Bruins-Penguins meet in marquee matchup

594216.jpg

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.

Are they on a crash course?

rebuilding_the_bruins_-_starting_at_the_top.png

Are they on a crash course?

This is the first in a five-part “Rebuilding the Bruins” series about the breakdowns that doomed the team this season, and what must change for the Black and Gold to once again get moving in the right direction.

In many ways, this offseason is shaping up as a typical one for the Boston Bruins. There'll be roster fixes -- like last year's Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton trades on NHL draft weekend -- that they hope will result in upgrades and improvements. They'll work with their prospects and draft picks, looking for maturation and development . Hopefully, they'll work toward building a greater level of accountability and urgency among the core players, most of whom are expected to return.

And it some ways it's atypical. The heat is most definitely on president Cam Neely and general manager Don Sweeney after a second consecutive late-season collapse left the Bruins -- again -- one point shy of the postseason. Ownership clearly expects better, and has made its "expectations" clear.

The question is: Are Neely and Sweeney doing what needs to be done to get the franchise back on track?

“If people were to ask ‘Who is head of hockey operations?’, it’s a collaborative effort between a number of people,” said Bruins CEO Charlie Jacobs. “But if you ask for one sort of name, I would say it’s Cam Neely. I’m fairly certain my father" -- team owner Jeremy Jacobs -- "would share that sentiment.

"I just want to clarify. . . about investing in our team. It’s something that we continually do. We had leveraged our future (in recent years in an attempt to win immediately) to the point where something had to change last summer. We made the change and we’re righting the ledger, if you will, by stocking our team back up with prospects with the ability for cap flexibility to make the proper moves moving forward.

“We will always invest in this team. I think now we’re back on the right side of the ledger. We have an opportunity in front of us to move forward. We are a cap team and there should be expectations in an Original Six market that we continue to be a playoff contender and, frankly, a Stanley Cup contender. Given the mix of talent that we currently have on the roster and the youth that’s coming in, Cam’s aware of those expectations, as is Don.”

Those expectations underscore how much work there is to be done for a middling hockey club with some valuable individual pieces -- Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Tuukka Rask, David Krejci, David Pastrnak -- but far too many weaknesses that can be easily exploited by the better teams around the NHL.

The reality is, the Bruins are stuck in the mediocre middle right now . . . and that's a bad place to be. They're picking at No. 14 again, where the truly game-changing type of young player that Boston needs isn't available. In addition, the Bruins won’t be a true Stanley Cup contender again until they have a No. 1 defenseman in the 25-to-33-years-old range capable of playing 30 quality minutes per night over a long, two-month postseason run. They could also use a big, strong right winger with top-6 offensive potential. And they need to come up with an adequate backup goalie for Tuukka Rask.

That's a lot of work for Sweeney in one offseason.

“We just need to continue to get better, you know?” said Sweeney. “This is a performance-driven business and we’re going to be held to that standard and you know we fell short. We do believe that we should have [been in the playoffs]. That's not disparaging against the eight teams that [started the playoffs in the East] . . . [those] that are there they deserve it, and we fell just short of that. I still believe that we had a strong enough group to get in and challenge there. Then you just wait and see what happens.

"But we fell short in that and I take ownership of it. It’s on me; it’s not on anybody else to continue to improve our roster. That’s on me.”

Many around the league use terms like “half-pregnant” when describing the Bruins. Last season the B's had one foot pointed toward a rebuild and the other foot pointed toward competing for a playoff spot. In the end, they accomplished neither. Clearly, they were good enough to be in the playoffs -- the seventh-best goal differential in the East, a top-five offense and well above-average special teams’ play was enough to offset their shaky defense -- but Sweeney has to realize that even they'd made it they were destined to go out in the first round . . .which was the fate of the Red Wings and Flyers, the teams they were battling for one of the final two postseason spots in the East.

And that raises a deeper question: Is this current plan of action in the best long-term interest of the Bruins?

The front office's failings at the trade deadline are a prime example. Rather than face reality -- that even if they'd made the playoffs, they weren't going beyond one round -- the Bruins instead:

a) Shipped out future draft picks for marginal veteran upgrades in Lee Stempniak and John-Michael Liles.

b) Held onto unrestricted-free-agent-to-be Loui Eriksson, who was having his best season in a Boston uniform and might have fetched valuable long-term assets in a trade. That option no longer exists with Eriksson now on his way out the door.

Neely and Sweeney might argue that it’s pure media-driven hindsight to criticize those trade-deadline moves, which now look especially bad since the team failed to qualify for the postseason, but it's their jobs to shape the team’s future. It should have been very clear to both that the Bruins didn’t have the right stuff to make any kind of a playoff run. Playing and developing their promising young players down the stretch should have been the priority, but, frankly, that never felt like the case after Sweeney's band-aid trades for veteran rentals.

This was never more evident than when the Bruins flew Frank Vatrano cross-country on emergency recall at the start of the season-changing California road trip in late March, sat him for the loss to the San Jose Sharks, and then flew him back to Providence without having played a game. The emergency recall made little sense, especially considering how they could have used Vatrano’s scoring touch.

That simple fact was hammered home when the Bruins did come to their senses shortly afterward and recalled Vatrano, along with fellow prospect Colin Miller, for the final few pivotal games of the season. Both of those talented players should have been gaining that playoff-stretch experience in Boston all along. And who knows? They might have even provided the one extra point that ultimately cost them the playoff spot they so coveted.

Cultivating the next generation of Bruins talent is what will once again get them closer to their stated goal of Stanely Cup contention. (They’ll also need to get lucky with a top-pairing defenseman, or two, dropping into their lap along the way, of course.) But they'll be doomed to repeat the uninspired work of the last two seasons if they keep sailing the same course.

The Bruins need clarity in direction at the top of the organizational food chain. They need to do the right thing, rather than the easy thing.

The question is whether the Bruins want a nice, little playoff team or a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, and whether they have the temerity and the discipline to make certain it’s the latter rather than the former. Bruins management needs to start making hard, unpopular choices if it doesn't want the listless history of the last two years to continue repeating itself.

 

May 2, 2016: Martin Jones standing tall in Sharks net

cp-morning-skate.jpg

May 2, 2016: Martin Jones standing tall in Sharks net

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading while giving everybody a 24-hour reprieve from any Game of Thrones spoilers.

 

*Good to see FOH (Friend of Haggs) Nick Cotsonika back with a byline covering the NHL: here he writes about Lightning goaltender Ben Bishop with some thoughts from Martin Brodeur.

 

*David Backes got the ultimate birthday present when he snapped home a game-winning overtime goal for the Blues.

 

*Boston boy Rick DiPietro is working without a net as an analyst for the New York Islanders now that his goaltending career has come to a close.

 

*Jaromir Jagr was named a finalist for the Masterton Trophy for his decades’ long dedication to the game of hockey.

 

*Brooks Orpik is suspended three games for his head shot on Olli Maatta, and it’s a bit ironic it happens against the Pittsburgh Penguins team he spent plenty of years throwing predator hits for prior to joining Washington.

 

*Damien Cox has a mock NHL Draft now that the top 14 lottery picks have been set in stone following last weekend.

 

*Martin Jones is standing tall for the San Jose Sharks, and proving to be a difference-maker in his first season for them between the pipes.

 

*For something completely different: as the father of a newborn baby girl, I read about this Zika virus and find it absolutely terrifying and tragic.

May 1, 2016: With NHL draft order set, time to deal?

cp-morning-skate.jpg

May 1, 2016: With NHL draft order set, time to deal?

Here are the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading after thinking Barack Obama gave Jeffrey Ross a run for his money as the Roast-master In Chief at last night’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner.

*The man behind the music at American Airlines Arena for the Dallas Stars’ games comes into the spotlight for a story.

 

*Don Cherry sings the praises of Joel Ward, wears a Toronto Marlies suit and said “it was time to go” for Bruce Boudreau in Anaheim.

 

*PHT writer Cam Tucker has Penguins coach Mike Sullivan taking major issue with the head shot Brooks Orpik laid on Olli Maatta.

 

*The Maple Leafs secure the No. 1 overall pick in last night’s NHL Draft lottery, which will no doubt lead them to Auston Matthews.

 

*Now that the Edmonton Oilers have the No. 4 pick, Peter Chiarelli is open to trade options for those teams wanting to move up.

 

*Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk is once again thriving in Ontario just a year after a major health scare.

 

*Good piece by FOH (Friend of Haggs) Kevin Kurz on the unique journey for Brent Burns that culminated in his Norris Trophy finalist honor this week.

 

*Spector has the roundup of rumors including plenty of speculation on Kevin Shattenkirk once the Blues are done in the playoffs.

 

*For something completely different: a couple of reporters actually got into an actual fight at the White House Correspondent’s after-party. It sounds like they both kind of deserved a punch in the face, to be honest.