Bruins continue to find ways to stay hot

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Bruins continue to find ways to stay hot

GLENDALE, AZ. The Bruins continue to win even when theyre having difficulties executing. Somehow they still get results whenstraying away from the game plan mapped out before taking the ice.

That was the case again Wednesday night in a 2-1 overtime victoryover the Phoenix Coyotes at jobing.com Arena. The Bruins had a couple ofrusty excuses whilecoming off four days without a game around the Christmasholiday break coupled with the long trip out to Phoenix.

But, once again, as they've proven time and time againthis season while defying conventional hockey wisdom, they pulled out two points when they probably didn't deserve it. They're now 21-2-1 over the last 24 games since Nov. 1, and it doesn't seem fair to the other 29 teams when the Bruins are winning games they openly admit they don't quite deserve.Maybe that's Boston being tough on themselves given their Stanley Cup-high standards these days, or maybe they're just really damned good. Maybe they can just win even when they're at less than their best.

We are winning some games that we probably shouldnt be winning, admitted David Krejci after the triumphant extra session struggles over the Coyotes. But we dont want to get comfortable. We want to bounce back and correct the things we werent doing well the next time we play.

While the overall execution might have been a little murky and messy, the Bs did enough to pull out the eventual win in overtime by never letting things get out of hand.

As they've done throughout their hot streak, the Bruins combined sound defensive principles and elite goaltending to allow just one goal. The Bruins were a little more fuzzy in their neutral zone coverage, but had only one breakdown in their own end when Ray Whitney made everybody else look like a rented hockey player.But that's something he's been doing for 20 years.Only once in 11 games during December have the Bs allowed more than two goals in a game, which has kept them fightingin every single hockey game theyve played. Not just for this month, though. That's been a pattern for the entire season.Add to that the experience earned through winning the Cup, and the Bruins truly believe they will pull out games that are close headed intoa third period fracas.

We know if we get more than one or two goals in a game than we have a really good chance to win, said Krejci, who scored the teams first goal less than a minute into the first period. It was a big win even though it wasnt our best game. We battled hard and found a way to win the game. That was a big two points for us.

It wasnt easy in the first game after the holiday and the ice wasnt very good at all. Its not easy. We try to do everything as we usually do, but its not always your night. But we are pretty good at finding ways to win hockey games, and thats what we did tonight. It looks like weve got something good going here.

The Bruins had defensive breakdowns and allowed more odd-man rushes and partial breakaways than usual against a flying Coyotes bunch. But Zdeno Chara was quick to point it was more execution than effort, and Boston's most consistent area of struggle this season has been neutral zone coverage that wanes over time. There was no absence of emotion in what could have been a sleepy game in the desert. The B's willingness to fight for a "W"was clear when Adam McQuaid pounded Raffi Torres into a bloody pulp during the second period.

But just as the Bruins pulled out games against the Blue Jackets, Kings and Senators in recent weeks where they didnt play their best, they did it once again besting the desert dogs. Its one of the explanation for three Phoenix Coyotes players earning the Three Stars of the Game (along with the voters being raving Phoenix homers,of course)despite dropping the 2-1 overtime decision to the Bruins.Butall of these flimsy winscome with a downside if things aren't eventually corrected. All 82 can't be gems, but bad habits can pretty easily turn into losing streaks if attention isn't paid.

Claude Julien was happy with the two points following the road victory, but it sounded as if the Bruins had some work to do once the practice ice is prepped in Phoenix for a Thursday afternoon session. That was hammered home when Ray Whitney and Shane Doan continuously ripped through the Bs attempts at neutral zone coverage, and the B's defensemanflailed badly in breaking the puck out of their own end. Boston almost didn't make it into the extra session when Phoenix had them hemmed into their own zone with the B's best players on the ice.But the Yotes have their own problems.

The Bruins were aided by a Coyotes bunch that were missing Martin Hanzal, Boyd Gordon, Adrian Aucoin and Mike Smith and couldnt quite finish the dozen scoring opportunities a sloppy Bs unit dropped in their laps. Still when a coach addresses his own squad and uses the phrase Swiss Cheese its usually a time to reassess the situation and address potential holes in the team "cheese".

It was one of those games where they had some great opportunities. I thought we struggled again through the neutral zone. I thought we struggled a bit and they were really going through us like Swiss Cheese, said Claude Julien. We left a lot of areas there for them to skate through. It was our first game back from having three days off, so we werent as sharp as we could have been. We improved as the game went on and got the result that we wanted.

We take pride in our defensive game without the puck. Confidence grows with each game, and we believe 99 percent of the time, we will get great goaltending. However, we know there will be challenges ahead, so we have to guard against overconfidence.

Itll be a challenge to avoid overconfidence when subpar periods and shoddy execution cant stop the Bruins from winning, but thats the name of a game for a hockey club thats become a handful to everyone else in the NHL for two full months. In proper perspective the B's also allowed only 21 shots through an entire overtime game against the Coyotes, so it's not like the 50 shots per game Boston allowed with Chara missing from the lineup.

Where once teams might have been able to take advantage of the Bruins on an off night the Bs now hold the secret sauce to extract two points out of those games too. It almost doesnt seem fair but thats just the way it is these days with the Stanley Cup champion Bruins and their ever-expanding point total at the expense of everybody else.

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. 

Blidh plans to bring some energy to Bruins after call-up

Blidh plans to bring some energy to Bruins after call-up

BRIGHTON, Mass. – Anton Blidh plans on keeping things pretty straightforward on his first call-up to the NHL. 

The former sixth-round pick of the Bruins has earned his stripes at the AHL level with Providence over the last couple of seasons, and comes to Boston as a gritty, energy forward capable of stirring things up in otherwise sleepy games. There’s also a bit of offensive upside for a fourth line-type player with five goals and nine points with 22 penalty minutes and a plus-eight rating in 19 games for the P-Bruins this season. 

It remains to be seen if the Blidh call-up means that the Bruins intend to scratch a player or that somebody is questionable for Saturday afternoon’s game in Buffalo, but Patrice Bergeron did miss Friday’s practice without any real defined reason for his absence. The 21-year-old Swede said he plans to play to his strengths if he gets into the lineup for the Black and Gold, and that could mean getting under the skin of his Sabres opponents. 

“It’s my first time called up, so I’m happy,” said Blidh, who was asked what he'll bring if he gets into the lineup. “I’ll just play simple and play my own game: be hard on the puck and play with some energy. I worked hard [in Providence] and then I got some confidence. I’m not a goal-scorer, but I scored a couple of goals and got some confidence.”

Claude Julien hasn’t been able to catch up Blidh’s work since the season got started, but was pleased by the youngster’s progress in training camp, where he earned notice for his feisty, physical play on a line with Noel Acciari. 

“They said he’s playing well, so they brought him up. We’ll get to see him, hopefully tomorrow,” said Julien. “I didn’t hear a ton of fine details aside from him being a guy that was certainly playing with a lot of energy. I didn’t mind him in training camp either. He works really hard and competes hard, and we could use that.”

That would certainly be the case after watching the Bruins go through the motions for long stretches Thursday night against Carolina before essentially stealing a game that they didn’t deserve to win.