Cup of opportunity

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Cup of opportunity

By Michael Felger
CSNNE.com

A handful of Bruins thoughts for you as we get reacquainted with what a deep playoff run feels like . . .

1. Time will tell if Patrice Bergeron's concussion renders the Bruins incapable of exploiting it, but there nevertheless appears to be an opening for the B's in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins weren't healthy. Alex Ovechkin and the Caps once again couldn't figure out how to play in the postseason. The Flyers, the Eastern Conference's best team for most of the season, were without tone-setting defenseman Chris Pronger for three games against the B's and, if you can believe it, their goaltending got worse. Out west, four-time Cup winner Nick Lidstrom and the Red Wings are the brink of elimination. Defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago was bounced in the first round.

What's left are some very good teams, but none that look to be dynastic. There are no mismatches left.

It's a big departure from what the B's faced the last time they had a team capable of reaching this level. They made the Cup finals in 1988 and 1990, only to be beaten by the Oilers of Gretzky and Messier. They advanced to the Wales Conference finals in 1991 and 1992, only to be stopped by Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr and the Penguins. The B's were simply overmatched those years. They had the misfortune of getting good at the exact time others were getting great.

With all due respect, unless Detroit completes a miracle comeback, there isn't a team like that left this time around.

Before the Bergeron injury I think the Bruins were a hair better than the Lightning. Now they might be a hair worse, or even. Either way, it's close. The Sharks and Canucks were a notch better than the B's at full strength and that gap will certainly widen if Bergeron remains out, but it's not insurmountable. If the B's play their best, they can beat the Sharks and Canucks. They can beat the Lightning without Bergeron. They may not be a favorite in any of those matchups, but every series is within reach.

That wasn't the case against those Oilers and Penguins teams two decades ago. And, truth be told, that probably wouldn't have been the case this year had the road gone through Crosby and Malkin. And if the Wings win the next two against San Jose, then all bets are off should the B's and Detroit meet in the Finals.

But to this point, circumstances have broken in the Bruins' favor. Things have opened up.

Now we see if they can take advantage.

2. As for the Bergeron injury, the obvious fear is that it will have the effect on the B's that David Krejci's wrist injury had on them in the second round last year against Philadelphia.

The Bruins never recovered after Krejci's wrist injury, even though a healthy Bergeron played the rest of that series. Now the roles are reversed. Bergeron wasn't enough absent Krejci last year. Will Krejci be enough absent Bergeron this year? We'll see.

One thing is for sure -- the B's are better constructed to withstand such an injury this time around. It's something GM Peter Chiarelli made sure of at the trade deadline with the acquisitions of Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly. After two rounds, those moves are looking like two of the best of Chiarelli's tenure here (yes, I hated the Kelly trade at the time -- so give me another loss), as Chiarelli accurately gauged the B's size and durability issues up the middle and determined reinforcements were needed. He was right.

Last year, Krejci's minutes went to the likes of Marc Savard, who clearly wasn't ready, and Vladimir Sobotka, who clearly wasn't good enough. It feels like the B's are in better shape now.

3. If you're among those who believe that rookie Tyler Seguin will step right in and get Bergeron's minutes, I have a feeling you're going to be sorely disappointed.

Claude Julien didn't trust Seguin in the regular season; what makes you think he's going to trust him in the playoffs? The best you can hope for is seeing Seguin on the second power-play unit, although there's no guarantee of that, either. Otherwise, I expect to see him buried on the fourth line.

As for who moves up between Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi, it's either going to be Kelly or Peverley. Kelly got the nod for the remainder of the third period in Game 4 against Philly. However, Kelly, Marchand and Recchi are all left-handed shots, and some coaches shy away from having lines with all three players shooting from the same side. If Julien is one of them, then expect to see the righty Peverley up there.

But whether it's Kelly or Peverley with the second unit, I would expect Greg Campbell to get the call up to the third line to play with Mike Ryder and whoever is left from Kelly and Peverley. Julien loves Campbell for his defensive responsibility and faceoff ability. He trusts him -- and the coach has no such feelings towards the rookie. Julien doesn't even trust Seguin to play center; he prefers him at wing. So my guess is that Seguin will be down with Shawn Thornton on a fourth line centered by Dan Paille.

Either way, I can't fathom Julien giving Seguin more five-on-five ice time than Kelly, Peverley, Campbell or Paille. The rookie is going to have to earn his way up.
4. Speaking of the fourth line, they played a key role in the defeat of the Flyers, but let's not overstate it.

To listen to some fans and media, the Paille-Campbell-Thornton unit was the key -- which is silly.

Don't get me wrong. It's nice to have a deep, balanced team. And the B's will take whatever production they can get from that line. But what was more important against the Flyers: the play of the fourth line . . . or the breakout of the first line?

The B's scored 18 goals (excluding empty-netters) in the four games against the Flyers -- and Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Krejci were responsible for nearly half of them (eight). Krejci had nine points in the series and Horton had seven. Lucic finally broke out late with a pair of goals in Game 4. Lucic was a plus-7 in the four games while Krejci and Horton were each plus-6.

Look, I like roll players and dirt dogs as much as the next guy, but let's be real. The Bruins were a different team between the Montreal series and the Philadelphia sweep because the first line finally broke out. It also helped that Zdeno Chara regained his health and Tim Thomas maintained his level of play from the end of the first round. But when it comes down to what group of forwards were the key, it's not even close.

And if the B's are going to get past the Lightning, they will need to continue to get production from their stars. Start there. Not at the bottom of the roster. Julien's ice time should continue to reflect that reality.
5. Here's what scares me the most about the Lightning:

They head into the series having scored the most power-play goals in the playoffs with 12 (second-place Anaheim had eight). They are second in power-play opportunities with 45 (Philly had 49). They are third in power-play percentage at 26.7 percent (first among remaining teams). They are second in penalty kill at a stunning 94.4 percent (only Montreal at 100 percent is higher, and let's face it, they were playing the Bruins).

Get the point yet? The Lightning are all about special teams. They are all about drawing penalties. They are known as divers.

They are, in other words, very much like the Canadiens when it comes to this part of the game.

Here we go again.

E-mail Felger with the form on the right and read the mailbag on Thursdays. Listen to him on the radio weekdays, 2-6 p.m. on 98.5 the Sports Hub.

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. 

Blidh plans to bring some energy to Bruins after call-up

Blidh plans to bring some energy to Bruins after call-up

BRIGHTON, Mass. – Anton Blidh plans on keeping things pretty straightforward on his first call-up to the NHL. 

The former sixth-round pick of the Bruins has earned his stripes at the AHL level with Providence over the last couple of seasons, and comes to Boston as a gritty, energy forward capable of stirring things up in otherwise sleepy games. There’s also a bit of offensive upside for a fourth line-type player with five goals and nine points with 22 penalty minutes and a plus-eight rating in 19 games for the P-Bruins this season. 

It remains to be seen if the Blidh call-up means that the Bruins intend to scratch a player or that somebody is questionable for Saturday afternoon’s game in Buffalo, but Patrice Bergeron did miss Friday’s practice without any real defined reason for his absence. The 21-year-old Swede said he plans to play to his strengths if he gets into the lineup for the Black and Gold, and that could mean getting under the skin of his Sabres opponents. 

“It’s my first time called up, so I’m happy,” said Blidh, who was asked what he'll bring if he gets into the lineup. “I’ll just play simple and play my own game: be hard on the puck and play with some energy. I worked hard [in Providence] and then I got some confidence. I’m not a goal-scorer, but I scored a couple of goals and got some confidence.”

Claude Julien hasn’t been able to catch up Blidh’s work since the season got started, but was pleased by the youngster’s progress in training camp, where he earned notice for his feisty, physical play on a line with Noel Acciari. 

“They said he’s playing well, so they brought him up. We’ll get to see him, hopefully tomorrow,” said Julien. “I didn’t hear a ton of fine details aside from him being a guy that was certainly playing with a lot of energy. I didn’t mind him in training camp either. He works really hard and competes hard, and we could use that.”

That would certainly be the case after watching the Bruins go through the motions for long stretches Thursday night against Carolina before essentially stealing a game that they didn’t deserve to win.