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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).

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Just As We All Predicted, The Bruins Picked Up Their Best Win of the Season vs. Blackhawks (4-2)

Just when you think that you have the 2015-16 Bruins (36-23-6) figured out (well sort of), they pull a really impressive 4-2 victory against the Blackhawks (40-21-5) out of thin New England air. Chicago (bandwagon) fans will undoubtedly use the excuse that they were playing in the second game of a back-to-back (after winning 3-2 last night in Detroit) and their average backup goaltender Scott Darling (21 saves) got the start but such are the breaks in a laborious 82-game regular season.

Boston picked up consecutive home wins for the first time since December 18 and 20 while head coach Claude Julien tied Art Ross for the most regular season wins in franchise history (387). Finally, Patrice Bergeron's assist was the 606th point of his Bruins career, tying him with Boston legend Terry O'Reilly for eighth-place on the team's all-time points list. The B's led basically from start to finish as the defending Stanley Cup champs lacked their usual jump and could only knot it at one before Boston put it out of reach with three goals in a row.

It has only been two games but Lee Stempniak's Bruins career has begun on a high note as he had two assists tonight. He adds the veteran experience and all-around game to the excellent Bergeron-Brad Marchand line that was lacking when they had to carry the useless Brett Connolly for much of the season. Bergeron opened the scoring only 1:18 into the contest as he wrapped around Chicago's net and roofed a shot past Darling. Marchand and Stempniak assisted on Bergeron's 25th goal of the season.

Rookie Noel Acciari was called for two bogus hooking calls in his second NHL game (Welcome to the Show!) and the Blackhawks took advantage of the first one when captain Jonathan Toews popped in a rebound at 14:14 of the first period on the power play. Some of Chicago's newest players-Andrew Ladd and Christian Ehrhoff-had the assists on Toews' 23rd goal of the season. Like a good team, Boston closed the opening frame with an important goal by Marchand. His snipe from some distance beat Darling with 22 seconds left; Torey Krug and Stempniak had the helpers on Marchand's team-leading 33rd goal of the season.

For once at home, the Bruins took some momentum and seemingly carried it over to the following period as Ryan Spooner scored a power play goal at 2:31. His screened shot (nice job by Eriksson) beat Darling for his 12th goal of the season. Krug and Bergeron picked up multiple points with those particular assists. Loui put it out of reach with a gorgeous goal at 15:24 of the second. The other new Bruin John-Michael Liles tossed a beautiful saucer pass that Eriksson redirected with his backhand. David Krejci had the second assist on Eriksson's 24th goal of the season.

Chicago's final tally came from former Canadien Tomas Fleischmann who shot a rocket over Tuukka Rask's (25 saves) shoulder at 19:10 of the second. Teuvo Teravainen and Niklas Hjalmarsson had the assists on Fleischmann's 11th goal of the season (1st point as a Blackhawk). The Blackhawks put plenty of pressure on the Bruins in the third, outshooting them 11-2 but Boston blocked 17 shots and Rask did the rest. It was nice to see them show that they can still put together a successful defensive game-plan from time to time that mostly shut down one of the league's truly elite teams.

Speaking of top-notch clubs, the one with the most points-Washington (47-12-4)-will be here on Saturday (7, NESN) to serve as another playoff-like test for the Black and Gold. It will be the third straight time that a visiting team comes to TD Garden in the second night of a back-to-back. The Capitals host the Rangers tomorrow before getting into the Hub late night on Friday, perhaps hitting last call at The Harp before they tuck themselves in? Alex Ovechkin is having an MVP-type campaign and Braden Holtby has been the best goaltender in the NHL so it's well worth your time to tune in to see Washington. Boston will bid for that elusive .500 mark at the Garden (15-16-3), something simple which they stil haven't tasted so far in 2015-16.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Boston Plays Down to Calgary's Level Yet Still Comes Out On Top, 2-1 Thanks to Bergeron's PPG

When you are in the middle of a congested playoff race in the Eastern Conference with time ticking away, every point matters, particularly when the two best teams in the NHL (Chicago and Washington) are up next on the schedule. Boston (35-23-6) played one of its most boring contests of the season but they managed to beat lowly Calgary (26-33-4) 2-1 tonight at TD Garden. Take that Dougie Hamilton!

Besides the two very valuable points that they earned, the contest was most notable for the B's since it was the debut for three players: right wing Lee Stempniak (1 takeaway in 16:12), defenseman John-Michael Liles (1 hit in 16:55) and rookie center Noel Acciari (+1, 1 shot on goal, 2 hits & 4-3 on faceoffs). Stempniak (from New Jersey) and Liles (from Carolina) were acquired in trades on Monday while Acciari is an undrafted rookie from Providence College that earned a promotion from the Providence Bruins after Zac Rinaldo (also suspended 5 games), Max Talbot and Jonas Kemppainen were all sent down on Monday.

The Bruins new-look fourth line (Acciari, Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly) came through with a goal on their first shift of the game at 7:05. Torey Krug (28th) and Connolly (16th) had the assists on Ferraro's fifth goal of the season that went top-shelf on winless Joni Ortio (23 saves). Boston was up 1-0 after the first period and the score remained the same after a sleepy second frame.

The Flames were playing in the second night of a back-to-back (they lost 5-3 in Philly last night) but they tied it at one on rookie defenseman Jakub Nakladal's 1st career NHL goal. His one-timer from Jyrki Jokipakka (1st game for Calgary after being traded by Dallas) and Michael Frolik at 5:35 put the requisite amount of angst in Bruins fans' heads. After the 1-0 lead was erased, this looked to be headed to overtime but Patrice Bergeron rescued Boston for the millionth time in his storied career when he scored on a one-timer at 16:36 from one of his favorite spots (high slot). Ryan Spooner (32nd) and David Krejci (team-leading 35th) assisted on Bergeron's 24th goal of the season (tying him for 10th all-time in Bruins history) which came on the power play thanks to a silly too many men on the ice call on Calgary.

Chicago (39-20-5) is at Detroit (32-20-11) tomorrow night before they come to Boston on Thursday (7, NESN) so the best the B's can hope is that they are a little tired and perhaps the Black and Gold can jump on them early or wear them out. Realistically, the Blackhawks will be heavily favored as they should be. The defending Stanley Cup champs loaded up at the trade deadline (Andrew Ladd, Dale Weise and Tomas Fleischmann) and they appear to be a serious threat to repeat which is basically impossible in the NHL. I thought that Tuukka Rask (24 saves) might get this evening off but I guess that you can't risk that given how hopeless the Bruins have been at home (14-16-3) in 2015-16. Things can't go any worse for the B's than they did against the Kings on Feb. 9 (9-2 embarrassment), right?