Bruins-Penguins meet in marquee matchup

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Bruins-Penguins meet in marquee matchup

PITTSBURGH It seems like it just might end up this way this season, doesnt it?

With the Bruins brimming with confidence and poise after winning a Stanley Cup, and with the Penguins regaining the face of the NHL in Sidney Crosby, the Bs and Pens sit atop the Eastern Conference two months into the regular season.

It was Crosbys concussion and Evgeni Malkins knee issues that opened the door in the East for the Bruins to run roughshod over the rest of the field en route to the Cup Finals last season. Now Pittsburgh stands as the only team between Boston and the top spot in the East, and it's not difficult to see that playing out again in the postseason.

Clearly its still early in the season with nearly 60 games still left to play, but everyone should be allowed to get a little giddy when the top two teams in the conference square off for bragging rights. That will be on the line for both squads at CONSOL Energy Center Monday night, and a game like that should bring out every lastounce ofthe best both hockey clubs have to offer.

The players in the Bs dressing room are certainlyaware.

Its going to be a great challenge for us. The Penguins are playing extremely well. They have their best player back Sidney Crosby, said Chris Kelly. He seems like he hasnt missed a beat. It will be an exciting game for us.

The Penguins have three points on the Bruins heading into Monday, but the Bs also hold three games in hand against the conference leaders. The two could play seesaw all season among the top spots now that the Bruins have battled their way back to exalted NHL status, but theres a great importance to this epic Eastern Conference tilt.

The Bruins no longer measure themselves against a tomato can Toronto team they routinely dominate. Teams like Montreal and Buffalo aremerely pretenders until they prove they can withstand Boston's physicality and toughness.Pittsburgh is the bar right now, and Boston presents matchup problems to the Penguins with their depth, discipline, toughness and work ethic.But Pittsburgh is alsoone of the few teams that can match the Bs strength down the middle with Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal anchoring the Pens top three forward lines. That means Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Chris Kelly better come prepared with a willingness to put their game faces on and get a little grime under their fingernails.

When youve got Staal playing on that third line it says a lot about their depth, said Claude Julien. Theyre a pretty good team. Their coach has done a good job of balancing those lines to separate Crosby and Malkin because it certainly makes it tougher on other teams when they cant just shut down the one line.

Theyve got some good balance and skill level. Theyre the same team as ours where theyve had different guys step up to do the job for them. Im looking forward to it and Im exciting for Monday night. It should be a real interesting game.

The Penguins are well-coached by Dan Bylsmas staff as indicatedby the B's coach,and they boast skilled puck-moving defensemen and a goaltender with lottery pick pedigree in Marc-Andre Fleury. In other words theyre a formidable match for the Black and Gold now that Sid the Kid is picking up right where he left off last season.

The Bruins have been the unquestioned favorite in thevasty majority ofgames this season as the Stanley Cup champs. But they arrive in Pitt with something to prove to the one team that could become their arch-nemesis this spring, and has been in the past.

The Monday night game allows both teams a chance to make a statement and bloody the first nose, so to speak, in whats been an incredibly compelling rivalry over the last few seasons. Things ramped up following Matt Cookes blindside cheap shot on Marc Savard two years ago, and theres no reason to think the animus has dissipated in any way, shape or form.

That should be just what the Bruins need where they might normally be allowingtheir attention spans towander after astrong five week showingof hockey prowess.

Itll be an interesting game. Theyre a team thats playing extremely well and Sidney is back in the lineup, said Julien. We know the challenge it represents. Its a good thing for us where were at with our team. Itll give us one of the best possible challenges we could have right now.

Thats what we need right now. Its a good test. Everything has been going pretty smoothly and in order for us to stay focused we need a good test like that.

Something will have to give between the two well-rounded hockey clubs. The Bruins have won three in a row and 13 out of their last 14 games with many of them in the kind of dominant fashion that scream out "elite team." The Penguins have won two in a row and have lost only one game in regulation on home ice in 11 attempts this season for an 8-1-2 record at the "new Igloo."

We've got the right mind set going into every game right now. I feel like we're playing the same way every game and we're being super consistent, said Joe Corvo. If we don't find consistency at some point in the game, then it gets corrected.

I think the Penguins are obviously a good test. They're in first place, so it'll be an exciting game.

The Penguins played amazingly good hockey over the first six weeks without their franchise center, and now theyve watched Crosby put up 12 points and play 19 minutes a night in his first seven games back. Thats storybook stuff for Pittsburgh, and Sids return gives the Penguins their own special brand of confidence headed into the Black and Goldshowdown.

The Pens wont be wide-eyed and intimidated like the Leafs continue to be when facing down the champs, but thats what makes it a marquee mid-season game.

We know what we have here in this dressing room, said David Krejci. We just want to get up there on Monday, get a win and then get first in the conference."

First place in the conference wont come to the Bruins with a win on Monday, but it wont shock anybody if the path to this years Stanley Cup goes right through Pittsburgh.

That roadway opens up tomorrow night for both teams, and it should be a heck of a battle.

Thursday, Aug. 25: Nearly two decades later, the Whalers live on

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Thursday, Aug. 25: Nearly two decades later, the Whalers live on

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while in disbelief mode that the summer is almost over.

*Good piece on the remainders of the Hartford Whalers organization in Connecticut trying to keep the dream alive for the Whale.

*Tyler Seguin sits down for a podcast this week that I freely admit I did not have the time to listen to. I wonder if Boston even rated a mention in the conversation?

*Rating the top NHL contracts, according to the fancy stats hockey analysts, sounds like an interesting exercise.

*Tracey Myers has Duncan Keith bowing out of the World Cup of Hockey while recovering from an injury, and getting replaced by Jay Boumeester.

*The “Da Beauty” Hockey League has kept players like Dustin Byfuglien, Ryan McDonagh and David Backes in hockey shape this summer while slowly getting ready for the season.

*The Arizona Coyotes make a historic hire by naming Dawn Braid as skating coach, making her the first female coach in the NHL.

*For something completely different: FOH (Friend of Haggs) Rich Shirtenlieb guested on the #DORK podcast this week, and it sounds like he didn’t love “Stranger Things.” At the very least he liked “Preacher” better. I thought Preacher was entertaining, but I didn’t even think it was in the same stratosphere as Stranger Things. Rich also has me wanting to watch “It Follows” now, however, after his endorsement.

 

Bruins don't poll well in latest New England Sports survey

Bruins don't poll well in latest New England Sports survey

It’s no secret Bruins fans are getting fed up with a hockey team in decline, one that’s missed the playoffs each of the last two years. Now there are numbers to prove it.

Channel Media and Market Research, Inc. came out with its annual New England Sports survey,  tabulating responses from over 14,600 polled, and, according to the numbers, the Bruins are dropping in popularity, fan support and faith in the current management group.

The B’s are holding somewhat steady with 16 percent of voters listing them as their “favorite sports team” behind the Patriots (46 percent) and Red Sox (29 percent) while ahead of the Celtics and Revolution. Claude Julien also ranked ahead of John Farrell among the big four teams in the “coaches/manages most admired” category.

But after sitting at a relative high of ranking at 27 percent for “ownership performance” in 2014 -- they year after their trip to the Cup Finals against the Blackhawks -- the Bruins now rank dead last in that category at 2 percent, behind the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics and even the Revolution. Ouch, babe.

Also sitting at a lowly 2 percent is Bruins president Cam Neely in the “leadership performance” category. In "management performance," Neely has dropped from a solid 49 percent in 2014 to just 16 percent in this summer’s survey.

So B’s fans are clearly upset with a team that traded away Tyler Seguin, Johnny Boychuk, Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton, and has featured a decimated defense corps for each of the last two seasons. But do the B’s fans think that things are getting any better with prospects coming down the pipeline?

Not really.

In the “which team has done the best job making its product better.” category, the Patriots (35 percent) and Red Sox (31 percent) were resting at the top, with the Celtics (27 percent) a respectable third. The Bruins limped in at just 4 percent with a fan base that very clearly sees that, on paper, this upcoming season’s club doesn’t appear to be much better than last year's.

On top of that, only 13 percent of those surveyed believe the Bruins have gotten better over the last year, and 52 percent believe they’ve just gotten worse. A lowly 3 percent of those surveyed think the Bruins have the best chance of the five teams to bring a world championship back to Boston; the Patriots (79 percent), Red Sox (11 percent) and Celtics (5 percent) all ranked higher.

Finally, Zdeno Chara, Tuukka Rask and Jimmy Hayes were at the top of the list of the Boston athletes “who did not meet expectations” last season. None of that is a surprise, given the state of Boston’s defense along with Hayes’ subpar season.

The good news for the Bruins: They still have a passionate fan base. But they need to start reversing course immediately before they do lasting damage to the B’s brand.

Wednesday, August 24: B's dealing with post-Vesey aftermath

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Wednesday, August 24: B's dealing with post-Vesey aftermath

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading with the Olympics coming to a close . . .
 
-- FOH (Friend of Haggs) Kirk Luedeke sorts through the aftermath for the Bruins after losing out on Jimmy Vesey

-- Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland gave an interview where he said the Red Wings aren’t Stanley Cup contenders this season. 

-- Related to Holland’s comments, some of the media in Detroit aren’t taking the dose of reality all that well

-- It’s a big season for New Jersey Devils forward Kyle Palmieri, who will be starring for Team USA on the World Cup team. 

 -- PHT writer Cam Tucker says the Buffalo Sabres still have a strong group of forwards even without Jimmy Vesey.

-- Jamie Benn is giving everything to his Dallas Stars team, and that means that the World Cup of Hockey is taking a backseat
 
-- The Colorado Avalanche are nearing the end of their head coaching search as they look for their replacement for Patrick Roy.
 
-- For something completely different: NBC is making the argument that millenials watched the Olympics, but just not on the traditional formats