McCourty: Keep believing, keep working

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McCourty: Keep believing, keep working

INDIANAPOLIS -- Millions of eyes are on the Patriots this week.

There will be a lot of talk about the pressure of performing on the biggest stage, under the hottest lights in American sports. More than a week after the conference championship games, people are rehashing who failed (Kyle Williams, Billy Cundiff) and who succeeded (Jacquian Williams, Sterling Moore) in the season's most crucial moments.

There's even more to see here in Indianapolis.

Every player on New England's roster is also being scrutinized as a man. Some fans don't care about what the Patriots do or believe when not wearing a uniform. Others do. While the week shouldn't be walked like a tightrope for fear of screwing up, it can be looked at as a platform for doing something good. For sending a positive message to those who hang on every word.

Devin McCourty knew exactly what he wanted to say on Monday.

"Just believing and working hard," he said. "I remember growing up, watching the Super Bowl every year and looking at those guys like they were superheroes. Now, to actually be a part of it, I'd just say keep working hard and believing in anything you want to do. That's what my mom preached at me growing up. No matter what you want to do, don't let anyone tell you you can't."

Maybe it sounds a little like an after school special. It's supposed to. Besides, McCourty was sincere.

For as tremendous a rookie year as he had -- 82 combined tackles, 17 passes defensed, seven interceptions, a Pro Bowl berth -- the totality of his sophomore slump has also been impressive. Almost every week McCourty had to stand and be accountable for missed tackles, blown coverage, and all the surrendered yardage. He was asked why he suddenly has such trouble finding the ball in the air. He was prodded about why, even when he was right there, he couldn't make plays on the ball. A late-season shoulder separation heaped on more doubt: Was McCourty damaged goods?

Through it all he's never broken down. Just as his mother taught, McCourty kept working and believing. That's why, as he talks about the Super Bowl, he can use the platform honestly.

It is all more than he ever imagined.

"I think any football player growing up, I don't know if you dream about this situation exactly right here, but you dream about being in the NFL. And you watch the Super Bowl and see those guys and think about how fortunate they are and how cool it would be to actually be playing in one.

"I don't know if you can actually visualize being there because to you, the Super Bowl is so far away, it's so unreal. To be a part of it is a blessing."

McCourty doesn't mind the expectant eyes. As a football player, he can manage the pressure. As a man, he's grateful to have the chance.

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.