Haggerty: Thornton's season should be letter-worthy

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Haggerty: Thornton's season should be letter-worthy

By Joe Haggerty
CSNNE.com Bruins Insider Follow @hackswithhaggs

Leadership in hockey can be a funny thing.

Any successful team is built on the bedrock foundation of tireless work, controlled anger and the willingness to stand up for wronged teammates. The Bruins had all these traits last winter.

Zdeno Chara became only the second European to hold an NHL captaincy on a Stanley Cup winning team last June and boasts all three qualities in high order.

Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi were Charas trusted assistant captains from Game 1 at the O2 Arena in Prague all the way to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against the Canucks.

The Black and Gold leadership was as good as it gets. Those three players helped navigate the Bruins through a challenging regular season and chose the correct times to call together players only meetings at key points in the season.

It was Recchi, Bergeron and Chara who convened a meeting in Pittsburgh in January after the Bruins had imploded in the third period against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre. It was the same three individuals who managed to prevent any potential front-office tension from spilling over into the dressing room during times of trouble, and kept the team focused once the CharaMax Pacioretty zoo was created in Montreal.

The leadership truly couldnt have been any better for a hockey team full of big personalities and considerable talent, and they were fully supported by a strong cast of veteran characters like Andrew Ference, Shawn Thornton, Chris Kelly and Shane Hnidy.

But times change and hockey teams evolve, and the balance within the leadership group was significantly altered when three-time Stanley Cup champion Mark Recchi decided to call it a career at age 43.

Recchis calming, paternal effect on young players was uncanny, and his unyielding toughness while playing through kidney stones in the 2008-09 playoffs against the Carolina Hurricanes was the stuff of legend.

Theres no way to replicate that in the Bruins room.

Signing a marginal vet like Chris Clark to a camp tryout isnt going to get it done either. But life will go on for the Cup champions in their attempts to repeat, and the team needs to go about the business of naming another assistant captain.

Claude Julien and the Bruins have a couple of choices: Go back to their previous policy of rotating the second A around the team and giving it to three or four players for a period of time through the season, or simply name one high profile leader of hockey men as the assistant captain.

Julien made it clear during the State of the Bruins that it would be a decision made by the group inside the walls of their dressing room without feedback from the outside.

If its a permanent assistant captain chosen to replace Recchi, then there can really be only one choice: Shawn Thornton.

The Bruins' tough guy is universally respected within the Bs dressing room, is now one of the longest tenured players on the roster, and is the only player whos decided to make Boston his permanent home. The hard work, emotion and courage so intrinsically linked to hockey greatness serve as the framework to his game, and Thornton already boasts everything but the letter on his sweater.

It was the Bs enforcer, after all, who helped create one of the turning points in the season when he scored a pair of goals and single-handedly helped the Bruins beat down the Atlanta Thrashers as the vultures circled around Julien during a team slump last December. It was Thornton who went after Matt Cooke two years ago to clean the slate with the Pittsburgh hatchet man, and right the ultimate wrong.

Thornton is always the honest voice within the dressing room, telling teammates what they might not want to hear and demanding accountability from everyone up and down the lineup.

It was Thornton who always offers to help a new players transition to the Bruins' way of doing things. It was Thornton who opened his home in Charlestown to Byron Bitz several seasons ago when the rookie didnt have a permanent place to live, and has similarly taken young players from Tyler Seguin to Tuukka Rask under his wing.

There may even be some truth to the whispers that it was Thornton who finally approached Brad Marchand during his wild, shirtless week of celebration in Boston following the Cup victory and advised the Bs rat to cool down and head back to Halifax for a while.

While its true there arent many enforcers wearing the C or A on their sweaters around the NHL these days, Thornton has become the heart and soul of the Bruins as much as any other player on Bostons highly successful hockey club.

No. 22 is coming off his best season as a pro and knows exactly what it takes to win as the only two-time Stanley Cup champ on the Bs roster headed into camp. The positives of giving Thornton the A on his sweater far outweigh any potential negatives that could be out there.

While Ference or perhaps even a younger player like Milan Lucic might be a reasonable selections as an assistant captain in Recchis stead, theres really only one name that could lend the kind of leadership Boston will need in their attempts to repeat as Stanley Cup champs.

The Bruins should vote Thornton in 2012 if they again want to be on a winning ticket this time around.

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

Haggerty: Signs of panic starting to show as losses mount for B's

Haggerty: Signs of panic starting to show as losses mount for B's

BOSTON -- For the third straight season, the Bruins are showing all the ugly, telltale signs of a hockey club poised to take a nosedive out of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

The short-attention span Bruins returned in a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at TD Garden, and proceeded to blow three one-goal leads in the second period before totally collapsing in the final 20 minutes of the game. Three unanswered third goals later, the Bruins were understandably downtrodden and accountable for a performance that kicked up so many bad memories from the last couple of seasons.

“We all have to look at ourselves in the mirror and we can’t point fingers. Everyone has to step up and if every guy is going to do their job, including myself, then the rest will follow, you know?” said David Krejci. “But we hadn’t done that [against Tampa Bay] at all. The last two games against Toronto and Ottawa, I thought we worked hard. But for whatever reason [against Tampa] – maybe we thought it was going to come easy – we just shot ourselves in the foot.

“Like I said, each player has to be better, including myself, and if we don’t look at ourselves in the mirror that’s what’s going to happen. We’ll be losing and we need to win games. We have a team, we all believe, we know we can play well. We know we can win hockey games. We have a great game plan, but [against Tampa] I guess we just thought it was going to come easy.”

Even worse there were clear signs of panic in Boston’s game as things unfolded in an unsightly manner on the Garden ice.

Clearly it wasn’t about talent on Thursday night, and instead it was about focus, concentration and paying attention to the fine details that can come back to haunt you late in the season. The Bruins scored three goals in the second period with David Pastrnak, Zdeno Chara and Riley Nash each lighting the lamp, but it took 44 seconds, 24 seconds and 1 minute, 35 seconds respectively in the second period for the Bolts to things up.

That’s the kind of instant buckling and crumbling under pressure we’ve seen in the past from the Bruins late in seasons, and we’re seeing it again despite a different coach and some new, hard-nosed players like David Backes. That lack of composure combined with a pinch of panic is a potentially disastrous mix for the Black and Gold, just as it has been for the last three years.

“Those follow up shifts need to be our best shifts of the game. They’re when you can either bury a team, or when you get scored on to have a great response, and to show that you’re not going away [if you’re the team trailing]. I don’t think they were our best shifts. They were probably some of our least [effective] in the form of execution, least form of desperation and fortitude to just impose what we’re going to do on the other team.

[Tampa] certainly made good on their chances, there’s no question about that. But I think we led into them way too much and the result is the result that we don’t get points again. We’re four [losses] in a row here, but this needs to stop Saturday [against the Islanders] or the bleeding starts to get profuse after that. The guys are in this room. We know it. We’ve seen it. We need to look in the mirror.”

It goes beyond a thoroughly gross second period, however.

The Bruins last line of defense, No. 1 goaltender Tuukka Rask, crumbled in the second and third period as things were falling apart around him. Anton Stralman beat him high to the short-side, glove side for the game-tying goal on a transition play, and Jonathan Drouin snapped one past him from the face-off circle that dipped under his glove hand for the game-winner.

It was a soft, inexcusable goal allowed in a hugely important game, and was part of five goals allowed on 28 shots for the former Vezina Trophy winner. After the game Rask seemed frazzled, his voice getting soft and trailing off when it was his turn to accept responsibility for a giant stink bomb tossed down on the Garden ice.

“You have to [pick up the team]. A lot of the time that’s the case, the goalie has to make a couple extra stops there and today I didn’t,” said Tuukka Rask. “That’s part of my job to accept the fact that sometimes it’s your fault. There were a couple of times I should’ve made the save, but it happens sometimes…”

The high pressure situation with things spiraling out of control even seemed to be getting to their best, most established players with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand forcing things down a goal in the third period. Bergeron and Marchand were put back together with David Pastrnak in the second and third periods with Bruce Cassidy looking for answers, and they attempted to execute a D-zone face-off play that’s worked a few times for them in the last few years.

It involves Bergeron winning the draw, and then either Marchand or Pastrnak immediately releasing for a home run pass that can turn into a breakaway opportunity if the opponent is caught napping. Tampa Bay wasn’t caught unaware when the B’s tried it in the middle of the third period, but then Bergeron and Co. kept trying to make it happen.

They ended up icing the puck multiple times trying to make the goal happen in one quick play rather than working for the tying goal, and it killed any momentum they could have possibly started building up for a third period comeback. It also showed a fundamental lack of confidence that they could scratch and claw their way back in on Thursday night, and that’s a definite cause for concern at this time of year.

“At the end of the day, it is a focus, and it’s urgency, and it’s understanding time and score. We did not have a good comprehension of that tonight, I don’t think, and of late,” said Cassidy. “We’ve let games get away, and you can look back, even this year, we’ve had some goals scored against us late throughout the course of the year. It’s been built in this year, and we’re still fighting through it, to be perfectly honest.

“It’s a mindset that we’ve just got to get harder and understand the stakes, and what’s required after you score a goal. I think winning teams get through that, and we’re fighting through it this year. Some nights, we’ve been good at it. We’ve had resiliency, I think. It’s just, lately, it’s creeping in, and we’ve got to nip it in the bud now.”

It hasn’t been just the young players at the heart of this four-game losing streak, and the Tampa loss should have been a wakeup call that the Bruins veterans need to find a way to step up their focus, their effort level and their composure at this time of year. After their fourth loss in a row, the Bruins have frittered away whatever margin for error they once had with just eight games remaining in the regular season.

Their next wrong move will cause a nosedive straight out of the playoffs for the third year in a row, and that will spell changes far and wide on Causeway Street for the Boston Bruins.
 

Bruin players talk the talk after failing to walk the walk vs. Lightning

Bruin players talk the talk after failing to walk the walk vs. Lightning

BOSTON -- All the Bruins -- the leaders and the core veteran group -- were front and center on Thursday night, taking accountability for what had just happened on the ice.

It was ugly: Boston frittered away three one-goal leads in the second period and then came totally unglued in the third period, allowing three consecutive goals in a 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning at TD Garden. There were moments when focus and concentration were clearly an issue, and other moments when the Bruins lacked their usual discipline with veteran players were taking some ill-advised penalties.

With pressure mounting as the Bruins, losers of four in a row, appear to be headed towards their third consecutive late-season collapse out of the playoffs, the players were saying all the right things while vowing to move forward with eight games left.

"I think it's not good enough from top to bottom," said David Backes. "I'll be the first guy to point fingers at my chest and say I need to be better. Tonight was certainly not our best when it's that time of year [and] you need your best every night to win, no matter who you're playing against or what the circumstances may be. This one certainly hurts . . .

"But now's not the time to not be giving ourselves a chance to win and we need to be doing that every night. Tonight, we didn't and we've got eight games left and they all need to be really good-to-great ones so that we can find our way into these playoffs."

Backes finished a minus-2 with just a single shot on net and seemed a step behind Tampa Bay most of the game, so it was proper to him to call himself our for personal ineffectiveness. But as interim coach Bruce Cassidy put it, responsibility for Thursday night -- the low point of the Bruins' season -- rests on "Player 1 through Player 20". And all 20 of the Bruins will be needed to find a successful way out.