Haggs: Holtby out-playing Thomas


Haggs: Holtby out-playing Thomas

The clich goes that theres a reason actual sporting events are never played out on paper, or spit out of a computer like a strat-o-matic game for adults.

The playoff series between the Bruins and Capitals began as a goaltending mismatch on that very-same paper: a showdown between a soon-to-be 38-year-old veteran thats won every goaltending award imaginable, and a 22-year-old fresh-faced rookie with absolutely zero postseason experience.

It seemed like the most predictable of outcomes.

But thats why they play em. The first round playoff series is close to over because the young Braden Holtby has outplayed the formidable Tim Thomas on the ice, and thats where it matters most.

The latest chapter in the one-sided matchup between the two played out Saturday afternoon with the Capitals taking a 4-3 victory over the Bruins at TD Garden. Another Holtby win in a one-goal game allowed his underdog Capitals to take a commanding 3-2 lead in the series.

The plot will thicken with Game 6 scheduled less than 24 hours later in Washington DC, and the Caps handed a chance to close things out at home. The underdog sits just one more piece of Holtby brilliance away from skating off with the upset, and the reigning Stanley Cup champs sit one defeat away from addressing some very heady questions during the offseason.

It would have been difficult for the Bruins to even entertain dealing Thomas heading into next season if hed repeated his Conn Smythe, Vezina and Stanley Cup efforts again this spring, but that doesnt appear to be happening. But his average playoff performance after turning Bostons regular season into his own personal political agenda loosens up their attachment to the veteran goaltender quite a bit.

Thomas no-trade clause is gone as of July 1 and his actual 2012-13 salary drops to 3 million while retaining a 5 million cap hit a wrinkle that will make the veteran netminder attractive to a goalie-starved team looking to hit the cap floor while saving ownership a few bucks.

While its clear to those that closely watched the Bruins Thomas wasnt the same goalie this year once the calendar hit January, there is still enough value associated with the goalie to net the Bruins a few picks and a prospect this summer.

But thats a story for another day with the playoff series against the Capitals still not quite over.

The third period told the tale for both goalies on Saturday afternoon, but the numbers for each of them over the course of the series spoke volumes. Holtby has a .946 save percentage through his first five playoff games while Thomas holds a pedestrian .922 save percentage thats very much in line with his average numbers from the regular season.

Perhaps Thomas should have been focused more on stopping the puck during Fridays practice than snapping his glove hand around flamboyantly while attempting to mimic the showy style of the young Holtby.

Sure the Bruins have fired off plenty of perimeter shots in the series, and the Capitals have blocked close to 100 shots in five playoff games. But Holtby has also been deep in the psyche of Bostons best forwards since the very first two games in Boston.

Hes just playing steady and guys are playing hard in front of him. Hes making the saves he needs to make. Thats all you can ask for from your goalie, said Mike Knuble. Make the saves youre supposed to make and the odd one that youre not supposed to make too. I think weve been very limited in the real Grade-A chances on him. Weve done a good job of eliminating them.

But back to the third period with both teams entering the final session tied 2-2 with 20 minutes to go. Holtby made the save of the series while dropping into a split and kicking away a Tyler Seguin shot aimed for the vacant net. The net had opened up after a brilliant backhanded pass through the crease by Milan Lucic, but Holtby showed energy and explosion going post-to-post for the save.

It bounced off the backboards and it kind of happened quickly, said Holtby, who finished with 34 stops on the afternoon. They threw it out front and I just kind of read it last minute and got a toe on it, probably the very last piece of metal in my skate.

That stop preserved the 2-2 score and appeared to give the Capitals new life. Shortly afterward Washington potted a go-ahead goal when Joel Ward leveled a shot at Thomas from the left side, and the Bs goaltender kicked a juicy rebound straight onto Mike Knubles stick.

Knuble beat a leaping Thomas to put the Capitals ahead, but the Bruins scratched back with a Johnny Boychuk screaming blast later on in the third period. But the Capitals werent done and they managed to score again on Thomas with a power play awarded in the last three minutes of the third period.

Troy Brouwer fired a shot at Thomas from the outside of the right face-off circle that the Bs goaltender would normally handle with ease, but instead he simply missed the puck to his glove side. It was soft-serve no matter how goals are viewed by the discerning eye, and it turned out to be the game-winning goal given up by Thomas and the Bruins.

Did Thomas want those two goals back?

I dont look at things like that exactly. The third goal I wish I could have controlled the rebound better. Brouwers goal he fooled me and beat me clean, said Thomas. Hes coming down with a lot of speed. He shot and I read that the shot was going lower. By the time I even realized that the shot was going that high, I didnt even have time to raise my hand.

One good thing about the Bruins dressing room afterward: unlike two days prior when Thomas called out the Bs forwards for failing to create scoring chances in front of the net, there were no forwards talking about the soft-serve ice cream goals their goaltender let past him at crunch time in Game 5.

Instead one goaltender spoke excitedly about his best save of the game, and the other waxed philosophical about two that hed like to have back: before the series started one would never have guess that Holtby is the former and Thomas was the latter.

But thats one of the major storylines of the series as the Capitals sit poised to knock off the Stanley Cup champs with one more Holtby-led effort, and the Bruins might be looking in the mirror for answers very shortly.

Bruins come away impressed with new practice facility


Bruins come away impressed with new practice facility

BRIGHTON – It’s been a summer brimming with anticipation for Bruins players and management alike with the prospect of moving into a new, state-of-the-art practice facility.

The Bruins contingent hosted Jimmy Vesey at their new Warrior Ice Arena home a couple of weeks ago and the B’s players christened the ice by kicking off their informal captain’s practices on Monday morning.

Torey Krug, David Krejci, Adam McQuaid, John-Michael Liles, Noel Acciari and Frank Vatrano all hit the ice to work with a local goaltender and went through skating drills for the hour-plus to get the blood pumping. Krejci left the ice after roughly 15 minutes as he recovers from left hip surgery, but was still left excited at the prospect of practicing in the new digs after spending his entire Bruins career with Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington as their practice home.

The arena doesn’t officially open until the Bruins and New Balance hold a grand opening on Sept. 8, but color several Bruins veterans impressed.

“It’s beautiful. It’s great. It’s a little bit different than Wilmington,” said Krejci. “You guys will get a chance to see it next week, but it’s pretty cool.”

The captain’s practices will continue in earnest with more Bruins players joining the group as the calendar gets closer to the start of training camp. The expectation is that all of the B’s skaters will be wholly impressed with the new facility. 

Clearly, it’s got all the bells and whistles of a new rink, and the closer proximity is a bonus for Bruins players that these days live in and around Boston rather than in the distant suburbs.

There's even the distinct possibility in the not-so distant future that the Bruins could start holding game day morning skates at the practice facility rather than at the Garden. It's something already done in Montreal, where the Habs have a similar setup with their practice rink in Brossard, just outside of the city. 

“It’s beautiful. For the guys that have been the scenes and doing all the work in Wilmington all of these years, it’s great for them to be a part of this and move into a new building,” said Krug. “I’m fortunate to be here and be a part of it. That’s exciting.”

Krug joked that being an early arriver at Warrior Arena doesn’t guarantee him one of the big lockers in the dressing room once training camp gets going: “I’m pretty sure Zee [captain Zdeno Chara] will kick me out of whatever stall I picked. It’s obviously exciting to be one of the first guys skating on this ice.”


Dominique Wilkins reflects on his rivalry with Larry Bird


Dominique Wilkins reflects on his rivalry with Larry Bird

During our series discussing the 1986 Boston Celtics, we have sat down with many players from that championship, along with members of the media that were close to the team.

This week features a few of the opponents that were very familiar with the 1980’s Celtics  - Atlanta Hawks legend Dominique Wilkins, former Celtics coach (and Hawk) Doc Rivers, and Lakers great James Worthy.

Bogaerts continues to battle through struggles with bat


Bogaerts continues to battle through struggles with bat

BOSTON -- Early in 2016 praises were sung around the league that Xander Bogaerts was the best hitter in baseball.

Rightfully so. For a good portion of the season he led the league in both batting average and hits. But between Mookie Betts’ ascension and Bogaerts’ drop in average from .331 on 7/29 to .306 after Monday night’s game, he’s taken a back seat.

But the Red Sox shortstop’s month-long dry spell hasn’t been a straight decline. Although he was held hitless Monday, Bogaerts went 6-for-13 (.462) against Kansas City.

In fact, the 23-year-old doesn’t even consider the recent month of struggles the worst stretch of his career.

“2014 probably,” Bogaerts said, “yeah I had a terrible, terrible few months -- probably three months.”

That was of course the season a lot came into question surrounding the now All-Star shortstop, so he was pretty spot on. In 2014 Bogaerts went from hitting .304 through 5/31, to .248 by the end of June, .244 after his last game in July, all the way down to .224 by the last day of August.

Bogaerts would hit .313 that September and finish with a .240 average -- but more importantly, an appreciation of what he’d experienced.

“That definitely helped me become a better person, a better player -- and understanding from that and learning,” Bogaerts said.

From that experience, he gained a better understanding of the importance of maintaining a consistent day-to-day routine.

“That has to stay the same,” Bogaerts said without question in his voice. “The league adjusted, they adjusted to me. It kind of took a longer time to adjust to them. They’ve just been pitching me so differently compared to other years.”

Bogaerts has had the point reinforced to him throughout, with Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez serving as one voice of reinforcement.

“When you have a routine from the mental side, physical side, when you struggle that’s when you really need that,” Rodriguez said. “He’s been so good with his daily preparation, it doesn’t matter the result of the game. He can always go to something that feels comfortable.”

“He’s been so comfortable and confident with his daily routine and preparation that it allows him -- when he doesn’t get the results he wants in the game -- to have some peace knowing that the next day, we’re going to go back to doing that again.”

It’s clear Bogaerts needs to maintain his daily routine to help work through slumps -- and maintain hot streaks -- but Rodriguez made it clear, consistent preparation from a hitter doesn’t magically cure every problem.

“That doesn’t mean that because you stick with the routine you’re going to have results,” Rodriguez said. “What it means is, [because] you know and believe in that routine that you know you’re going to get out of it.”

Which means in addition to sticking to his normal routine, Bogaerts also had to identify flaws elsewhere in order work through his problems. He came to realize the problem was more mechanically based than mental -- given he’d done everything to address that.

“They pitched me differently, and some stuff I wanted to do with the ball I couldn’t do,” Bogaerts said. “I just continued doing it until I had to make the adjustment back.”

Bogaerts isn’t fully out of the dark, but he’s taken steps in the right direction of late -- and is nowhere near the skid he experienced in 2014. He and Rodriguez fully believe the All-Star’s ability to maintain a clear mind will carry him through whatever troubles he’s presented with the rest of the way.

“The more stuff you have in you’re head is probably not going to help your chances,” Bogaerts explained, “so have a clear mind -- but also have the trust in your swing that you’re going to put a good swing on [the pitch] regardless of whatever the count is.”

Nick Friar can be followed on Twitter @ngfriar.