Patriots focused on seizing opportunity

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Patriots focused on seizing opportunity

FOXBORO -- The phone call came a little over a year ago. When Deion Branch picked up, Bill Belichick was on the other end.

"We're thinking about bringing you back," Belichick said.

At the time, Branch was playing for the Seattle Seahawks, who had just come off of back-to-back losing seasons. Suddenly, Branch was closing in on a chance to re-join the Patriots -- perennial Super Bowl contenders -- and his thoughts began to race.

"That was the first thing that went through my mind," Branch said, recalling the phone conversation on Friday. "I was able to get back and play for the organization where I started, which is a blessing, and also to be in this position."

A realistic chance at another Super Bowl meant the world to Branch. He had been to two with the Patriots at the end of the 2003 and 2004 seasons, but four and a half years in Seattle without a shot at a ring had taken its toll.

He had made his money -- in 2006, Branch held out and was traded from New England to Seattle where he received a bigger contract than what the Patriots offered -- and by the time Belichick came calling last season, things had changed.

When the Patriots traded Seattle a draft pick in exchange for Branch, it was the veteran receiver's dream come true.

It's taken a year, but now he's back to where he always wanted to be: 60 minutes from a Super Bowl.

"This is what it's all about," Branch said of the upcoming AFC title game between the Patriots and Ravens. "Getting to this point and taking advantage of the opportunity. All 32 teams set out for this game right here, this is what it's about right here."

Branch is in his tenth NFL season. He knows how rarely chances at a Lombardi Trophy come along. So too do veterans Brian Waters, Shaun Ellis, Gerard Warren and Chad Ochocinco, all of whom have played at least 11 years in the NFL without a Super Bowl appearance.

But the younger Patriots realize the stakes of Sunday's game, too.

"What we've all been talking about is just taking advantage of the opportunity," Devin McCourty said. "Going home at night, studying more film. Studying everything. Doing everything we can . . . You don't get these opportunities every year."

The message has reverberated throughout Foxboro in the last few days, and for Matthew Slater, there's no escaping it. When he's not talking to teammates or coaches, he's getting an earful from his family on the importance of Sunday's game.

Slater's dad, Jackie, made it to the Super Bowl just once in his Hall of Fame career.

"I've gotten an e-mail every day from him this week just telling me to really not take this opportunity for granted," Slater said. "He played 20 years and only played in one Super Bowl.

"You realize, this is why we all play the game. Everybody's been brought here for games like this, to win games like this. He keeps telling me, 'You can't let anything come between you and what you have to do on the field on Sunday. Be extremely focused.' Obviously that message has been echoed around here all week. He knows what's at stake. I know what's at stake. We all do."

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.