Pouliot a reliable replacement for B's

589572.jpg

Pouliot a reliable replacement for B's

BOSTON -- The next five games present quite a challenge for Benoit Pouliot.

The athletic, gritty winger has been elevated to Bostons top left wing position skating alongside Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin while Brad Marchand is serving out his five-game suspension. That means he's been thrust into a primo offensive spot where he can succeed offensively in a way that hasn't always been possible during his stints in Montreal and Minnesota. Pouliot matched a career-high with three assists while filling in for a flu-ridden Marchand during the Bs blowout victory over the Calgary Flames last week, and added a power play goal as an insurance marker in Bostons 5-3 decision over the Winnipeg Jets Tuesday night.

Its the perfect temporary promotion for Pouliot, who plays with some truly skilled offensive players while showing off his skating speed. His coach laughed at the notion that it's not always Gazelle-like, but Pouliot has an unconventional way of throwing off opponents with a forecheck attack that seems to be all gangly arms and legs.

Hes a good skater," said coach Claude Julien. "He doesnt always look elegant, I guess, but he can skate, and hes pretty shifty. Maybe because of the way he skates, hes hard to predict. He really is.

But he does a good job, like I keep saying about, on the forecheck. He comes at you, and you dont know what angle Pouliot is going to be coming at you, and hes got a good stick.

His speed is good, and obviously he scores a goal tonight because hes in front of the net, and hes not afraid to go to those areas. Hes got good size, hes got good speed, and, again, he doesnt seem to have any fear. The one thing I know is that he feels very comfortable with this group of guys, and that he knows everybodys got everybodys back, so wherever he has to go. I think hes developed that confidence as the team has moved on here this year.

Pouliot has a goal and four points in the last three games, and has fired off nine shots while making noise with a suffocating forecheck and tough physical play right on the edge. That sounds awfully Marchand-like when you think about it, doesn't it?While Marchand is an incredible top-line value out and will be missed during his five-game suspension, it would be short-sightedto overlook Pouliots offensive upsides and ability to create exotic-looking offensive rushes up and down the ice. Nobody would have ever thought Pouliot could effectively replace Marchand at the beginning of the season, but that's the evolution of the former Habs underachiever.

Pouliots speed, tenacity, force of will, willingness to play the body and partially out-of-control enthusiasm have allowed the energy line forward to step into Marchands shows rather easily while wreaking havoc in the attack zone. Theres only one Nose Face Killah, but Pouliot is doing a rather nice facsimilie ofthe resident 5-foot-9 rabble-rouser at a time when the Bruins could really use him.

Curran: Outcome expected, Patriots can still build off win vs. Rams

Curran: Outcome expected, Patriots can still build off win vs. Rams

FOXBORO – So they did precisely what they were supposed to do. Poleaxed a bad team that had come cross-country to get its whipping and then return home.

It’s hard to downgrade the Patriots for that. Not this time. Even though they were facing a rookie quarterback making his third NFL start in Jared Goff, even though the Rams were without wide receiver Tavon Austin, the net the Patriots threw over the Rams offense was so stifling that those qualifiers don’t count.

The Rams went 1-for-9 on third down. They were 0-for-8 before the late conversion. They didn’t get over 100 total yards until their final drive of the game and that required a breakdown by Malcolm Butler on Kenny Britt. Britt, the Rams best offensive player this season, hadn’t had a catch before that.

So what if the Patriots used the Rams as their step stool to get to the next rung? So what if they were supposed to do exactly that? They’d had other matchups this season when they hadn’t choked out lesser opponents. This time they did.

And some of the players who figured prominently are precisely some of the players who’ve had their struggles.

Jabaal Sheard, benched two weeks ago, forced a pick and three passes defensed. Logan Ryan, who’s seen his role change and playing time dwindle, had a sack on a corner blitz and had two quarterback hits to go with five tackles. Kyle Van Noy, still fitting into the defense, had a pick, a pass defensed and four tackles. Alan Branch, who hasn’t struggled but had an NFL suspension hanging over his head until the league rescinded it Saturday, was his normal nuisance up front. Chris Long and Shea McClellin, both new to the team this year, had sacks.

“That happens around here,” explained Dont'a Hightower. “The next-man-up mentality has been here for a few years. Guys don’t play early then later in the season, they get right whatever it was that wasn’t right and they come back and we play well. It’s about us playing together.”

Hightower has steadily proclaimed that the defense has the talent and self-belief necessary to get where it needs to be on a consistent basis.  

“I feel like every week should be like this regardless of who we’re playing,” he said. “We had a great week of practice. Everyone was all in the same mindset, the same focus. (Defensive coordinator Matty Patricia) again did a great job of calling the game, mixing it up. We just went out there and executed.”

As the Patriots head into the final four games of their schedule, the caliber of their competition will rise. The next opponent, Baltimore, has won four of five including a 38-6 demolition of the Dolphins on Sunday.

The Broncos are up after the Ravens and that game will be in Denver, never an easy spot for the Patriots to say the least.

The Patriots close at home with the always-annoying Jets and then have to go to South Florida to play Miami in the New Year’s Day finale.  

“We’re just one week at a time,” said Ryan. “You can’t break this season off a couple weeks. Next week, we see what Baltimore [Ravens] just did, they’re a real good team. We know how that’s been in the past so it should be a nice game, a competitive game, competitive atmosphere. We’re just one week at a time, we’re happy we got this game and we’re on to the next one.”

It’s hard to point to this game and say, “All’s fixed.”

It was the outcome expected and there was no letdown. Part of the process.

“It’s December, time to play our best football,” said Devin McCourty. "We’ve been at it for a while now dating back to the beginning of training camp. Things we’ve talked about working on and things we’ve talked about improving, it’s time to start improving on those things and getting them done. Bill [Belichick] said it over and over that who we play each week is not going to matter if we don’t come and fix the things we need to fix and play the way we need to play. I think the whole team understands that and it starts with him, but [also] us echoing it as captains and as leaders. Today I think showed that when we do those things, we go out there and play well.”

The principals in this win – players like Sheard and Ryan – signaled that concerns over buy-in and locker room fissures appearing after playing time was shifted and personnel was shipped out were probably unfounded.

It’s a tough place to play because performance matters and there’s not a lot of, “That’s ok, you’ll get ‘em next time…” with this coaching staff.

It’s mentally challenging.

“That might be an understatement,” laughed Hightower. “But that’s part of the process, that’s part of the Patriot way and we try to adapt to it.”

Branch carries on with productive season after suspension is overturned

Branch carries on with productive season after suspension is overturned

FOXBORO – The first snap of the game for the Los Angeles Rams offense was an inside handoff to running back Todd Gurley. He was summarily stuffed by Patriots defensive lineman Alan Branch for a 1-yard loss.

It was happenstance, of course, that the Rams chose to run right at Branch. But it was no coincidence that the Branch was there to envelop Gurley like an upright sofa. The 6-foot-6, 350-pound, 31-year-old has been doing that all season. And on Saturday, word broke that he will be able to continue doing so, uninterrupted by NFL discipline.

PATRIOTS 26, RAMS 10

Branch, who was set to be suspended by the NFL for testing positive for marijuana, had his suspension rescinded by the league. The league did so without hearing the appeal Branch filed. Apparently, they decided they just got it wrong. The Boston Herald’s Jeff Howe reports that the traces of marijuana in Branch’s system were from a previously failed test and did not constitute a separate incident.

It’s been a strange season for Branch, a quirky, goofy, good-natured guy who dances during practices, stretching, on the sidelines and in between plays more than any other Patriot. That’s if any other Patriot actually dances. Branch was suspended by the team for a week during training camp. Reason unknown.

Regardless, his play’s been very good.

“This has definitely been the most productive year I’ve had so far,” he said. “Is it my best? When it comes to numbers it probably would be but there’s a lot of plays and a lot of games I could have done better. I’m kinda my own worst critic.”

Why has he been so productive?

“It’s a good defense for me,” he explained. “The playcalls and way we play goes to my strength to allow me to make plays and I’m making them.”

Branch has 40 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble this season. He had just that lone tackle on the stat sheet on Sunday, but he was a factor even if the stats don’t say so. During one first-half rush, Branch worked upfield with a bull rush, then spun back to his right to get in the face of Rams quarterback Jared Goff, forcing an incompletion.  

“That’s all reaction,” said Branch. “That was a hard day’s work on that play because I kept reacting and reacting and then I was right there. I just get out there and try to cause some ruckus.”

Meanwhile, the would-be suspension caused a ruckus for Branch prior to Saturday.

“I was upset because I knew I didn’t do anything wrong,” he said. “Having my name out there for my family and friends and my kids family and friends to see, you never want to have that on you. But I just wanted to go out there and take it one day at a time and play my best ball because I felt pretty confident that I was going to win the appeal or whatever was going to happen. I expected it because I didn’t see how it could go any other way when I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Asked if the league reached out to apologize for getting it wrong, Branch said, “I haven’t gotten anything yet. I haven’t read any emails yet, I haven’t opened my emails.”

Asked if he cares to hear an apology, Branch said, “I do care. I don’t know if it’s an apology or what (that he’s seeking) but the position I was put in was something else.”