Haggerty: Bruins looked much better than expected in opener

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Haggerty: Bruins looked much better than expected in opener

Well, so much for the Into the Great Wide Open theme for the NHLs 48-game shortened schedule.

With an extensive number of players doing little more than playing glorified shinny over the last four months, a brief week-long training camp and skaters in varying degrees of physical condition as the NHL season opened this weekend, many around the game werent quite sure what the first few weeks of hockey games would entail.

Words like sloppy and rag tag were thrown around Boston Bruins camp to brace for the worst, particularly after a Tuesday night scrimmage against the Providence Bruins proved more than a little messy.

But interestingly enough that scrimmage might have been exactly the wakeup call that the Bruins required to wake them up to the season.

Because the team that took a 3-1 season-opening victory over the Rangers on Saturday night appeared much closer to the Bruins club everybody is accustomed to over the last five seasons under Claude Julien. The offensive and defensive systems were more organized and cohesive, and the battle level up and down the roster seemed to trump any lingering rustiness.

I think that Tuesday scrimmage was probably the best thing for us because we talked about a lot of things that we werent doing well, and things that kind of carried over from last season that we didnt like, said Milan Lucic. We addressed that in this week of training camp practice, and it was good to see that we came out and played the way that we did against the Rangers.

Players like Lucic, Nathan Horton and Brad Marchand were probably the biggest surprises in the game: none of those three opted to play in Europe during the lockout but still played big roles in the one-sided victory over the Rangers.

Shawn Thornton and Gregory Campbell had more than enough energy in the second period to seize back momentum with a pair of emotional bouts after the Rangers scored their lone goal.

Lucic potted the games first goal and was a snarling, fire-spitting presence on the ice throughout the game. Horton played upwards of 16 minutes and didnt shy away from body contact or heavy traffic areas while putting up a pair of shots and registered hits in the victory. Marchand logged the third-most ice time of Bruins forwards in the game and didnt find himself constantly playing catch-up with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin, who both played the last three months in Switzerland.

Milan had his mean face on and thats what makes him such a good player, said Claude Julien. With Nathan, he was going in the corners battling and he didnt fear anything. For a guy that hasnt played in a year because of a concussion those are good signs. Conditioning-wise I think he did a very good job keeping up with the pace.

None of the areas that could have been troublesome for a collection of rusty hockey players became an issue: the defensive zone breakouts were good, the packed-in defensive zone coverage was stalwart and the special teams were a strength when the Bruins killed a 5-on-3 NY power play in the third period with Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg and Patrice Bergeron.

Not to mention the Bruins outshot the Rangers by a 9-6 margin in the third period and closed them in textbook Black and Gold fashion.

The question becomes how much was Saturdays effort the base line for judging the Bruins over the next few weeks, and how much of it was simply adrenaline pushing them through against a vaunted opponent. Horton acknowledged that adrenaline certainly played a role for everybody in a home opener theyd waited four months to play, but there was something left in the tank beyond that.

I know I was a little nervous, but just being back was so nice, said Horton. I think its going to be pretty easy to keep it going. We have such a good team and our fans are great. Especially at home its nice. Id play again today if I could because we had so much fun.

All of our guys are in good shape. I think everybody played really well Saturday, we worked really hard and didnt make many mistakes at all. We were getting the puck deep, and were going to have a really good year if we keep playing like that.

The adrenaline theory will be put to the test on Monday afternoon as the Bruins get ready to host the Winnipeg Jets in a Dr. Martin Luther King Day special at TD Garden. Its exactly the kind of sleepy follow-up game to the tilt against the Rangers that could allow the Bruins to relax and perhaps show some of the slippage many expected to see in their game to start things out this season.

"It's about focusing on the little things for us," said Chris Kelly. "Usually around this time of year we're in the middle of the season and it's second nature, but those things will help us keep getting better."

If the Bruins push the soreness and fatigue out of their bodies and minds while putting together a second straight winning effort against Winnipeg, that will a be clear indicator Boston is in a very good place to start the season.

WATCH: Celtics vs. Thunder

WATCH: Celtics vs. Thunder

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Celtics-Thunder preview: Another chance against a top-tier team

Celtics-Thunder preview: Another chance against a top-tier team

Hosting the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 25, the Boston Celtics had the perennial title contenders on the ropes with the lead in the fourth quarter only to lose it and the game, 109-103.

On the road at Houston, one of the Western Conference’s top teams, the Celtics led in the fourth quarter and wound up losing their Dec. 5 matchup 107-106 as Al Horford missed what would have been a game-winning lay-up as time expired.

Boston played well in both games, but not well enough to win which unfortunately for the Green Team has been how things have gone when they’ve faced some of the better teams in the NBA this season.

They are hoping to break that trend tonight when they hit the road and face the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Thunder (14-9) come in with a slightly better record than the Celtics (13-10).

Boston’s issue isn’t that they can’t play with the better teams.

It’s their finish that needs work.

Boston has lost five of its six games this season against teams that are currently among the top-4 in their respective conferences. 

Losses to San Antonio and Houston only highlight Boston not being able to make the late-game runs needed to win.

Even in their 101-94 loss to Toronto on Friday, it was the Raptors’ ability to make one clutch play after another when it mattered most, that proved to be what was needed to propel them to victory.

“That’s what good teams do; they execute at the end of the game,” said Celtics guard Avery Bradley. “We just have to execute better and get stops at the end of the game. That’s what it comes down to.”

And while the Celtics have a number of returners from last season, every season brings about a different team and with that, a need to learn how to collectively be successful especially down the stretch in close games.

“We’re learning,” Bradley said following the Raptors loss. “We’re moving on to the next game.”

And that would be the Thunder who come in having won six of their last seven games.

Of course when it comes to the Thunder, everything starts with Russell Westbrook who is on everyone’s short list for league MVP.

He is averaging a triple-double this season with 30.9 points, 11.3 assists and 10.8 rebounds per game.

“He’s amazing,” said Boston’s Terry Rozier who will likely spend some time defending Westbrook tonight. “He’s going to be aggressive. We have to try and find a way to stop that. He’s putting up video game stats. It’s tough but we gotta do something.”

The Celtics will likely lean heavily on Marcus Smart and Bradley, a first-team all-NBA defensive selection last season, when it comes to trying to slow down Westbrook.

“Russell’s a good player,” Bradley said. “I look forward to every matchup. If it’s him, whoever it is, I look forward to it. That’s what this league is about.”

It’s also about growth and development of franchises into title contenders, something the Celtics are eager to continue pushing towards tonight.

Horford spent the previous nine seasons with the Atlanta Hawks, advancing to the playoffs every season.

He saw first-hand how they went from a team that could barely get into the playoffs, into one that produced four all-stars in one season and had the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Horford saw the loss to Toronto as an example of a really good team doing what great teams do and that’s finding a way to win regardless of how things are going most of the night.

“We made a run early (against Toronto), they stayed with it, didn’t rattle and eventually got over us,” Horford said. “We’re growing as a group.”