Haggerty: Bruins in an improved Northeast Division

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Haggerty: Bruins in an improved Northeast Division

WILMINGTON, MA The Bruins went into this season hearing all kinds of idle hockey talk about the overall weakness that was expected of their Northeast Division this year.

The Bs romped their way to the division title last year and the Northeast Division only produced two playoff teams in the Eastern Conference with the Ottawa Senators just squeaking into the postseason as the No. 8 seed. So the expectation was that a similar scenario would play out again this season with the Bruins going wire-to-wire in the Northeast Division.

The Black and Gold bunch that won the Cup two years were expected to be the only legit team to come out of the Northeast, but it appears as though that is not the case.

Its pretty competitive. I think it surprised a lot of people, but just think where Ottawa would be if they had Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson. Thats been a big blow to that hockey team, said Claude Julien. Montreal has a whole new look and theyre doing well while having played a lot of home games. The Northeast has surprised a lot of people because the predictions were that it was going to be the weak division.

The Bruins even cooperated with the preseason prognosticators by jumping out to an 8-1-1 start that made them look like the class of the division. But the Bruins organization also realized pretty quickly that the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs were for real after playing each of them in their own barn. Now the Canadiens have jumped out to a solid start this season and actually lead the Bruins in the Northeast Division with Boston holding two games in hand.

Instead the Southeast Division looks like the dregs of the conference with only the Carolina Hurricanes in playoff position after the seasons first month, and Winnipeg, Florida and Washington all in various states of disarray.

Obviously the Bruins would choose to be leading the division if all things were equal, but theyre actually not unhappy about another team like the hated Habs or the truculent Leafs pushing them to be the best Bs they can be.

The Bruins had the run of the Northeast Division roost for the first month, but now theyre looking up at a hot Habs team thats riding a five-game winning streak. Following their first game against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, the vibe around the Bruins dressing room was a grudging respect for Montreal, which that looks like it's built for success this year.

I know we have games in hand, but when you get passed in the standings it definitely motivates you to get back to where you were . . . thats on top of the Northeast Division," Milan Lucic said. "Montreal has definitely done better than expected and theyve exceeded expectations. It always seems like every other year were going to battle with them for that top spot in the Northeast and it wouldnt surprise me if we get them in the first round of the playoffs. Toronto is good this year and Ottawa had a big win the other night. Weve done a good job in the first 13 games putting ourselves in the position were at with a 9-2-2 record. But were only fifth in the conference.

Personally I wish we had played a few more games in the first two months rather than piling all of them up at the end. Its something you cant control, but we just have to do the best we can to stay in the pack so when we get hit with a lot of games were not playing catch-up hockey.

To Lucics point, the Bruins have played the fewest games of any NHL team with only 13 games played roughly a month into the abbreviated campaign.

The Buffalo Sabres are looking more and more like theyre headed for a house-cleaning as they continue to linger in the Northeast Division basement, and perhaps the time has come for head coach Lindy Ruff to move on. The Senators pushed the Bruins right at the very end of last season, but theyre looking dead in the water with both Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson out with major injuries that should prove lethal in a 48-game shortened NHL season.

The Habs and the Maple Leafs were looked at as Eastern Conference punch lines to start the season based on last year. But Julien has learned to respect his opponents in the division, and there is something to be said for goalies Carey Price, Ryan Miller and Craig Anderson all residing in the Northeast Division. They give their teams a chance to win on any given night, and they have probably helped contribute to Bostons offensive slow-going in the early portion of this season.

Its probably not a bad thing now that weve got to climb back up there, Julien said. The games become important for us. We knew that was going to happen to us and the main thing is that we stay in the pack.

Were still in the pack with some games in hand, and its up to us to win those games in hand and get to the top where we feel we belong.

The schedule picks up this week for the Bruins with a three-game road swing and then they delve into a grind that will last upwards of two months where they basically play every other day. That will afford them the chance to catch all those teams that are zooming by them with more games played in the early going, and that includes the dreaded Canadiens.

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.