Chara looking forward to Operation Shutdown Ovechkin

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Chara looking forward to Operation Shutdown Ovechkin

WILMINGTON, Mass. Zdeno Chara enjoys the challenge of shutting down Alex Ovechkin. Hell say it loudly and proudly for everybody to hear as opening night for their playoff series awaits on Thursday.

It's something that motivates me, said Chara. It's something that . . . I enjoy competing against the best players. Obviously they have a few great players on their team. Sometimes the matchups are hard to get, especially on the road. But when you do get them, you want to make the best of them. Overall, I love to compete, I love to work hard against whoever I'm playing against.

That work hard mentality can swerve a lot closer to obsession when it comes time for the Slovakian strong man to neutralize his Russian counterpart.

There is little doubt the 6-foot-9 captain will get the call again when the bell rings for the first round playoff series against the Capitals, but theres a unique challenge opening up with Washington. The Caps have divided up their elite offensive talent with Ovechkin on one line with Brooks Laich and Troy Brouwer, and placed playmaking center Nicklas Backstrom on a second line with enigmatic skilled winger Alex Semin and hard-nosed Jason Chimera.

That means the shutdown pairing of Chara and Dennis Seidenberg will draw duty on one of those two lines most likely Ovechkin given his power game and explosiveness but the expected second D pairing of Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk will have their hands full as well with the second forward line.

One thing you see: Julien breaking up the Chara-Seidenberg pairing and the Patrice BergeronBrad MarchandTyler Seguin line, so their shutdown D pairing and shutdown forwards draw different assignments on the top two Washington forward lines.

The possibilities are endless, theyre part of the ongoing chess match that will play out on the ice over the two weeks between Washington and Boston.

Thats the good thing about having the last change at home. You can control the matchups to a certain extent. We say all of the time, though, if you want to hard-match then you might be taking away part of our game, said Julien. Thats what we have to decide as we go along here. But at least with last change on the home face-offs if they try to change on the fly.

With the last change advantage at TD Garden Claude Julien is ready to play mix-and-match line chess with Washington coach Dale Hunter, and knows that will be a considerable factor in the outcome of the series.

I think its pretty hard to deny that Chara is going to play against their best players. But at the same time I really feel there is a lot more than Ovechkin on that team. Its about more than one player, said Claude Julien. Backstrom is back. Semin can score. Theyve got some decent players. Brooks Laich has been a good player for them as well. Their back end is very good at moving the puck up the ice and moving on the attack.

There is a lot of strength on that hockey club and their team is playing very well. So were playing a team with a lot of confidence.

Ovechkin, of course, has won his share of battles against Chara over the years as his six goals and 16 points in 15 games over the last four seasons would attest. But the Norris Trophy candidate has also always enjoyed the challenge of shutting down the best offensive players in the NHL.

Ovechkin is still one of the best when he really wants to be, and that would stand to be the case in the playoffs. Perhaps the Bruins have a window into what awaits them as theyve noted Ovechkin striking for 11 goals in the final 13 games of the season, and greatly assisting Washington into the postseason with his sizzling offensive run.

Theres no doubting the Caps star is banking on the same kind of dominant stance when the playoffs begin against the Bruins, but most intimidating defensive force in the game might have a thing or two to say about that in the end.

Patriots make Floyd a healthy scratch for AFC title game

Patriots make Floyd a healthy scratch for AFC title game

FOXBORO -- The Patriots will go with four receivers against the Steelers as Michael Floyd has been listed as a healthy scratch for the AFC title game. 

PATRIOTS-STEELERS PREGAME

The Patriots had all five of their wideouts -- Floyd, Julian Edelman, Chris Hogan, Malcolm Mitchell and Danny Amendola -- available to them for Sunday's matchup, but they're opted to use the four who are most experienced in the team's offense. 

Hogan (thigh), Mitchell (knee) and Amendola (ankle) were all listed as questionable going into the weekend, but all have been deemed physically ready to play as their team vies for a Super Bowl berth. 

Floyd had his worst game as a member of the Patriots last week in the Divisional Round against the Texans. On two routes, both slants, Floyd ran the pattern in such a way that there appeared to be some miscommunication between him and quarterback Tom Brady. One was picked off and the other was almost picked. 

Floyd admitted as much last week, saying that there are still intricacies to the Patriots offense that he needs to pick up -- including exactly how Brady wants certain routes run.

Hogan suffered a thigh injury against the Texans last week but felt optimistic soon thereafter that he'd be good to go for the conference championship. Mitchell hasn't played since suffering a knee injury against the Jets in Week 16. 

Other Patriots inactives for Sunday include quarterback Jacoby Brissett, running back DJ Foster, offensive lineman LaAdrian Waddle, safety Jordan Richards and corners Justin Coleman and Cyrus Jones.

Haggerty: For better or worse, Bruins need to make a call on Julien

Haggerty: For better or worse, Bruins need to make a call on Julien

The Bruins coach and leaders in their dressing room spoke out this weekend, and their words all basically spread the same supportive message.

Claude Julien and his longtime players aren’t ready for a change at the head coaching position for the Black and Gold and they hope the longtime bench boss is in Boston for as long as possible after 10 mostly successful years on the job.

Still, it may not go down that way this season with real pressure on B’s management, coaches and the players to end a two-year playoff drought. Things are currently going pretty badly with the Bruins in the middle of a three-game losing streak before facing the reigning Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday afternoon.

The heat has been dialed up as high as it’s ever been on Julien in his 10 years of employment with Boston and everybody seems to know it.

“Right now we’re all confident in Claude, and we all want to be here and play for him. If [saving Julien’s job] is the extra motivation you need for the games then so be it,” said Patrice Bergeron. “But we’re all professionals and we’re here to win hockey games. I’ve said this before that I’ve been with Claude for 10 years, and he’s the guy that I believe in and that I want to play for.”

Similarly, the Bruins captain has been with Julien for the long haul in Boston and has worked closely with the coach keeping lines of communication open in good, Cup-winning times and bad, non-playoff times. Chara bestowed Julien with every bit the endorsement that Bergeron did, and it’s clear much of the core group wants to keep the longtime coach in place.

“We don’t pay attention [to the chatter]. Claude is our coach and Claude will be our coach. We have confidence in him,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “He’s proven to be a coach that does a lot of good things for this organization. We just have to come up with some wins, battle it and we’re all in this together.”

One thing that’s a legitimate question: Is the devotion of players like Chara and Bergeron toward Julien a defining reason to keep the longtime coach?

There isn’t a sense the Bruins have tuned out their coach, as can happen in dysfunctional NHL situations, but there is a feeling that longtime B’s players with status are pretty comfortable with iron-clad no-movement clauses in their contracts and a relationship with the coach where there’s a level they may not be getting pushed toward very often.

Comfort isn’t always a good thing in an NHL dressing room and it’s felt altogether too comfortable at times in some of those no-show performances from the Black and Gold over the past couple of failed seasons. 

For his part, Julien doesn't think that was the case and intends on continuing to work his way through the struggles with a mix of youth and veteran players who clearly have enough to be a playoff team.

“If we’re going with what we said we were going with and there’s going to be some growing pains along the way, so be it,” said Julien. “I think we put ourselves in a position earlier in the year where we could all of a sudden believe that we’re a playoff team...absolutely. I still think we’re a playoff team. Whether we can do it or not we’ll find out at the end of the year, but my job is to do everything I can to get us into the playoffs and that’s what I’m going to do.

“As far as the [firing] rumors are concerned, they’re out there and I know that. But I don’t worry about it because worrying is wasting a lot of my time. And my time is spent trying to fix things here.”

It would be ridiculous and pointless to compare this season’s Bruins roster to the groups that won Cups, made it to the Finals twice and even won a President’s Trophy in 2013-14. Clearly, this particular roster isn’t as deep, or as difficult to play against, as those talent-stuffed hockey clubs, but this team also has enough high-end talent that they should edge teams like Toronto, Ottawa and Philadelphia out of a playoff spot.

This is where the theoretical move to fire Julien comes into play.

The Bruins are at a critical stage of their season where things are slipping away from them and the team is showing some of the maddening characteristics of the past two seasons.

They are unprepared to play on too many nights. They take opponents lightly on too many nights particularly in the past couple of months. A tiring Tuukka Rask isn’t able to bail the team out as much as he was in the first couple of months. Because the Bruins are being strangled by a roster of immovable players with no-trade clauses and can’t even entertain trading their blue-chip prospects Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy, the trade options just aren’t there for Don Sweeney and Cam Neely right now.

It would take a brilliant, creative GM to swing a hockey deal that could pump life back into the reeling Bruins. The B’s front office hasn’t shown those qualities in the past few years running the team. Instead, they have GMs from other teams lining up and making one-sided offers to the desperate Bruins in hopes that Sweeney/Neely will buckle under the pressure to push into the playoffs this spring.

So, the only impactful card the Bruins can play is firing a coach in Julien who probably isn’t the coach of the future when the next generation of B’s prospects is ready to go. The hope is that move can light a fire under their meandering hockey club if it doesn't start reeling off some wins in a row. An argument can be made that a coach such as current assistant Bruce Cassidy could get more out of some of Boston’s younger players they’re relying heavily on this season. The former Providence Bruins coach might fit a little better into the overall philosophy that management is looking to instill.

It might just be that making a coaching change is the best midseason card that Bruins management has to play given all of the circumstances.

Still, the one thing that B’s management can’t do is keep Julien twisting in the wind and answering all the questions about his future with no clear vote of confidence from his bosses. Julien is the winningest coach in Bruins history and led them to their glorious Stanley Cup run in 2011. He’s earned a wealth of respect around the league for the professional, classy way he’s always conducted himself on and off the ice and he won’t be out of work long if/when he is relieved of his duties on Causeway Street.

So, if the Bruins intend to make the move with their coach then they need to do it sooner rather than later.

People around the NHL are watching the Bruins intently to see how they handle this situation with a world-class coach in Julien, and Neely and Sweeney continue to be radio/TV silent, despite the Bruins media requesting to speak with them on Friday morning in the throes of their losing streak.

It’s high time for Bruins management to step up and make a decision on Julien for better or for worse, and treat him the way they’d undoubtedly like to be treated if it were them suddenly in the danger zone should they miss the playoffs again this spring.