Good times keep rolling in Boston

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Good times keep rolling in Boston

By Rich Levine
CSNNE.com

Last winter, I really thought it was over.

After all, we knew it wouldn't last forever. It had been such an amazing run, so much greater than anyone imagined. And while no one was necessarily ready to come back down to Earth, if the time had come, you'd have understood.

Hey, six titles in 10 years. Not a bad stretch!

But now it was over.

Last January, the Patriots suffered the most embarrassing loss of the BelichickBrady era -- the 33-14 beatdown at the hands of the Ravens, at home no less, in the first round of the playoffs -- and the future of the organization suddenly looked darker than a Coen Brothers movie. The inmates were running the asylum and, as opposed to a collection of veterans who were mad on pride, grit and the Patriot Way, these Pats were led by recluses. Players who had long given up on the "team" and had a hard enough time taking care of themselves. By the end of the season, these guys had poisoned the culture.

Meanwhile a series of poor drafts had poisoned the talent pool, and it didnt help that Wes Welker, one of their most skilled and positively charged weapons, had just suffered a potentially career-altering injury. There was just an awful vibe coming out of Foxborough and the Jets looked poised to take over the AFC East. Awesome!

Over at Fenway, the term "bridge year" was being tossed around in preparation for a somewhat somber offseason. This, fresh off a playoff series which saw the Sox swept by the "Hey, We're Supposed to Own You in October!" Angels of Anaheim. Beckett, Ortiz and Papelbon all looked out of sorts, and that damn phrase "bridge year!" felt so wrong. These were the Red Sox. The only time you expect to hear the word "bridge" uttered within that organization is if John Henry's describing his favorite pasttime, or Larry Lucchino's saying "We've built a new bridge which gives fans better access between their seats and our over-priced souvenir shop."

Even if the team did sign John Lackey that winter, the idea that they'd ever use money as an excuse not to do whatever it takes to improve was an uncomfortable pill to swallow. Like a DayQuil. They told Boston to wait, but Red Sox Nation was unaccustomed to waiting, and many became resigned to the fact that the Sox would be the A.L. East's third-best team. (And they were)

Oh, yeah, and the Yankees had just won the World Series. Good times!

At the Garden, the Celtics were a mess. A combination of KG's knee, Rondo's attitude, Rasheed's effort, plus overall age, health, bad luck and worse chemistry had turned the team upside down. A year earlier, they'd been one of the happiest, most fun-loving teams in the league. Now they walked around like a bunch of disgruntled postal workers.

By January, and into February and March, the idea that the Celtics could contend for a title was as believable as Cam Newton's innocence, which was especially frustrating because that season was supposed to be it. Since the Big Three had first joined forces, everyone assumed it would just be a three-year venture; as the third season slipped away, so would the Big Three. It was the end of an era. One title; one Finals appearance; certainly satisfying, but, all things considered, not as great as it could be.

It's not that they were about to fall back down into the Lottery gutter. After all, Rondo, KG and, very likely, Pierce would all be back; that's still a playoff team. But there's no doubt that they were starting down on a pretty steep slope. Especially considering all the cash that would be tied up with the aforementioned three guys.

And oh yeah, the Lakers were reigning World Champs, and still the consensus best team in the world. Yes!

As for the C's roommates at the Garden, the Bruins were in the middle of an underachieving season of their own. The year before, they'd finished tied for the most wins in the NHL. They were upset in the second round, but we saw it as part of the growing pains of this young team. They would learn from it and get better.

But halfway through last year, that wasn't the case. The Bruins couldn't score. They couldn't find a rhythm. They couldn't get on the same page as their coach. They were the same old Bruins. And like the Patriots, Red Sox and Celtics at least by Boston's newfound standards they were in trouble.

And that was that. That was the vibe in Boston last winter. Those are the things we wasted the days talking about, and it was depressing as hell.

But again, at the same time, it wasnt entirely unexpected.

The city was disappointed, but still very grateful for all that had happened, and starting to accept that things were about to be different. Still fun. Still competitive. I mean, if I'd asked you last winter, "Hey, what do you think things will look like around here Christmas 2010?" you probably wouldn't have been completely doomsday about it.

But you just never would have predicted this. At least I wouldn't have.

The Patriots defense, which was so uninspiring in that awful loss to Baltimore, and struggled so much to develop an identity, has come into its own. They're far better than anyone imagined, and are only getting better. Not just this year, either. They have a defensive foundation that will carry the load for seasons to come.

And, not a bad complement, they also once again have the best quarterback in the game; the same guy whose efficiency absolutely blows your mind and consistently makes one of the hardest jobs in sports look easier than doing multiplication tables with a calculator. The bad apples were thrown in the garbage and Belichick turned out his best draft since at least 2003. Welker made an insane comeback, and while it took him a little time to fully find his groove, is once again among the leagues reception leaders.

Theyre 11-2 and the best team in the NFL.

The Red Sox told their fans to wait, and then told them to wait a little more, then tortured them even more with the Victor Martinez deal before dropping two of the biggest offseason bombshells of the last decade. They're World Series favorites. It only took five days to win back an entire nation of baseball fans.

The Celtics changed everything with last spring's historic run to the Finals. And although the season still ended in disappointment, that disappointment birthed a level of constant energy and optimism that's rare in any sport. That loss brought Doc back for one more shot, and then Paul Pierce and Ray Allen and Jermaine O'Neal and Delonte West and Shaq. Kevin Garnett is closer to his 2008 self than we ever imagined. Ray hasn't aged a day. Rondo's grown up. Big Baby's getting close. And Paul is still doing his thing he's now without a doubt one of the greatest Celtics of all-time. And for the most part especially and most importantly with Garnett the Celtics are happy.

Basically, through a series of amazing events between last spring and this fall the Celtics added two years to the Big Three era, and did so without falling off at all. And while the somewhat distant future is still a little cloudy, you can make the case that they're better equipped to win the title today than at any other point in the last four seasons. I know it's only December, but it's also basically 2011 and the C's are still major contenders. Maybe even the favorites.

As for the Bruins, you know, theyre still trying to completely find that groove, and it turned out that the disappointment of the 2009 playoffs couldnt hold a Zamboni to what went down in the spring of 2010. But they're in a better place. They have the best goalie in the league. A rookie class that's already paying dividends and a crew of other young players who've gained valuable experience over the past two post seasons and are starting to shed that "young player" label.

They're still trying to gain the same level of respect of the other three teams, but you can see it happening. It feels closer than it has in a long time.

In all four cases, success feels real. It feels very attainable. Just like it did for all those years before last winter's unraveling.

Basically, the good times are back. Or maybe it's that they never left.

Either way, I thought it was over.

And I thought very wrong.

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on CSNNE.com. Rich can be reached at rlevine@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

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Bruins bouncing between left wings Schaller and Spooner on Krejci line

BRIGHTON, Mass. – It certainly doesn’t feel like it will go on forever this way for the Bruins, but at this point it’s essentially a case of musical left wings on the David Krejci line as it’s been for much of this season. 

Ryan Spooner has spent the majority of the season adjusting to playing the wing with Krejci, and has been just okay trying to play away from his natural center spot while using his speed and playmaking on the wing. But the speedy Spooner also spent his share of time lately on the fourth line after getting off to a slow offensive start this season with three goals and eight points along with a minus-1 rating in 23 games. 

The bouncing between the second and fourth line has undoubtedly been frustrating for the 24-year-old getting pushed off his natural position after posting 49 points in his first full year as a third line center. But Spooner has continued to toe the company line, work on keeping his confidence high for a productive offensive season and do what he needs to in an effort to get off a fourth line.

That’s opened the door for hard-nosed former Providence College standout Tim Schaller to get some top-6 forward time on the Krejci line as well, but he’s just posted a single assist in the last three games while working hard to keep up offensively with David Krejci and David Backes. The 6-foot-2, 219-pound Schaller has the grittiness to do the dirty work for that line in the corners and in front of the net, and he can certainly skate well enough for a big, energy forward. 

“To think this was going to happen, I would say ‘no’,” said Schaller when asked if he could have predicted at the start of the season that he’d be getting a look from the B’s in a top-6 role. “I’ve been able to play with whoever and whenever my whole career. I wouldn’t want to say it’s one of those things that I had expected, but I’m always ready for it. 

“We’ve been working pretty well together. I don’t know that we’ve had too many great [offensive] opportunities to capitalize on, but Backes and Krejci are good enough players that they’ll come. They’re good enough to bury on those chances, so the goals will come. I’m always going to play the same way no matter who I’m with. Those guys might have the puck on their sticks a little longer than other linemates of mine, but that will just create more space and opportunities.”

So Spooner and Schaller bring different strengths and weaknesses to the table as the B’s coaching staff searches for the right fit alongside Krejci and Backes, and Julien sounds like a coach that’s going to keep swinging back and forth between the two players. He certainly did that with Spooner during the third period in Philly, which led to an immediate goal for Krejci in the third period comeback, and toward the end of the Carolina win with the B's desperate for offense. 

Julien also didn’t rule out Matt Beleskey getting another look there as well with the Bruins having a tough time finding anybody to consistently fill Loui Eriksson’s role from last season.

“At times I don’t think that offense has been producing much because maybe it’s lacking a little bit of speed at that time, so you put Spooner back up there. But sometimes you feel like that line isn’t winning enough battles or spending enough time in the offensive zone, so you put Schaller back in there because he’s going to play a little grittier. So we’re looking there,” said Julien. “We’d love to be able to find somebody to be a consistent player there. We’ve had Matt Beleskey there and that line never really did anything. 

“[Beleskey] has been much better on the [third] line and he’s been getting more chances, so I’ve been trying to put the best scenario together, I guess. Sometimes it’s the situation and sometimes it’s the matchup [against the other team] as well. So there are different reasons for that. I’ve just got to make it work. If it’s working with [Schaller] on that night then you stick with it, and if you don’t think you’re getting enough then you move [Spooner] there and see if you can a little spark with some speed. It doesn’t mean Beleskey won’t go back there. That’s what we have right now.”

So it’s clear Julien, and the B’s coaching staff, have simply tried to find something that will work on a consistent basis with a couple of key offensive players on Boston’s second most important forward line. The one wild card in all of this: the impending return of Frank Vatrano, who has been skating for nearly two weeks as he works toward a return from foot surgery.

Vatrano was initially penciled in as the left winger alongside Krejci to start NHL camp this fall, and the Bruins were hoping he was going to build on the eight goals he scored in Boston last season in a limited role.

Vatrano could be ready to play within the next couple of weeks, and should be back in the B’s lineup prior to the early January timetable originally offered at the time of his surgery. So perhaps the 22-year-old Vatrano can end this season-long carousel of Bruins left wingers getting paraded on and off the Krejci line, and finally give the B’s greater options at left wing. 

But the Czech playmaking center could use some stability also as he looks to find the highest level of his game in a challenging year for the Black and Gold, and do it while the Bruins find the right kind of talent to skate alongside him.