Bruins find their game amidst rough stuff

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Bruins find their game amidst rough stuff

The Bruins donned Irish Green Spoked B hockey sweaters on St. Patricks Day for their pregame warm-up on Saturday afternoon, but it was the hard hats and blue collar attitude that made all the difference for a Bs squad in need of something special.

The Bruins set the pace early with a pair of fights in the first period and dictated the physical tone throughout the game with a 3-2 shootout win over the Philadelphia Flyers at TD Garden. That was the all-too-familiar blueprint for Bs victory that theyve strayed too far from recently.

The Bruins outhit the Flyers by a 28-17 total at the end of the shootout victory that snapped a four-game losing streak, and they played with the kind of emotional snarl they need to be successful. It was the kind of Bruins hockey that was totally absent during their recent two-game disaster in Florida.

Its what I talked about before the game: Lets just be committed, lets go out there and play with some energy and some desire and have some fun out there. The one thing we couldnt do today is play on our heels and squeeze our sticks, said Claude Julien. So I really pushed a lot at the beginning of the day to make sure our guys were focused on doing that versus being nervous and fearing the worst. We just went out there, and it was about winning at all costs and doing what needed to be done.

It all started in the first period when Gregory Campbell dropped the gloves with hard-hitting Zac Rinaldo while seeking to give the Bruins an emotional spark. It was an evenly-matched hockey fight between a pair of high-energy players, and the scrap infused a weary Black and Gold bunch with the kind of energy they desperately searched for.

The fourth line center said it was simply a part of him doing his job.

There are interchanging roles on this team and everybody has to play at different parts. Sometimes thats whats needed: a spark or a little bit of energy to throw at the team, said Campbell. I think this was a big game for our team. It provided energy, and Im just trying to help out anyway I can. In that situation I think it was good in front of a home crowd to just to spark a little life into the team.

But rather than allow the energy to slacken after Campbell stepped up with an emotional response, the Bruins kept taking swings at the Flyers heavy bag. Adam McQuaid and Flyers pest Scott Hartnell got tangled up, but the Philly winger wanted nothing to do with the towering blueliner. Then Zdeno Chara skated by, barked at Hartnell and both tone-setting players started exchanging slashes on each others legs up the ice.

Hartnell backed down to the 6-foot-9 Bs defenseman once again when things started getting too testy, and that sequence set a tone for the rest of the game. Boston kept bringing hard hits and determined physicality to the playoff-style table, and the Flyers kept right on absorbing abuse.

It resulted in a pair of Flyers players (Andreas Lilja, Max Talbot) leaving the game with injuries, and Talbot going down with an upper body injury after dropping the gloves with Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk. The Bs blueliner dropped Talbot with a pair of quick right-handed punches, and Talbot went to the dressing room for repairs while sitting in the penalty box.

Once again the Broad Street Bullies were on the receiving end of a beating authored by a Bruins team finding their way.

We know what we have. We know the leaders and character we have on this team and its been a tough few games. We all know that, said Zdeno Chara. But theres nothing we can do about them we just have to look ahead of us and finish really strong. Really establish our game again going into the playoffs and really focus for the next one.

Reestablishing the Bruins game is all about getting back in touch with their inner intimidator, and the Bs did just that Saturday afternoon while ending up on the victorious end. Thats what it took to get back into the winning ways, and thats what its going to take for the Bruins to stay there.

Belichick: ‘I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency’

Belichick: ‘I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency’

FOXBORO – We’ve mentioned – a few thousand times – that the Patriots have a fleet of key free agents up at the end of the 2016 season.

There’s Jamie Collins, Donta Hightower, Jabaal Sheard, Duron Harmon, Martellus Bennett and Logan Ryan. Malcolm Butler, meanwhile, will be a restricted free agent. How does the team maintain its laser-focus on the games of 2016 while knowing that – if these business decisions aren’t addressed – the games of 2017 could look starkly different.

I asked Bill Belichick Friday morning about stealing a glance at the business side of things and planning for the future while the season’s ongoing.

“In general there’s some team planning you can do,” Belichick said after noting the team’s immediate focus is currently on Sunday’s game with the Bills. “Sometimes, if you can work out a contract with a player during the season – we’ve done that with various players – if you can work it out, you work it out. If you can’t, then there’ve been a number of players that we’ve signed – our players – that we signed once free agency has started. Devin [McCourty] to pick a name.

“I don’t think you can be afraid of free agency,” Belichick continued. “It’s not like if a guy gets to free agency you can’t re-sign him. You’re in a competitive market but, you know, you’re in a competitive market anyway.”

There are things that occur now, that could occur this weekend that can drastically impact every plan laid. It’s my impression that the Patriots are slow-playing this free agent class. Waving lucrative extensions in front of players before knowing how they’ll make it through this season and before knowing what their appeal will be on the open market is short-term satisfaction.

It will satisfy the players who want the security and it will squelch hand-wringing that EVERYBODY’S GOING TO LEAVE in the media.

Long-term, it’s risky.

Consider Donta Hightower. He’s got a knee issue that’s kept him down two games. He played three-quarters of the year in 2014 and 2015 and this year isn’t trending better. He brings absolutely everything the Patriots want in a player except the durability. The onus is on them to factor that into any contract offer they extend. Meanwhile, the onus is on Hightower to – if he isn’t getting what he and his agent feel he can command – to find out if another team will give him different terms if the Patriots’ aren’t suitable.

As Belichick pointed out, “These guys know that they have other options depending on who the player is and what the situation is. They have other options but we know there’s only so much money to go around. If you can work it out, then you have that security. If you can’t then you have your options. They have their options, we have our options. That’s professional sports. I don’t think that’s anything revolutionary. I don’t think it’s different than any other pro football team or any other pro team. You see the same in all the other sports.”

In general, the Patriots have shrewd free agent operators. Pulling the ripcord on Darrelle Revis and Wes Welker were two of the tougher calls made in recent years. Both decisions caused howling from the fanbase and predictions of doom from the media. Both were prescient decisions.

Teams splinter when the seasons end. And the second-guessing about the business decisions is inevitable.

“It’s been that way … since we had free agency,” he said. “That’s what it is. That’s the way it is in all sports. Basketball season’s over, you’re talking about a few guys going here, going there, staying with their team, whatever. You’re not gonna be able to get around that. Even if we were to sign a couple of those guys or whatever that is, there’s gonna be a couple of guys that aren’t so you can talk about those. Same thing we come in here Monday after every game. Somebody had production [but media asks], ‘But what about these guys this guy didn’t catch that many passes, this guy didn’t get that many carries.’ There’s always those guys to ask about. There’s no simple answer to it.”

This season, the questions seem even more challenging.  

 

Spooner working on his draws to help become a more complete center

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Spooner working on his draws to help become a more complete center

BRIGHTON, Mass. – Ryan Spooner quickly ticked off face-offs as one big area that needed improvement headed into his second full NHL season with the Bruins and the speedy young center has most definitely put in the work thus far in camp.

Still, it didn’t translate in Spooner’s first preseason game in Wednesday night’s lopsided loss to the Red Wings as he finished 4-for-16 on the draw, and to add insult to injury: he also served a two-minute minor penalty for a face-off violation that led to a power-play goal. 

The skilled center made up for it at the other end by setting up a score for fellow speed-demon center Austin Czarnik as Boston’s only goal, but he was again back out on the Warrior Ice Arena sheet working on his draws again Thursday.

“I wasn’t great on my face-offs [against Detroit] trying to cheat a little bit too much. I think I just need to maybe just bear down a little bit more,” said Spooner, who finished at a very lackluster 42.8 percent success rate on face-offs last season. “[I need to] not try to win them clean, maybe just tie them up a little bit more. I was just trying to cheat on those [face-offs], and it didn’t work.”

Clearly, the draws were a contributing part of the problem in the rough loss to the Red Wings and it’s something Spooner will need to iron out before he’s fully trusted by the coaching in the nitty-gritty situations late in games. That was obvious at times last season. It’s something Spooner wants to change this season when there’s so much competition at the center spot, with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, David Backes, Dominic Moore, Noel Acciari, Riley Nash and Czarnik all considered natural centers.

“When you start with the puck then the game is so much easier,” said B’s assistant coach Bruce Cassidy. “For Spooner [face offs] are important. I don’t want to speak for Claude [Julien], but he does have the luxury now of playing Spooner with guys that can take draws in his place if he wants to go down that road.

“At some point he’s going to have to improve [on the draw]. I think he wants to [improve on the draw] and he’s working at it, but the numbers aren’t where they need to be for him obviously. That’s the challenge Claude has going forward, but I think he can still get out on the ice and help you, even if he’s deficient in the face-off circle, and if he has some wingers that can help him.”

Spooner has employed veteran center Moore to give him some pointers while the two have worked out together in training camp and, in theory, it should be a big help for the young third-line center. Moore is one of those trusted veterans that is used in key face off situations with positive results, and is a left-shot player who can show the 24-year-old the exact techniques to help him.

Spooner said that getting face-off tips from Bergeron or Krejci had a limit to its helpfulness because those are right-handed centers doing the absolute reverse technique that a left-shot center would employ. Moore downplayed his role as a bit of a face off mentor, but the statistics, and his reputation on the draw would indicate he’s got plenty of knowledge to offer a second-year player.

“There are a lot of little things in the game, face-offs being one of them, that you learn through experience, and you want to try to pass it along to help make the team better,” said Moore. “[Spooner] is eager to try and improve a little bit every day. Part of face-offs is trying to get an edge any way that you can because they’re such a hotly contested thing.

“It’s definitely not easy, but if you have the right mentality then you try and build it up. You just have to approach it on a daily basis, commit to it and try to improve as best you can.”

Like so many things in life it would seem face-off ability is about putting in the work as much as it’s about natural-born skill and Spooner is putting in the hours to be a more complete center and trusted part of the team.