Haggerty: Horton hit was a blow . . . to Canucks

191545.jpg

Haggerty: Horton hit was a blow . . . to Canucks

By JoeHaggerty
CSNNE.com BruinsInsider Follow @hackswithhaggs
BOSTON The Bruins have been on the wrong side of this kind of thing before, so it shouldnt be all that mysterious to them.

A devastatingly foul hit that injures a player can have an overpowering tipping point effect on a Stanley Cup playoff series, and that might have been exactly what The Bear needed to rip open his cage and start munching on Canucks.

Thats probably the most apt way to describe what went down in back-to-back slaughters at the raucous TD Garden in Games 3 and 4.

Aaron Rome incited the entire Bruins roster when he disregarded the safety and health of Nathan Horton and recklessly clobbered the Bs right wing long after hed released the puck in the neutral zone in Game 3s opening period.

It was disgusting, it was hockey brutality at its worst, and it earned the worst suspension in the history of the Stanley Cup Finals once the NHL executed a rare iron-fisted ruling.

It can be argued that justice was finally served after brain-scrambling hits on Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard went underpunished, but the question remained how the Black and Gold would respond to the challenge without Horton on the ice.

He was their difference-maker this season, second in the NHL during the Cup playoffs with a plus-10, second on the Bruins in goals scored, and the first player in history to notch a pair of Game 7 game-winning goals during the same playoff run. He was the goal-scoring replacement for Phil Kessel after the Bruins futilely went an entire season trying to replace Kessel without success.

Horton grinned his way through it all with an Aw, shucks, Im just happy to be here attitude after his escape from hockey jail in Florida. Hortons entire persona really seemed too good to be true at first as he smiled at everything, but his teammates realized it was the real deal.

Hes an unbelievable teammate, said Shawn Thornton. Hes so positive. Hes in such a good mood all the time. He makes everyone around him feel better about themselves. Anything we can do for him, were going to try.

That affection only grew Wednesday when, despite his concussion, Horton went into the Bruins' locker room and awarded the jacket that's given by the players to the game's best performer.

"He did that on his own, spur of moment," said Horton's agent, Paul Krepelka, in an e-mail to csnne.com. "Wasn't scripted, suggested, or planned . . . just pure passion and being part of that family in the room.

"It's a pretty good indication of how tight that group is and why they have been so resilient."

That resiliency has never shown more clearly than in the aftermath of Rome's hit.

The angry Bs have outscored the Canucks by a 12-1 margin in the five periods since the RomeHorton incident, and the series is starting to look a great deal like the BruinsHabs series in 2002 after Kyle McLaren decked Richard Zednik with a head shot and riled up the Habs at exactly wrong time.

The disclaimer is that the series is still just tied at 2-2, and the Bruins still have to win a game in Vancouver. But theyve clearly taken control of the series by punishing the Western Conferences best with aggressive physical play and a choking forecheck.

The whole tenor of the series has changed as the Bruins continue to beat up the Canucks and pilfer their lunch money.

A Vancouver defense corps thats needed to change things on the fly and substitute players due to injuries and suspension isnt attacking with the same speed or confidence while transitioning out of the offensive zone.

Keith Ballard played only nine games during the postseason and looked rusty and ineffective during his first game of the Cup Finals on Wednesday.

The Sedin Twins have been pushed, shoved and ridiculed way, way out of their comfort zone, and the punishing style of play accepted by the refs has pushed them into a category much more suitable for an E Channel sibling reality show than success on the NHLs grandest stage.

Ryan Kesler looks like an injured warrior trying to make it happen for his team, but he lost much of his oomph after Johnny Boychuk slammed him into the corner in the first period of Game 2.

Meanwhile the Bruins have transformed into something extremely lethal in hockey circles: a team playing inspired hockey thats been riled into a focused rage by the antics, cheap shots and cowardice of their opponents.

We've seen the Bruins unleash this kind of fury on the Canadiens when the hate level between the teams rose to certain levels over the last few years, and we've wondered if any other club could spark that kind of fire-breathing hatred.

Vancouver, take a bow.

The Canucks have done it in three short games by targeting one of Bostons players in a misguided attempt to show the wrong kind of dominance in somebody elses building.

The Bruins are certainly a team worthy of Cup contention, but there's little doubt the Black and Gold have ascended to a special level since Horton went down.

Its had some impact because Horty is a great guy and hes very well-loved on our team. Watching him go down, we want to finish what we started, you know for him, said goalie Tim Thomas.

To be honest with you, we want to do it all for ourselves and for each other. You have to have that drive or you probably wouldnt have arrived in the Finals. But its had an impact.

Notice that Thomas didnt say respected or liked in the way that most hockey players talk about their teammates. He said loved, like a family member that each of the other 22 Bruins would run through an industrial strength brick wall to protect.

Vancouver has turned a largely dormant Milan Lucic back into the most feared power forward in the league, capable of body-slamming opponents and creating scoring opportunities in the same backbreaking shift. A lot of that has to do with seeing one of his best friends taken out on a stretcher during Game 3.

Theyve insulted, annoyed and pestered Tim Thomas inside and outside his crease in an attempt to get him off his game a method the Canucks have watched opponents successfully execute against their own combustible goaltender in Roberto Luongo.

Well, it doesnt take a hockey scientist to decipher that Luongo is no Thomas and never will be after getting badly outplayed over the course of their careers and more importantly over the past four games, which have validated many of the things said both good and bad about both goalies in the past.

Shawn Thornton jumped into the series during Game 3 as well, and the Canucks have been playing scared since No. 22 hopped over the boards for his very first shift. Michael Ryder and Rich Peverley have stepped up their games in Hortons absence, and Dennis Seidenberg is playing the best hockey of his career.

The Vancouver Canucks were in the drivers seat of the Cup Finals after winning the first two games, and had everything going their way when they viciously poked the bear in the cage while blindsiding Horton in Game 3.

Something tells me the Canucks will come to regret that move.

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

Haggerty: Trumpeting Bruins defense as team's 'strength' might be a tad premature

bruins-defense-72317.jpg

Haggerty: Trumpeting Bruins defense as team's 'strength' might be a tad premature

It’s a slow period for hockey right now, so the NHL Network is doing a tremendously solid thing by recapping each of the 31 teams' situations after the expansion, draft and free agency periods altered many rosters.

MORE

This week, the NHL Network turned its TV eyes to the Bruins and pointed to their right-shot heavy stable of defensemen as the clear strength of the team. That perception is quite the 180-degree turn from just a couple of years ago when the B’s were bereft of top-four defensemen on the back end after shipping out Johnny Boychuk and Dougie Hamilton.

This was further compounded by No. 1 defenseman Zdeno Chara approaching 40, and, while effective, clearly not the same workhorse he was when the B’s won the Cup six years ago. Even last spring, the overall organizational depth for defensemen was compromised when Torey Krug, Adam McQuaid and Brandon Carlo were all lost to injuries and the B’s couldn’t overcome losing three of their top-four guys against a pretty formidable Ottawa bunch.

Now, it appears people are getting much more excited about the incumbent Bruins group of D-men.

The NHL Network crew referenced Boston’s surplus of right-shot defensemen and surmised the Bruins could even make a move or two before the start of the season, given the never-ending search many NHL GMs have for good right-side D.

That concept isn’t foreign given the longstanding speculation that Carlo could be moved to Colorado for fast-skating, offense-making Matt Duchene. Still, it’s clear the pendulum has swung far to the other side now with the B’s defensive group being trumpeted as “the strength of the team” and speculation there that they sacrifice a loss or two to their ranks.   

“They’re certainly dealing from a position of strength at a position that everybody covets,” said former NHL goaltender and current NHL Network analyst Kevin Weekes. “Their drafting overall has been good and their development model [has been solid].”

That’s certainly something Bruins fans will love to hear and any reason for them to be able to thump their chest is a welcomed one. I can almost see the "Wolf of Wall Street"-style celebration on Causeway Street as we speak.  

But that kind of pronouncement also might be getting a little too far out ahead of where the Bruins actually sit. Two or three years from now there’s a clear, easily seen path to where the B’s could be one of the best defensive corps in the NHL. All of the young drafted, developed D-men play into that scenario all the way down to Jakub Zboril, Ryan Lindgren, Jeremy Lauzon and Urho Vaakanainen.

Still, it might be a tad premature to tout Boston’s defense as its biggest roster strength.

After all, Chara is pushing 40 and will be much better-served if the Bruins can treat him more like a No. 3 or No. 4 shutdown defensemen playing just 20 minutes a night. Anybody who watched the playoffs saw Chara wear down quickly under the unavoidable workload against the Senators once Krug, McQuaid and Carlo went down. That will be a situation that continues to worsen if he’s asked to do too much as one of the oldest players in the league.

Then there’s Carlo, 20, and Charlie McAvoy, 19, who will both be expected to play top-four roles this season. Their talent is obvious and McAvoy, in particular, has all of the goods to be a dominant No. 1 defenseman within the next couple of seasons. Those two should lock up the right side of Boston’s defensemen depth chart for the next 10 years if everything goes according to plan.  

But there are going to be ups and downs with young players thrust into top-four roles with that kind of inexperience. Last season pointed to that kind of inconsistency for Carlo throughout his rookie year. To expect something dissimilar from McAvoy this season is unrealistic and simply just a part of the D-man apprenticeship program in the NHL.  

It will be a couple more seasons before Carlo or McAvoy are steady, consistent NHL veterans capable of shouldering a heavy workload without the occasional novice hiccup.

The Bruins also weren’t able to lock down a left-shot defenseman for their top-four in the opening of NHL free agency, so it looks like either Torey Krug or Kevan Miller is going to start the season partnered up with McAvoy. Clearly, Krug has been excellent for the Bruins while willing himself from undrafted find into an undersized top-four defenseman. Last season, he topped 50 points for the first time in his career.

Kevan Miller was good enough last season for the Bruins to protect him over Colin Miller in the Vegas expansion draft and he certainly brings value as a big, strong, hard-hitting defenseman who is better offensively than you think. But he’ll be asked to play on his left “off” side if he plays top-four minutes as a veteran on-ice tutor of sorts for McAvoy, which will take Miller a bit out of his comfort zone.

Krug and Miller have their strengths and weaknesses as possible top-four solutions and the bottom line is that the Bruins could do better in finding a partner for McAvoy. In an ideal world for the B’s, Krug and Miller would be your bottom pairing where the matchups could hide some of their limitations while maximizing their strengths.

That leaves Adam McQuaid and Paul Postma as the two remaining defensemen on the Bruins' NHL depth chart. They're players who'll give you everything they’ve got with good size and limited offensive ability. If we’re being honest, though, the Bruins would be best served if one of these two was the spare No. 7 defenseman and the other replaced by a better left-shot player that could log top-four minutes.

So, has the Bruins defensemen group vaulted ahead of the Patrice Bergeron/Brad Marchand combo as the clear strength of the team? No, they have not at this point. The defense is one player short and probably at least two years of development shy of being able to truly be the strength of the B's once they're likely again to be in the Stanley Cup contender conversation. That’s why the Bruins shouldn’t be dealing any of their young D-men and instead would be best served simply watching things develop naturally the next couple of years while building the right way.