Kessel on fire as he returns to Boston

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Kessel on fire as he returns to Boston

BOSTON -- Phil Kessel is returning to Boston yet again with the Toronto Maple Leafs to square off with the Bruins, but for the first time since leaving Boston, Phil the Thrill is going to be feared when he hits the Garden ice.

Kessel leads the NHL with seven goals, 12 points and a plus-7 in five games for the Maple Leafs coming on the heels of a three-point performance in a 4-3 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday night. Hes been the beneficiary of a wide open system employed by the Leafs this season, but it appears that Kessel has also taken the step to the next level this season.

You know that Kessel has turned a corner when those around the Leafs organization including the media are thumping their chest about the trade with the Bruins thats netted Boston Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight and a brilliantly bright future.

Only one Maple Leafs player in the NHL's modern era (since 1943-44) scored at least seven goals in the team's first five games of a season: Hall of Famer Sweeney Schriner scored eight goals in Toronto's first five games in 1944-45. So Kessel is making history with Toronto, and hes also within the last couple of games started having success against his former hockey club in Boston.The sprinting start to the season is part of the Kessel modus operandi for his NHL season, and the gifted scorer had seven points (5 goals and 2 assists) through his first seven games with the Leafs last season. Clearly this year's scoring outburst is a step up from there, but many around hockey -- including Claude Julien -- are curious to see if the ending is equally spectacular this time around.Because the endings for Kessel haven't been quite as jaw-dropping as the beginnings."He's off to a good start again. That's a trademark for Phil is that he gets off to a good start. I watched him play last night and he's playing extremely well," said Julien. "His line has been doing a lot of damage out there on the ice. We need to understand the danger of that and be very aware when they're on the ice."

It sets up an interesting match-up against 19-year-old second year forward Tyler Seguin, who is also emerging this season with five points (1 goal, 4 assists) in 6 games as a viable offensive threat. But a Bs team averaging an NHL-worst 1.69 goals per game this season will need to generate a lot more offense to offset the former phenom forward thats on pace for a ridiculous 115 goals and 197 points this season.

That wont last and it will be interesting to see how much staying power Toronto has after getting off to a decent start last season as well. But nothing about Thursday nights game will get the introverted Kessel nervous about another return to Boston thats become a normal part of the season routine.

It gets old when you guys ask all the time, said Kessel when asked about heading back to Boston. You know, its a couple of years ago. I dont get jitters anymore. Going back to that first year I was a little nervous.

Theyre a great team and were going to have to battle hard to win tomorrow.

The 4-0-1 record built up by the Maple Leafs in the first five game are looking like a pretty good team themselves in the early going, but it's important to keep in mind the Leafs had the exact same record to start last season before the bottom dropped out.Theupstart Leafs and the desperate Bruinswill make an interesting dynamic for both Kessel and a Bruins team in search of a victory fix up -- and upagainst their fierce division rivals in this Year of the Kessel.

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.