Grzelcyk off to flashy start, adapting to BU hockey

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Grzelcyk off to flashy start, adapting to BU hockey

Matthew Grzelcyk should be sitting on top of the hockey world right now.

And the 18-year-old is, admittedly, for the most part.

Hes notched three assists in his first four games skating for the Boston University hockey team as a mere freshman on the Hockey East scene. Thats all part of the Charlestown, Mass native chasing down his puck dreams first borne while playing street hockey in the shadow of TD Garden. That dream was only augmented when his hometown Bruins team drafted him in the third round (85th overall) of this summers NHL draft, and turned those boyhood flights of fancy into a potential down-the-road reality.

Forget about great sports stories. Thats the stuff of Hollywood scripts bending the suspension of disbelief.

But even a fresh-faced college hockey phenom living out his puck dreams like Grzelcyk is feeling the pinch of the NHL lockout: his dad, John Sr., has drawn a paycheck as a part of the TD Garden bull gang for 45 years and isnt working any of the Bruins games that have obviously become a staple of his professional life.

Hes been there so long that any event thats going on there hes trying to be a part of, but hes definitely not getting as much overtime as he would normally, said Grzelcyk. Its not even just working the games, though. Hes had the luxury of watching all the games and getting to know the star players personally. Im sure hes feeling it just as everybody else.

To the credit of the Bruins TD Garden ownership led by Jeremy Jacobs, Grzelcyk and the rest of the bull gang are still drawing paychecks despite the two-month work stoppage. There might be a little less overtime or a collective tightening of the belts going on, but life is going on within the walls of the Garden on Causeway Street.

That has allowed the younger Grzelcyk to get off to a hot start with the Scarlet and White and jump right into the fold on Comm. Ave as a transitional offensive-defenseman that every hockey team is desperately seeking. His offensive instincts are clearly the product of fine coaching while coming up through the local youth hockey system playing with the Middlesex Islanders, coached by Jim Vesey and Mark Fidler, and at Belmont Hill.

But there is also God-given ability within his 5-foot-9, 175-pound that Grzelcyk is just starting to fully tap into.

He has what I call that Larry Bird court vision, said legendary BU head coach Jack Parker, who loves to marry the basketball metaphors into his hockey world. He sees things developing and is able to work the puck into a space before the window closes. Hes got great skating speed to go along with it, which doesnt hurt either.

But the instincts are something that you cant teach. That comes from watching hockey, studying hockey, thinking about hockey all of the time and playing plenty of street hockey as a kid growing up in Charlestown.

The passing instincts, the flair for the spectacular and the up-tempo pace to Grzelcyks game were all readily apparent during the Bruins Prospect Development Camp in July, and those are only improving with confidence and growing experience. Those all have to be there for a D-man with the size and stature of Grzelcyk to thrive as the levels of hockey become more challenging.

To hear Grzelcyk tell it, the speed of play in Hockey East hasnt actually risen dramatically from what he faced touring last winter with the US National Team Development Program. The USTDP played all of the best college programs across the United States, and he knew that he belonged within that.   

But there is a burgeoning part of the small-ish defensemans game. Its been slightly surprising to Parker and his staff that Grzelcyk has hit the ground running along with BU Finnish freshman defenseman Ahti Oksanen.

The five pounds of muscle added to his 5-foot-9 frame during a summer working with BU strength trainer Mike Boyle, however, has given him a little more of the man strength hell need battling against players as much five or years older than him at the NCAA level.

I just want to gain more strength and use the great facilities here to my advantage, said Griz, who spent the summer living on the BU campus taking classes and thrusting himself into early morning workouts to get ready for college hockey. All zones could use work, obviously, but the biggest thing for me on ice is using my assets to my advantage.

In the mind of Griz, his offensive game seems to take care of itself when he lets his instincts flow and starts piling up the nifty outlet passes and cross-ice dishes. The bigger challenge will come with turning his speed, intelligence and active stick into an effective defensive combination.  

The speed and size of players is definitely an adjustment, but the strength of the other players is a big one for me because Im a smaller D'. Ive got to move my feet as much as I can, said Grzelcyk, who said hes traded text messages with the Bruins front office since the season began. Im playing against guys that are six years older than me, so Ive got to use my smarts as much as I can. Positioning is huge and using gap control and angles to beat off bigger guys is important. If a bigger guy is allowed to get position on me then hell go right around me.

But there will be plenty of growth and development in Grzelcyks game over the next four years. He said the biggest adjustment in the first few games of this season was getting used to the large crowds packing into Agganis Arena after he routinely played for scattered friends, family and scouts in crowds past.

Even though his dad is a member of the bull gang, Grzelcyk has never even been to a Beanpot hockey game at the Garden. Hell need to get used to snapping off those crisp first passes on the biggest stage with the brightest lights trained directly on him.

Hell also need to learn consistency and find that tricky balance between offense and defense that earned puck-moving defenseman like Dennis Wideman, Tomas Kaberle and Joe Corvo one-way tickets out of Boston over the last five years.

But all of that stuff is far down the line for Grzelcyk, who is simply happy to be home playing in front of family and friends after being stuck watching Detroit Lions games while living out in Ann Arbor, Michigan for the US National Team Development Program. Life doesnt get much for Grzelcyk than heading back to The Town after his mom has cooked up her famous chicken, broccoli and ziti.

Getting the support of my family and getting to see them at least once a week was something I really missed out on the last couple of years, said Grzelcyk. I had never been able to play in front of a home crowd like this over the last couple of years, and it makes all the difference. Theres a reason we havent lost a game yet at home so far this season.

Now hes back in the heart of New England living out the first step of his hockey dream, able to watch Patriots games with his family every weekend and getting better every day as he starts living out the potential the Bruins recognized while getting in on the ground floor.

Win vs. Islanders 'a nice building block' for Bruins

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Win vs. Islanders 'a nice building block' for Bruins

BROOKLYN, NY – It wasn’t particularly entertaining and it won’t be all that memorable down the ride aside from the timing and importance of the meeting between the Bruins and Islanders. But it was a solid 2-1 team win for the Bruins over the Islanders at the Barclays Center on Saturday night with the B’s grinding all the way down to the end while protecting a one-goal lead through much of the third period.

Nearly everybody across Boston’s roster contributed in the major victory over the team trying to bypass them in the wild card standings, and it was a beautiful thing. Anton Khudobin stepped up when Tuukka Rask couldn’t start Saturday night’s showdown with a lower body issue, and Riley Nash supplied both Boston goals from a fourth line that’s played some of their best hockey lately.

It was unlikely heroes all around for the Black and Gold in the tightly-wound contest, but that diversity of talent and production can be a very good thing for a team looking to make that playoff push.

“You have to stay with it. You have to stay in the moment and stay with the game no matter what’s happening during the game. That’s how you get results, and that’s how you find ways to persevere through adversity,” said Patrice Bergeron. “We just got back to playing stingy, especially in the neutral zone. We got away from it the last few games, and it was nice tonight to be back playing a low-scoring game like what we’re used to playing.”

When it was all said and done the Bruins only allowed 19 shots on net and also killed off six penalties in the kind of grinding defensive showdown that you haven’t seen all that much out of the Black and Gold lately. It was exactly what Cassidy was looking for to snap the four-game losing streak, and once again start pushing the Bruins upward into the playoff chase.

“That’s the type of win that goes a long way in the room when your goaltender is battling hard and fighting that hard to see pucks and find pucks and your D are blocking shots. And you kill that many penalties. It was a nice building block for us,” said Cassidy. “From the goalie on out, everybody was in there [in the win]. It was a tough game. It was a nice Bruins win. We had been doing it with offense earlier, and we’ve got to be able to do it both ways. You need to be able to win 2-1 hockey games, and it had been awhile.”

Now it’s simply up to the Bruins to be feeling good about their latest win while going back to basics, and looking for more next time around after ending their worst losing streak of the season.

Anton Khudobin battles for a huge win filling in for Tuukka Rask

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Anton Khudobin battles for a huge win filling in for Tuukka Rask

BROOKLYN, NY – Things didn’t go so well last season for the Bruins when Tuukka Rask suddenly wasn’t well enough to play in the last game of the season, so there was good reason for the B’s to be a little nervous when their No. 1 goalie again couldn’t answer the bell Saturday night vs. the Islanders.

Anton Khudobin had won four games in a row headed into Saturday night, of course, and in his previous start he’d helped snap a 10-game winning streak for the Calgary Flames. So perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising when Khudobin stood tall for the Bruins making 18 saves in a tight, nervy 2-1 win over the Isles at the Barclays Center.

“You don’t have that many shots, but maybe 10 scoring chances…that can be tougher than seeing 30 shots and same amount of scoring chances,” said Khudobin. “But I’m glad got the job done, we got our points and we got the ‘W’.”

It wasn’t wall-to-wall action in a game where both teams combined for 37 shots on net, but it was still impressive that Khudobin and the B’s special teams killed off six Islander power plays in such a tight hockey game. After the B’s backup netminder was lauded for the way he battled in the crease and competed for pucks like his team’s very life was on the line in a pivotal game.

“That’s the type of win that goes a long way in the room when your goaltender is battling hard, and fighting that hard to see pucks and your D are blocking shots. And you kill that many penalties. It was a nice building block for us,” said Bruce Cassidy. “I loved his performance. He’s a battler. He got swimming a couple of times, but that’s Dobby. He keeps it interesting for you. He’s a battler and he always has been. That’s what we needed tonight.”

One could spend days analyzing Cassidy's words and wondering much of that was deserved, appreciative praise for Khudobin, and how much of that might have been a veiled message to Boston's No. 1 goaltender sitting back home in Boston. 

The best save of the night probably won’t even count as a save for the Russian netminder. It was John Tavares, after having beaten Khudobin once in the first period, moving into the offensive zone with speed during a third period power play, and getting an open look at the net front in the high slot. Khudobin thought quickly and dropped into the unconventional double-stack pad save that seemed to throw Tavares off just a little, and the Isles sniper smoked the shot off the crossbar rather than tying up the game.

“I didn’t touch it. I didn’t really have time to get there, so the only thing I tried to do was the two-pad stack, old school Bob Essensa-style,” said Khudobin, who has now improved to 6-5-1 with a 2.60 goals against and an .899 save percentage this season. “Then he hit the crossbar. You need to get some luck in this league, and if you don’t get luck you’re going to lose games.”

A little luck and a little good, old-fashioned battling between the pipes was enough for Khudobin and the Bruins in Saturday night’s mammoth win. Now the questions become whether or not to go right back to Khudobin again on Tuesday at home against the Nashville Predators.