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Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In Their First Home Game In Over Two Weeks, the Bruins Take Care of the AHL Coyotes 4-1

In the last few seasons under former head coach Claude Julien, tonight would have been a tailor-made trap game for the Bruins (33-24-6). They were coming off a very successful four-game road trip (3-1-0) and hadn't played at TD Garden in over two weeks (thanks to a bye week before the games in California and Texas) so it was refreshing to see them look like a completely different club in an easy 4-1 victory on First Responders Night. This is Boston's first four-game home winning streak since 2014-the last time that they made the playoffs. They are also unbeaten in their last 10 games vs. Arizona dating back to the 2010 opener in Prague that the Coyotes won 5-2.

Boston improved to a remarkable 7-1-0 under interim head coach Bruce Cassidy, seriously when do they give him some job security and ditch the cheesy title? Arizona (22-33-7) lived up or rather down to its advance billing as the second-worst team in the league. The crazy part is that they are still 14 points ahead of Colorado (17-41-3) who might as well have cancelled the season by now. Would anyone notice? Four different Bruins scored the goals (Colin Miller, Riley Nash, David Backes and Brad Marchand) as they continue to spread the offense around like any quality hockey team is known to do. Tuukka Rask (30-14-4) only had to make 22 saves as he has posted four straight 30+ win seasons.

Other than the paint by numbers two points for the B's, this game will be remembered most for the bone-crunching hit by Boston defenseman Colin Miller on Arizona center Alexander Burmistrov early in the second period. It left Burmistrov down on the ice for a long stretch before he was wheeled off on a stretcher. The good news is that after getting checked out at a hospital in Boston, he will rejoin his teammates later tonight. Miller was assessed a five-minute major for charging and a game-misconduct (10-minutes). For me, that was the type of hit that looks worse than it actually was intended to be. Burmistrov had his head down and was hunched over as he released the puck right before Miller caught him with a shoulder directly to his head. If the play should go to the NHL's Department of Player Safety, Miller could have a reasonable case based on his lack of previous dirty plays and the fact that he's an honest player in general.

Ironically, Colin Miller had begun the scoring with a goal just 3:06 into the first period. David Pastrnak and David Krejci had the assists on his fifth goal of the season. The B's have scored first-period goals in 10 straight games including notching the first goal in the past six games. Boston led 1-0 after the first period but Arizona tied it early in the second as Peter Holland wrapped around the net for a power play strike at 3:27. Something named Brendan Perlini (who sounds like an honorary resident of the North End) and Radim Vrbata (trade that man to a real team!) had the assists on Holland's second goal of the season.

As they have for much of 2016-17, Boston's penalty kill unit sparked them (they are tied for the NHL lead with 8 shorthanded goals) as Riley Nash of all people bagged his first career shorthanded goal in the NHL. Mike Smith (10 saves, 4 goals allowed) fumbled the puck to Patrice Bergeron who fed a wide open Nash for his fourth goal of the season at 7:07. The Bruins put it away from there with two more goals in a scintillating second period: David Backes beat Smith with a one-timer from Brad Marchand and Bergeron at 18:05 and then the backbreaker was Marchand getting his own wraparound goal with 11 seconds left in the frame (his team-leading 28th goal of the season).

Smith was pulled after the second in favor of his backup Louis Domingue and the Bruins settled in for a rare easy win at home where they are 16-13-0. Their focus now turns to Thursday (7, NESN) as they host the Rangers (40-21-2) who as usual are a legitimate contender in the Eastern Conference this spring. Against the pathetic Coyotes, Boston was able to put it on cruise control for much of this one but they know they will need to be much better to continue this amazing stretch. An underrated factor for their remarkable turnaround has been their health: the Bruins don't have any significant injuries to speak of which is almost unheard of as the calendar flips to March. Don't forget to stay locked to Twitter and the NHL Network or NESN tomorrow as the NHL Trade Deadline comes at 3 p.m. I wouldn't expect the B's to do much but you never know, maybe GM Don Sweeney will make a surprise last-second move to add to his group that suddenly looks like a real playoff team.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Bruins Sweep Their Pivotal 3-Game Homestand with Resounding 4-0 Victory vs. Montreal

Remember like a week ago when we were all resigned to the fact that the Bruins (29-23-6) weren't going anywhere this season? The inevitable firing of head coach Claude Julien finally happened on Tuesday and that was one of the only real interesting facets left in 2016-17. As my old pal Lee Corso loves to say on ESPN's College GameDay, "not so fast, my friend!" In case you haven't noticed, the B's look like a completely different team these last three games under interim head coach Bruce Cassidy. Tonight, they beat Montreal (31-19-8) 4-0 at TD Garden as they go into their NHL-designated bye week with a three-game win streak (tying a season-high) and a whole new outlook on life. Perhaps the best part was after the beating when Canadiens goaltender Carey Price admitted that "we seem to have lost our identity." That is one beautiful quote from the best player of the team that I hate more than any other in pro sports.

It's hard to fathom how the same group of underachieving guys can suddenly turn into a quality team: knocking off the Sharks, Canucks and the Canadiens in the span of four nights. Boston improved to a season-best two games over .500 at the Garden (15-13-0) and they also ended with a split of the four-game season series with Montreal. Tuukka Rask (25 saves, 6th shutout of the season) actually notched his first ever win vs. the Canadiens in Boston (he had been 0-9-3 before that). The heated rivals are going in opposite directions as the Canadiens fell to 3-6-1 in their last 10 games while the Bruins improved to 6-4-0 in their last 10.

Obviously it's way too early to explain why Cassidy's team is superior to Julien's but there are a few interesting trends to point out: the power play which was good under Claude has stayed red-hot with goals in each of their last eight games (11 for 30, 36.7%) while Boston's defensemen have been frequently activated and in turn, contributing way more offensively (adding 2 more goals tonight including Zdeno Chara's 1st shorthanded goal since 2011). From the start, this felt like an old Bruins-Canadiens game when the rivalry was entertaining and unpredictable. Torey Krug and Andrew Shaw fought 58 seconds into the proceedings, settling a longstanding beef from the last matchup.

Adam McQuaid started the scoring with what quite possibly was the prettiest goal of his NHL career (in his 400th game). His one-timer (2nd goal of the season) was assisted by rookie Peter Cehlarik (1st NHL point) and Torey Krug at 8:57 of the first period on what looked like a set play of sorts off of a faceoff win by the B's in Montreal's defensive zone. Boston's penalty kill unit (6 for 6) was great all night, especially late in the first when they had to negate a two-man advantage for 1:37. The Bruins' special teams were the story in the second period as well with Zdeno Chara of all people dangling around Alexander Radulov for a shocking shorthanded goal at 5:08 (his 5th of the season was assisted by Ryan Spooner and Brad Marchand) and then David Krejci finished a beautiful sequence of touch passing on the power play with David Backes and Cehlarik registering helpers on his 14th goal of the season at 15:05.

Both teams had played yesterday (Boston is now 2-6-2 in Game 2s of back-to-backs while Montreal is 6-4-2) but it was still a bit surprising that Price didn't get pulled either after the second period with his team lifeless and trailing 3-0 or when Frank Vatrano put in a lucky bounce off the boards (after Krejci's one-timer from David Pastrnak missed the net) for his eighth goal of the season at 5:00 of the third period. This being the Habs, they were up to their usual low rent tricks as Nathan Beaulieu gave Chara a Milan Lucic memorial nut tap late in the second and Alex Galchenyuk hit Kevan Miller with a high-stick right in the face (which drew blood for a double-minor) late in the third. Miller fought Mike McCarron in garbage time with the funniest part being that McCarron was sent straight back to the AHL after the game. Happy trails, you bum!

The Bruins are tied with the Canadiens and Jets for the most games played so far this season so I'm sure that they are happy to get a rest. They are off through Friday and they will practice on Saturday in San Jose before facing the Sharks (34-18-5) on Sunday night (8:30, NBC Sports). That tilt kicks off a four-game road trip in California (Anaheim and Los Angeles) before they end in Dallas (22-25-10) two weeks from now on February 26 (12:30, NESN). Boston's next home game isn't until February 28 (7, NESN) vs. Arizona (18-28-7) so let's hope that they are still the quality road team (14-10-6) from earlier this season under Julien.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

In Cassidy's Debut as B's Head Coach, Boston Turns In 1 of Their Better Performances of the Season

Results like tonight are one of the many reasons that the Bruins (27-23-6) have made their fans pull their hair out in frustration over the last few years. Claude Julien was fired on Tuesday and tonight, Bruce Cassidy had his first game in charge at TD Garden vs. San Jose (33-18-4). Naturally against one of the best teams in the NHL, the B's put together a nearly complete effort from start to finish as they won 6-3. It makes you wonder if Julien could even watch it somewhere or has he already moved on?

Regardless, if the Bruins want to sneak into the playoffs this spring, they'll need this type of balanced scoring (5 different goal-scorers) and lethal power play (2 for 3) combined with more aggressive play by their defensemen (Zdeno Chara was out sick which actually didn't hinder them for this game at least) and solid work from Tuukka Rask (23 saves). Cassidy's first order of tangible business was to shake up the lines so David Backes (1 goal, 2 assists) was the lucky guy who got bumped up to the first line with Patrice Bergeron (1 goal, 3 assists) and Brad Marchand (empty-netter, assist). Backes had been in a deep slump but he looked like a new player as he scored on a one-timer just 52 seconds into the contest. Torey Krug and David Krejci had the assists on his 12th goal of the season.

Former Bruins No. 1 overall pick Joe Thornton tied it at 7:51 with a top-shelf snipe (his 1st non-empty netter goal of the season), assisted by Tomas Hertl. Boston didn't hang their heads though as Patrice Bergeron put in a rebound from Backes and Brandon Carlo at 15:52 for a 2-1 lead on his 14th goal of the season. The Sharks were called for too many men on the ice and the Bruins made them pay as David Pastrnak (2 goals) hammered in a one-timer from Bergeron (6-game point-streak) for a 3-1 lead at 17:31.

Martin Jones (9 saves, 3 goals allowed) was pulled after the first period and something called Aaron Dell came in for San Jose. Former UMass defenseman Justin Braun cut it to 3-2 at 1:08 of the second period as his shot from the point deflected in off Carlo for his third goal of the season. Logan Couture and Patrick Marleau assisted on his third goal of the season (and 100th NHL point). Once again, the B's didn't seemed fazed as Tim Schaller also broke a long goal-less slump with a key goal at 13:04 from Riley Nash and Dominic Moore. Schaller's seventh goal of the season was his first in over a month (last one was January 8 at Carolina).

San Jose took a late tripping penalty in the second period and Pastrnak put the game out of reach after some beautiful passing by Bergeron and Marchand. His 24th goal of the season temporarily gave him the team-lead at 19:11. Not much happened in the third period: your boy Timo Meier scored in garbage time for the Sharks and Marchand (6-game point streak) got his empty-netter to tie Pastrnak with 24 goals.

This was an easy game for the Bruins to get up for, they simply had to show that they had some pride left. Now the question is if they can sustain it on Saturday afternoon (1, NESN) vs. Vancouver (24-24-6) and on Sunday night (7:30, NBC Sports) vs. Montreal (30-17-8). I'd love to see Rask get a break against the Canucks since he certainly could use it and that appears to be one of the only logical games left that backup goaltender Anton Khudobin possibly could win. We shall see. Cassidy has to feel some sense relief for getting that first win out of the way, now we can start to judge what the team really has after they come off of the emotion that was guaranteed to surround this night.

Monday, February 6, 2017

In the Best Super Bowl That We Will Likely Ever See, the Patriots Beat the Falcons 34-28 in OT

Special nights like the one that we all just experienced this evening make me extremely thankful for two things: 1) that I'm a sports fan and 2) that I happened to have been born in New England not too long before this era of unbelievable professional sports dominance (10 titles in 15 years!) began, the likes of which we'll probably never see again in any city let alone ours. The Patriots (17-2) beat the Falcons (13-6) 34-28 in overtime at Houston's NRG Stadium in Super Bowl 51. We live in a world where everything is dripping in hyperbole-the best or the worst-but is there any logical argument that concludes that wasn't the greatest Super Bowl ever?

After a scoreless first quarter (the Pats somehow haven't scored a single point in their 7 Super Bowls under Bill Belichick and Tom Brady), Atlanta took a 21-3 lead into halftime which expanded into a seemingly insurmountable 28-3 advantage early in the third quarter. Game over, right? Considering that the previous largest Super Bowl comeback was a modest 10 points, who but the most irrational Patriots honk (redundant, I know) could possibly believe that they could make it competitive again? Well there is a reason that Belichick (5-2 as a head coach) and Brady (a Super Bowl record 466 yards with 2 TDs) both further cemented their place as the best head coach and quarterback respectively with their fifth Super Bowl title (a record) for New England.

The Patriots reeled off 31 straight points to tie it at 28 with 57 seconds left in regulation (on James White's 1-yard TD run and 2-point conversion catch by Danny Amendola) then ended it in the extra session (the 1st time ever that a Super Bowl has gone to OT) on White's 2-yard TD run. New England won the coin toss in overtime, because of course, and Brady (named Super Bowl MVP for a record 4th time) marched them down the field (8 plays, 75 yards, 3:58) for the game-winning score. The Falcons never saw the ball since a touchdown was in essence a walk-off score, no big deal right?

In epic sporting events like this (not that it has truthfully has many peers), it's always tough to deduce which was a bigger factor: the winning team overcoming almost impossible odds or the losing team choking in unfathomable fashion. When you look at the final stats, the only thing you can objectively say is that the Patriots wore down the Falcons. That makes zero sense when you consider that Atlanta was up 28-3 and had a win probability over 99% (seriously), but New England ran more than twice as many plays as them (93-46). The Pats had 20 more first downs (37-17) and more than 200 more total yards (546-344). Atlanta had way more penalties (9-4) for nearly three times as many yards (65-23) and finally, New England had the ball for over 17 more minutes than them (40:31-23:27).

Everyone knows that the Falcons have an amazing offense but conversely, their defense was the question mark and despite a flawless first half, they fell apart (as probably every defense would) when they were stuck on the field for so long. It also helped that the Patriots forced Atlanta's first turnover of the postseason (a Matt Ryan fumble that was recovered by Dont'a Hightower) at a key moment-midway through the 4th quarter with the Pats trailing 28-12. Literally nothing went right for New England for the first 2.5 quarters and even their first touchdown (a 5-yard TD pass from Brady to White) was tempered by Stephen Gostkowski missing the point-after.

There are a million plays and moments to remember from this instant classic but looking back on it this soon, you have to marvel at how the Patriots appeared to never get rattled. Atlanta looked like world-beaters in the second quarter as Devonta Freeman (11 carries, 75 yards) ran for a 5-yard touchdown then Ryan (17-for-23, 284 yards, 2 TD) hit Austin Hooper for a 19-yard touchdown. When Brady threw an 82-yard pick-6 to Robert Alford with 2:21 left in the first half and the Falcons suddenly led 21-0, you couldn't help but sit in stunned silence (maybe punctuated by a few choice swear words). Gostkowski's 41-yard field goal with two seconds left in the second quarter was devoid of meaning other than for your Super Bowl squares.

We'll never know how much of a factor the extra long Super Bowl halftime played (it's 30 minutes and by the way, Lady Gaga was fantastic) but you have to think that the Falcons were just a bit too overconfident (keep in mind this is a team that's never won a Super Bowl and only played in 1 other, in 1999) while the Patriots likely used the time to calm down and regroup. New England's defense forced Atlanta to go three-and-out to start the third quarter but then they did the same thing and that was magnified by the Falcons going 85 yards in eight plays on the ensuing drive which ended with Tevin Coleman catching a six-yard touchdown pass. Who could have guessed that would be their final points of the entire game?

How fitting that this impossible comeback by the Pats was fueled by unsung players like White (Super Bowl record 14 catches, 110 yards; 6 catches, 29 yards; record-tying 3 TDs), Danny Amendola (8 catches, 78 yards), rookie Malcolm Mitchell (6 catches, 70 yards), Martellus Bennett (5 catches, 62 yards) who has reportedly played through bone chips in his ankle for weeks and Trey Flowers (4 tackles, 2 assists and 2.5 sacks). Julio Jones (4 catches, 87 yards) even made one of the most insane catches you'll ever see (shades of Giants wide receivers David Tyree and Mario Manningham in their 2 Super Bowl wins vs. Patriots) but it was quickly overshadowed by Julian Edelman's (5 catches, 87 yards) juggling catch that had to be seen to be believed.

Rob Gronkowski, arguably the greatest tight end of all-time, was lost to another season-ending injury (back) in Week 13 and all the Patriots did was readjust their offensive gameplan (kudos to offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels) and they never lost again. Think about that (Tony Mazz voice). Similar to the fourth quarter vs. Seattle two years ago in Super Bowl 49 when Brady was simply brilliant (with a major assist to Malcolm Butler), he went to work in winning time yet again. Gostkowski kicked a 33-yard field goal to cut it to a two-score lead for Atlanta then Amendola caught a six-yard touchdown pass from Brady and White ran in the two-point conversion (the old Kevin Faulk direct snap run up the middle!) with 5:56 left.

Without consulting what I wrote in this exact space two years ago, I'm sure it went something along the lines of "enjoy this while it lasts, because it won't be forever." As we all know, Brady missed the first four games of the 2016 regular season due to Deflategate yet ultimately it didn't matter one bit and if anything, it just might have galvanized the team an extra amount. In a depressing reality where Donald Trump is President of the United States (pardon me while I puke myself to sleep), I can't pretend that it's a perfect world by any means. The older you get, the more you realize that some things in life truly suck like relatives and friends passing away (especially when it's premature) and unfortunately there is nothing that you can do about it.

That's what makes victories like this so special: what else can bring together so many different groups of people better than sports? I'll pretend to wait for an answer that truthfully doesn't exist in the universe. There are countless other enjoyable facets of our lives but these are some of the moments that young or old, rich or poor, we will never forget for as long as we live. You can't put a price on that and it's one of the million reasons (what up Gaga?) that we watch all these games and invest so much time in a particular team in hopes that every once in a while we are treated to an event remotely resembling like this.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Maple Leafs Most Certainly Look Like a Playoff Team In 2016-17 While The Bruins Sadly Do Not

You could make an easily compelling case that tonight was the most important game of the season thus far for the Bruins (26-23-6). So you can probably guess how things turned out for them at TD Garden vs. the Maple Leafs (24-17-9) as Tuukka Rask faced 14 shots and only made 10 saves therefore he was pulled halfway through the contest with his team trailing 4-1. The Bruins made a valiant comeback attempt (tying it at 4-4 midway through the 3rd period on Ryan Spooner's goal and then 5-5 late in the 3rd on Patrice Bergeron's power play goal) but earned zero points as UNH's James van Riemsdyk scored the game-winner (his 2nd of the game) at 18:24 for a 6-5 Toronto victory.

This was the third of four meetings in 2016-17 between the Bruins and Maple Leafs with Toronto improving to 3-0. To make matters worse for the B's, they are now only one point ahead of their Original Six rivals who have a whopping five games in hand on them. To further illustrate just how vital this tilt was, says that Boston's playoff chances dropped from 37.2% to 27.8%. They would have gone up by 7.0% with a regulation win, ugh. Fatigue (and injuries) have clearly caught up to Rask who was making his 12th straight start in goal for Boston (and 18 out of the last 19 games).

The B's actually led 1-0 2:17 into the first period as David Pastrnak (21st goal of the season) finished a pass from Bergeron and Chara. Frederik Andersen (36 saves) remains unbeaten (7-0-0) vs. Boston in his career despite such a high-scoring back and forth affair. Toronto has a scary amount of uber-talented rookies led by William Nylander (1st NHL hat trick) and Auston Matthews (3 assists). Nylander tied it up at one after pretty passing with Nazem Kadri and Matthews before he wove around Rask for his 11th goal of the season. The roof caved in on Rask in a rough second period as Toronto scored three goals in the span of 1:46: van Riemsdyk capitalized on an Adam McQuaid turnover then Nylander scored a pair of goals 38 seconds apart (2nd was on a power play) to complete his hat trick. Bruins head coach Claude Julien called his timeout after the third goal and Rask was pulled after the fourth but neither move seemed to produce much of a jolt.

Pastrnak regained some momentum by cutting it to 4-2 (assisted by Bergeron and Chara) at 10:55 then McQuaid and Matt Martin had what might be the fight of the year in the NHL. Both guys traded haymakers for nearly a minute which is a lifetime in a bout. When it was over, the Garden was rocking and Martin had a large cut behind his left ear. Krug's power play goal at 15:53 made it 4-3 Toronto as Pasta and Ryan Spooner assisted on his fifth goal of the season. Spooner put in a rebound at 10:06 of the third period to knot it at four. Chara's third assist tied a career-high (for assists and points in a game) and Dominic Moore notched the other helper.

This isn't your father's Maple Leafs since Toronto didn't seem fazed by blowing a three-goal lead at all (somewhere James Reimer cries himself to sleep). Another rookie Connor Brown made it 5-4 at 15:15 (his 12th goal of the season) with assists going to Zach Hyman and Matthews. Boston cashed in on another power play as Bergeron (13th goal; 5-game point-streak) backhanded in a loose puck at 17:06 from Krug and Brad Marchand (5-game point-streak). It looked like the Bruins would at least steal a point by going to overtime and/or a shootout but Zane McIntyre (10 saves, 2 goals allowed) couldn't get them there, not that it was solely the rookie's backup goaltender's fault. JVR wheeled around the net and beat him with a wicked shot that went top-shelf at 18:24 for his 19th goal of the season. Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner (2 assists) had the helpers on van Riemsdyk's game-winner which was matched by his younger brother Trevor who had the game-winning goal in Chicago's 5-3 win at Dallas this evening.

Boston's next game isn't until Thursday (7, NESN) when they host last season's Western Conference champions-the Sharks (33-17-2). They have a practice tomorrow and then they are getting two days off which they could use. It should be a wacky week as the Bruins have three games (all at the Garden) in four days. Vancouver (23-22-6) is here on Saturday afternoon (1, NESN) and then Montreal (30-16-7) on Sunday night (7:30, NBC Sports). With tonight's loss, the B's fell back under .500 (12-13-0) at the Garden and 3-6-1 in their third jersey (with 5 more games scheduled to wear them) that they might as well burn at this point. The Sharks and Canadiens are both really good and the Canucks are mediocre (plus it will feel like a 10 am start for their bodies) so make of that what you will.