on-3 for 1:50 in the second period. Washington tied it at one at 13:08: defenseman Karl Alzner re-directed in a pass from Nicklas Backstrom. Alzner's fourth goal of the season was also assisted by Ovechkin. Earlier in the frame, Bruins defenseman Torey Krug had apparently broke his 40-game (really!) goal-less streak but after a lengthy review, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz's challenge paid off: it was ruled no-goal.

Washington has now won its last six games against the Bruins including a season sweep (3-0) that also included a 4-1 win at home on November 5 and a 3-2 win here on January 5. That is something to keep in mind should they meet again in the playoffs. Tuukka Rask (28 saves) fell to 1-8-4 in his career against the Capitals while Washington didn't even have to call on the services of their star goaltender-Braden Holtby-who started last night in New York (a 3-2 Rangers win). Washington is the only NHL team to not lose consecutive games in regulation this season (12-0-1).

After a mostly successful four-game homestand (2-1-1), the B's head out for a back-to-back in the Sunshine State before they return to the Garden on Thursday to play Carolina (29-26-11). On Monday (7:30, NESN) they are at Florida (36-20-8) and on Tuesday (7:30, NESN), they are at Tampa Bay (39-22-4). Those two games could go a long way towards determining the Atlantic Division since the Lightning currently are up two points on the Panthers and three points on the Bruins (Boston has played one more game than both of them). If there is one thing to count on with the Bruins in this wacky campaign, they have been incredibly consistent on the road (21-7-3).