Rask bounces back in loss

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Rask bounces back in loss

BUFFALO Sometimes when youre smack in the middle of the tempest, you cant see the answer right in front of you.

Tuukka Rask knew something was amiss as he grew more uncomfortable with each passing game between the pipes as it mushroomed into a five-game losing streak. But a visit in Buffalo from Bs goalie coach Bob Essensa helped the young Bs goaltender realize hed been dropping too rapidly into his butterfly position when the going got tough.

It was a subtle observation from Essensa, but it was all Rask needed to climb out of his February abyss. Rask was his normal stoic goaltending self while backstopping the Bruins to a 2-1 shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres at the First Niagara Center, and looks like hes back on track.

Dropping down has been a weakness of mine lately. It has a lot to do with confidence. Goalie Bob Essensa came here and started to work on that. Its good when somebody tells you that because sometimes you dont realize it yourself, said Rask. Its not always such an easy thing to do when youre feeling the best that youve ever felt. Its a challenge mentally to stay patient and stay up.

Too bad that we lost, but I thought we played a good game.

Sure it was technically Rasks sixth straight loss, but it was also the first time in more than a month the Bs have pulled points out of consecutive games.

Rask made 26 stops including the deflection of a Derek Roy shot away from danger in the opening minute of the first period, and seemingly immediately banished the demons of his previous appearance in Buffalo.

There wasnt going to be a repeat of the blowout defeat that saw Rask apologizing to Tim Thomas on ice for forcing him into a game on his night of rest. That would have been the one where Rask allowed three goals on 10 shots and was pulled early in the second period en route to the Bs worst loss in four years.

It was a good battle. The shootouts can go either way, said Rask, who hadnt allowed fewer than two goals since a 9-0 shutout win over the Calgary Flames back on Jan. 5. I just tried to be more patient and not go down earlyexcept for that Sekera goal. Obviously it was a step ahead for me and hopefully I can keep it up.

Rask was keeping it up Friday night while evenly facing down a red-hot Ryan Miller through a scoreless first period. He shook off an Andrej Sekera goal in the second period that had him kicking himself for slipping into his habit of dropping down too early, and locked it down in the final 20 minutes as his team mounted a comeback.

Rask had strong defensive efforts from Johnny Boychuk and Zdeno Chara protecting things in front of him, but he was calm, effortless and at his quiet best when Buffalo attackers broke through. Rask confidently pounced on pucks that skittered through the crease area and flawlessly absorbed shots fired directly on him.

Several weeks ago in the same building against the same team he was coughing up dangerous rebounds all over the ice. This time he was the picture of control and economic motion between the pipes.

In overtime Rask was the recipient of a stellar Zdeno Chara defensive play as he shooed away a Thomas Vanek that looked destined to be the game-winner. But Rask used his scrambling athleticism to quickly recover and make the follow-up save on Andrej Sekera.

Of course the Finnish netminder swore softly to himself for failing to corral Vaneks wind-up slapper and Derek Roys game-winner in the shootout both of which he managed to get a piece of but the building blocks are in place.

Rask is putting one foot in front of the other to regain the form he had while leading the NHL in goals against average and save percentage headed into January.

Never is that more important than the stretch of 22 games in 40 days the Bruins are headed for once they finish up their six-game road trip with Saturday nights tilt against the Senators.

The Bruins need Rask to step up and provide quality performances to keep Tim Thomas rested and ready down the stretch. That will be an easier chore if Claude Juliens confidence index has risen significantly after seeing some vintage Tuukka against the Sabres.

I thought his game was good tonight. He was solid and made good saveskey saves, said Julien. He seemed like he was in good control. From the bench he seemed calm and was making saves look easy.

I like the way that he battled back in this building from the last time he was here. His game was good and gave us a chance to win.

So Rask is feeling good about himself and his technique between the pipes, and its inevitable that the wins will be following if he continues on that path.

GAHS Podcast: Felger 'fearful' of where Bruins are headed

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GAHS Podcast: Felger 'fearful' of where Bruins are headed

In an all-CSN edition in the 15th episode of the Great American Hockey Show Podcast as co-hosts Joe Haggerty and Jimmy Murphy welcomed SportsNet Central anchor Mike Giardi to discuss the current B’s situation and conducted a wide-ranging interview with Sports Tonight host and Felger and Mazz co-host Michael Felger about his time covering the Bruins as a beat reporter, where he developed his love for hockey and his pathway toward becoming the most influential figure in the Boston sports media scene.

Perhaps most interesting from Giardi’s segment was his take that “nobody should be untouchable” on the Bruins roster, that includes franchise player and future captain Patrice Bergeron, if the return is good enough. Felger discussed who he’d move between Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask to change up the Bruins roster this summer and how gravely concerned he is about the health and well-being of the franchise coming off two seasons out of the playoffs.

“I’m fearful, of course. I think the passion of the Bruins fan base is still there. We could do four hours on the radio tomorrow talking about the Bruins, and totally bang it out with callers,” said Felger. “So the Bruins are so lucky that the fans are that passionate. But if it’s too long of a drought, we all lived through 2005 and 2006 coming out of the lockout. It was dark, and we have the capacity to go back there.”

For the full Great American Hockey Show podcast check it out below: 

No defense for blue-line shortcomings

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No defense for blue-line shortcomings

This is the fourth in a five-part 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. 

The Bruins had a master plan to upgrade the defense last summer. It quickly morphed into a dumpster fire.

After ultimately deciding they were unwilling to pay Dougie Hamilton an outlandish sum of money -- and coming to the conclusion that the young D-man simply didn’t want to play for Boston anymore -- they dealt him to the Calgary Flames for three draft picks. It was pennies-on-the-dollar value for a young, top-pairing defenseman, and a fear-based move given the threat of offer sheets that possibly loomed if Hamilton made it past July 1 without a new contract extension.

(They also torpedoed a better draft-pick package offer from their ex-general manager, Peter Chiarelli, by demanding Edmonton's young stud D-man Darnell Nurse, but that’s neither here nor there.)

The Bruins made the decision to move Hamilton after he and his camp ignored Boston’s multiple contract overtures. It was also apparent to those running the team that players like Hamilton and Reilly Smith weren’t meshing well with the rest of the Bruins core. 

(There's no second-guessing from this humble hockey writer about the jettisoning of Smith, despite his solid 25-goal season with the Florida Panthers: he was a soft player in that last year with Boston. The part of that move that should be regretted was immediately signing Jimmy Hayes to a three-year contract extension after closing the Smith-for-Hayes deal. But, again, that's neither here nor there.)

The problem for the Bruins after trading Hamilton was in the follow-through.

First they followed Chiarelli's troubling pattern of overpaying mid-level talent by handing Adam McQuaid a four-year, $11 million extension. Then they were unsuccessful in their attempts to move up in the first round of last summer’s draft and take either of the two collegians, Noah Hanifin or Zach Werenski, who projected as eventual No. 1 defensemen. They offered Hamilton and first-round draft choices; they also tried to use Martin Jones as a chip.

But whether new GM Don Sweeney thought he had a deal in place or not, things fell apart at the 11th hour. The Bruins did have three first-round picks, but they were in the middle of the round. In that position, they were unable to get an immediate difference-maker on defense.

The inability to land that young D-man (and potential heir apparent to Zdeno Chara) at last summer’s draft, or at the NHL trade deadline in February, ended up being a fatal blow. There was too much stress on a patchwork defense corps, and it was a major factor in the Bruins missing the playoffs. And even if they'd made it, the B's would have been nothing more than first-round cannon fodder.

The Band-Aid trade for 35-year-old John-Michael Liles was a nominal improvement at the deadline, but it spoke to just how badly they needed puck-moving reinforcements to assist a clearly overworked Torey Krug.

“I can tell you [Sweeney] worked extremely hard to try to move up (in the first round)," said Bruins president Cam Neely at his end-of-the-season press conference. "The scouting staff did a good job of identifying [players], and obviously, if you look back at the draft . . . you kind of had to be (in one of the top spots) to get one of those [defensemen] that were highly coveted. [Sweeney] just couldn’t do it last offseason. [He also] tried throughout the year to make something happen and he’s maybe laid some groundwork (for a future trade) . . . Hopefully [he'll] be able to get something done in the offseason.

"But like I said earlier, we know it’s an area that we need to improve upon . . . [We] know what our back end is all about. We need to . . . really improve that area of our team . . . [It's] something that I know [Sweeney's] going to be very focused on.”

Fast-forward to the present day. The Bruins finished the season with the aging, declining Chara, now 39, as their No. 1 defenseman, and the 5-foot-8 Krug as their No. 2 while posting a career-high 21:37 of ice time per game. The diminutive Krug perhaps paid the price for that wear and tear with right shoulder surgery last month that could sideline him until late October, which raises red flags about whether he should again play those kinds of heavy-duty minutes given his offensive value.

Beyond those two, the Bruins’ defensive prospects aren’t bright. The body of 35-year-old Dennis Seidenberg is breaking down, and the B's would love to be out from under the final two years (at $4 million per) of his contract. Both McQuaid and Kevan Miller are limited, stay-at-home defensemen better cast as bottom-pair guys. Youngsters Colin Miller, Zach Trotman and Joe Morrow weren’t able to lock down roles last season for a multitude of reasons. Miller is the only one who appears to have potential to develop into a top-four NHL defenseman; Trotman and Morrow seem poised to be passed by other young D-men (Brandon Carlo, Robbie O’Gara, Jakub Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon) in the organizational ranks sooner rather than later.

Botton line: It simply doesn’t feel like the Bruins have the answer to their defense woes, at least in the short term, within their system.

They need a No. 1 defenseman in the prime of his career, or being groomed into that prime, who can ideally allow the Bruins coaching staff to start easing up on Chara's ice time. Chara is a No. 1 in name only these days, and would be much better served as a middle-pairing D-man playing closer to 20 minutes a night and removed from the power play, where he no longer features his booming slap shot very much.

It’s an fact that nearly every team that’s won the Stanley Cup since the 2004-05 lockout has had a prime No. 1 defenseman in the 25-33 age range, with the exceptions of the 2006 Carolina Hurricanes and 2009 Pittsburgh Penguins. Names like Chara, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Nik Lidstrom, Duncan Keith and Drew Doughty figured prominently in those championships, playing 30 minutes a night during the brutal two-month run to the Cup.

The Bruins don’t have that type of guy right now, and they aren’t anywhere close to competing for a Cup until they get one.

So how do you get one?

Sweeney and his management team are already deeply involved in that process, and that’s where names like Jacob Trouba, Sami Vatanen and Matthew Dumba will figure prominently in trade discussions this summer. But those types of players are costly, both in terms what will be needed to be surrendered to acquire them -- trade partners will undoubtedly ask for such talent as David Pastrnak, Frank Vatrano and Ryan Spooner -- and in what they'll be seeking in new contracts, since those demands are what's pushing them into the trade market to begin with.

Ultimately, there’s no guarantee that Sweeney and Co. will close the deal for any of these defensemen, given how hard it is to acquire young talent in trades in the NHL. There's also no guarantee the Bruins will target the right guy in a blockbuster trade, seeing how their scouting staff has whiffed on players like Hayes, Zac Rinaldo and Brett Connolly in recent years.  

The Bruins can hope their amateur scouting and development group can unearth a gem. After all, the Blackhawks probably didn’t know they had a future Conn Smythe winner in Keith when they selected him 54th overall in the 2002 draft. The Penguins got a diamond in Kris Letang with the 62nd overall pick in 2005 NHL. The Bruins, too, struck gold when they acquired Johnny Boychuk from the Colorado Avalanche in a deal for energy forward Matt Hendricks. Within a few years, Boychuk developed into a top-pairing stud on a Stanley Cup championship team. 

So perhaps one of the young prospects currently in the Bruins system is the ultimate answer as an eventual replacement for Chara.

But that’s something tough to count on, especially since -- even if it happens -- it's unlikely to happen in time to provide help next season. Sweeney and Neely need to pull off something in the epic-acquisition category this summer, whether it’s a deal for Kevin Shattenkirk and/or something worked out with a team like Winnipeg for a stud like Trouba.

Both their jobs, and the immediate health and well-being of a Bruins organization currently in distress, may very well depend on it.