With Chara out, Thomas fails to step up

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With Chara out, Thomas fails to step up

By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com

BOSTON Zdeno Chara is the one and only irreplaceable piece for the Boston Bruins.

The 6-foot-9 behemoth on skates, chugging along with his 25 plus minutes a night, is the biggest Bostonweapon on the power play with his eight power play goalsand a regular participant on the penalty kill unit as well.He provides so much of the intimidating aura embraced by the Big Bad Bruins that it's not an exaggeration to say he puts the Big and Bad in the moniker.

So withChara unable to lace them up for Saturday nights Game 2 against the Montreal Canadiens due to flu-like systems and severe dehydration that had him sent to the hospital on Friday night, there was nobody among Bostons defensemen corps capable of stepping up and stepping in for the absent Chara in a must-win scenario.

There were plenty of careless mistakes and harmful gaffes all over the ice by an overwhelmed blueline staff without their fearless big leader, and it showed to ugly degreein Bostons 3-1 loss to the Habs on the Garden ice.

Whilebeleaguered defensemen like Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Seidenberg and Andrew Ference all struggled with turnovers and shoddy net-front coverage while being force-fed ice time and wave after wave of speedy Montreal attackers, the struggles were to be expected.

When its impossible to replace one elite caliber player with a group of lesser hockey talents, its instead imperative that a teams second elite player pick up the slack for the missing Chara. Vezina Trophy favorite Tim Thomas had a challenge on his plate to really pick up his goaltending game with big Chara unable to answer the bell, and lead his Boston team to a victory on home ice.

But instead the 36-year-old Bs goaltender and three-time All-Starchoked on it. Thomas had a chance to steal the game for Boston while everything was flying around him in the crease, and he instead allowed three goals -- and two juicy, unforgivable rebounds -- on 26 shots in yet another defeat at the hands of the hated Habs.

Hes 6-foot-9 guy with an 8-foot reach that can skate really well and hits incredibly hard, and on top of that has one of the hardest shots in the league, said Thomas when asked how much the team missed Charas services. We know that. It was our job to step up for him tonight and we didnt do it."Correction: Thomas didn't do it.

Chara was the sick Bruins player, but Thomas basically puked all over his skates when he allowed a pair of juicy rebounds in the first and second period to open and close the scoring for the Canadiens. Though the Black and Gold are a very different team than either the Washington Capitals or the Pittsburgh Penguins fromlast season's playoffs, theyre really starting to take on the hang-doglook of those two exasperated hockey clubs while going up against the very-same Montreal unit this spring looking to spoil their fun.

It was up to Thomas to step into the void and play like a marvelousgoaltender that posted an NHL-record .938 save percentage during the regular season, and possiblypick up a scattered Bs defensemen corps for one single night. It was as big a must-win as a postseason game can be in a non-elimination scenario with Montreals Bell Centre looming in the immediate future, and Thomas once again came up woefullyshort when his team needed greatnessin the playoffs.

Claude Julien was trying not to throw his star-studded goaltender under the bus with Tuukka Rask chomping at the bit to jump into the fray, but it was clear the Bs coach wasnt happy with Thomas results. Instead Julien opted not to talk about his goaltender's performance when asked about an evaluation -- not exactly a ringing endorsement for Thomas as he scrambled through the opening minutes of the game and then couldn't pull off the big save at the big moment.

Ive said that all along in the playoffs were going to talk about our team, said Julien, who watched Thomas made 23 saves. Were certainly not going to talk about individuals in any negative way. If there is something that has to be dealt with, it will be dealt with internally.

I think its important for us to do those things in the playoffs. And right now is not a time to jump all over anybody. And Tim Thomas has been a great goaltender for us all year and we expect him to continue to be that for us in the playoffs.

The Bruins goalie was dancing around and scrambling frenetically in the opening minutes, and Thomas coughed upa rebound of a James Wisniewski shot directly to a hard-charging Mike Cammalleri. The Habs mighty mite beat a stumbling Johnny Boychuk to the loose puck and the keyspot on the ice after a Boychuk turnover in the neutral zone started the whole play, and it was 1-0 lickety-split.

Less than two minutes later Dennis Seidenberg was off for interference and Mathieu Darche converted a nifty Cammalleri cross-ice pass on the power play to make it 2-0 while Thomas was stillmuch too active around the net. Just as the B's skaters were jumpy and scattered in front of him during a tight opening minutes of Game 2, Thomas was just as guilty of it.

Both Thomas and the Bruins defense settled into the game after that despite being down by a pair of goals, and it looked like the Bruins goalie made the game-changing play when he stoned Tomas Plekanec on a lone breakaway midway through the second period. That was the Thomas that fearlessly led Boston all season, and had something to prove after losing his starting job between the pipes last season.

There was a palpable shift in the momentum following Thomas big doublesave on Plekanec's opening shot and rebound, and the Bruins capitalized on it with picture perfect passing that ultimately led to a Patrice Bergeron score to make it 2-1.

But then came the moment of uglytruth for both goalie and hockey club.The elite goaltender made a game-saving stop on Plekanecwhile stepping up in his teams time of dire need,but Thomas wasnt able to pull it off it twice in a row. A Dennis Seidenberg stretch pass was intercepted by the swift-skating Canadiens, and that turned into a Lars Eller shot that hand-cuffedthe Boston goaltender. Hecouldnt handle the initial shot after it skimmed off Seidenberg's thigh pad, and asecond damaging rebound bounced off to his right side. Yannick Weber once againbeata stumblingBoychuk to the puck for another Montreal goal, and that effectively ripped the heart out of Boston.

It left Thomas muttering phrases right out of the Bill Belichick handbook as he attempted to put the pieces together a good 10 minutes starting straight ahead and muttering to rookie goalie Anton Khudobinbefore reporters finally approachedhim. Thomas was curt with his words and guarded with his thoughts, and there was the rare look of defeat in the defiant goaltender's intelligent eyes.

"Well, its easy to accept because it is. It is what it is, said Thomas. Weve got our backs against the wall, and well see how we respond. The proof is in the pudding at this point."

The game was as good as over at that point with a power play thats 0-for-7 for the two-game series and top offensive line that isnt functioning with any kind of regularity. With so many players struggling and Chara ashen-faced and ailing, Saturday night was the time for Thomas to have his shining playoff moment with the Bruins at the exact right time in the series.Instead Thomas slipped into the tank right along with the rest of the Bs hockey club, and the end is nearing for a Big Bad Bruins team that wasteeming with potential and possibilities this spring.Thomas might only have the Vezina to look forward to this spring and summer if things don't reverse themselves in a big way next week in his house of personal horrors at the Bell Centre.

Joe Haggerty can be reached at jhaggerty@comcastsportsnet.com. Follow Joe on Twitter at http:twitter.comHackswithHaggs

NHL shouldn't overthink offsides challenges any longer; they should just get rid of them

NHL shouldn't overthink offsides challenges any longer; they should just get rid of them

When the hockey world grew tired of shootouts, the league took something of a half measure. Rather than eliminate the shootout, the league moved overtime from 4-on-4 to 3-on-3. It worked; games that were tied at the end of regulation were more likely to end in the five-minute OT period than before, thus reducing the frequency of shootouts. 

Now, the NHL is dealing with its latest cumbersome gameplay issue: the offsides challenge. A half-measure isn’t as desirable in this case. No more half measures, Walter. 

The offsides challenge was introduced with good intentions, but it’s simply too easy to abuse. And really, when the option is there with only a timeout at risk, why wouldn’t a coach roll the dice that maybe a guy was offsides entering the zone 29 seconds before the goal was scored? 

The option needs to be taken away. Rely on blueline cameras and automatically look at anything close on a goal that’s scored off the rush. It would take two seconds and would save the refs from another Matt Duchene incident while saving the viewer a lot of time. Let anything else go the way of the dry scrape. 

There’s the temptation to instead tweak -- maybe make offsides challengeable if the entry in question occurs within however many seconds -- but that would just mean more time would be wasted seeing if a play was even challengeable. 

It was proposed at the GM meetings in Chicago that if a coach loses an offsides challenge, his team will be assessed a two-minute penalty. That sounds great as a deterrent, but it won’t stop instances of the needless why-the-hell-not challenge. Late in games, coaches might be just as likely to take their chances in a tie game or a one-goal game. That goal allowed could likely be the deciding tally, so if they’re likely to lose anyway, some coaches might still go for the time-wasting Hail Mary. 

And of course, the loser there is the person hoping to catch their train out of North Station in time, or the person who might doze off during the stupid challenge, wake up four hours later on their couch and develop back issues over time. That was a friend, not me. 

Colin Campbell said at the GM meetings in Chicago ahead of the draft that the league is trying to "temper" the negative reaction the offside challenge has received from players and fans. 

There’s really only way to do that, and that’s to get rid of it.

See you in a year when we’re going through the same thing with goalie interference. 

Haggerty: Bruins need more than draft-weekend output if they want improvement

Haggerty: Bruins need more than draft-weekend output if they want improvement

CHICAGO – With the 2017 NHL Draft officially wrapped up and the proverbial eve of NHL free agency upon us, there wasn’t anything to get particularly alarmed or excited about when it comes to the Bruins actions over the last few days.

The Bruins lost a potential-filled defenseman that might never actually realize any of it in Colin Miller, and they followed up the expansion draft subtraction with an average draft class where they addressed defense, goaltending and their depth up front. But at the same time, it didn’t really feel like the Bruins got anybody in the draft that they were particularly bowled over by, and the B’s lost a potential trade chip once they’d used their 18th overall pick in the first round to select smooth-skating defenseman Urho Vaakenainen.

MORE: NHL shouldn't overthink offsides challenges any longer; they should just get rid of them

The sense at this address, though not confirmed by anybody inside either organization, is that the Bruins weren’t willing to trade a first-round pick as part of a package for Wild defenseman Marco Scandella, and would have preferred Jonas Brodin if they were going to give up that kind of asset. Don Sweeney confirmed that Boston’s first-round pick was in play, but stressed it was for “target specific” players that the Bruins coveted.

A deal was never worked out for one of those “target specific” players, so the Bruins continue to move on and hope that something breaks over the next few weeks.

“I was on record saying we’d be offering our first-round pick for target-specific players, and we did do that,” said Sweeney. “I don’t blame teams for not necessarily wanting to do it, so we went ahead with our own pick. I was target specific on a few players and there were other considerations being discussed.

“It’s an area we’d like to address and help our team currently. I’m not going to stop exploring areas where we can improve our club. It’s hard to tell [which way trade talks will go]. Maybe people will feel that picks from next year’s draft will be even better, or they like that pool of prospects a little bit better. It’s hard to tell [where trade discussions will go], to be perfectly honest.”

At least the Bruins were right on time with picking a Finnish player in the first round as a record six players from Finland were nabbed in the first round of the draft, and one would hope that means all will benefit from the hockey talent streaming out of that Scandinavian country right now. It will take years to determine how Vaakenainen, Jack Studnicka, Jeremy Swayman and the other members of the 2017 draft class ultimately pan out, but it sure doesn’t feel like the same outpouring of talent as in 2015 when Brandon Carlo, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, Jake DeBrusk and the rest of the Bruins draft picks officially entered the Black and Gold system.

B’s assistant GM Scott Bradley admitted as much when discussing the entire draft class on Saturday afternoon at the United Center, home of the Chicago Blackhawks. The Bruins got good value, addressed organizational needs and felt good about the players they picked in each and every spot, but there isn’t going to be a Charlie McAvoy or David Pastrnak coming out of a really “meh” group of draft-eligible hockey players.

“Our first rounder is somebody we’re excited about. His skating is close to what we call a ‘5’ in our system. He’s a left-shot. You compare his skating to [Paul] Coffey at times, really mobile and transition defenseman,” said Bradley, who hadn’t run a draft board for the Bruins in roughly ten years while Wayne Smith and Keith Gretzky had been in charge of the Black and Gold’s scouting operations. “I think we addressed a lot of our needs. It wasn’t sexy, but I think we did well in addressing a lot of the organization’s needs.”  

So with the amateur draft and the expansion draft both in the rearview mirror, the Bruins must move on in the roster-building process while still facing a pair of big needs in top-6 left wing and top-4 left side defenseman. They may be able to nail down one of those needs by swinging a trade with their list of available assets including Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Hayes, Jakub Zboril, Adam McQuaid and next year’s first-round pick.

A deal that would send a Spooner-led package elsewhere might be enough to land the big, skilled, young winger that the Bruins are currently in the market for, and provide top-6 insurance in case DeBrusk, Danton Heinen or Anders Bjork all aren’t quite ready for full-time duty skating, passing and finishing off plays with David Krejci.

It might be that the Bruins have to begin thinking about free agency as a viable place if they want to land a solid, top-4 D-man for the next handful of years to pair with Charlie McAvoy. Karl Alzner headlines a list of players that would be a good fit for the Black and Gold, but they would absolutely have to overpay for a 28-year-old UFA that’s averaged 20:13 of ice time per game over the course of his 591 career games with the Washington Capitals. More affordable would be a young, free agent defenseman like Dmitry Kulikov, who is still extremely young as he comes off a rough year with the Buffalo Sabres after getting traded there from Florida. Or other potentially available left-shot free agent defenseman like Brendan Smith or Ron Hainsey could be stop-gap answers for the Bruins until the next crop of D-men in Jakob Zboril, Jeremy Lauzon and Vaakenainen, and others, are ready to step up just like Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy did last season.

The bottom line is that the Bruins did perfectly fine over draft weekend with no true idea until a few years have passed for these teenage prospects, but they need to aim higher than “perfectly fine” with their offseason if they want to be any better at the NHL level next season. A big move or two will be needed from the Bruins front office if the B’s are going to make the jump that everybody wants to see from them over the next couple of seasons.