Five Minute Major: Prelude to a Classic

fenwayguysThe Bruins ran into a very motivated Philadelphia Flyers team on Monday night at the Garden, and couldn’t match that intensity for a full 60 minutes, watching as the Fly Guys put together a dominating third period for a 3-1 win in a preview of the Winter Classic to be held at Fenway Park on New Year’s Day.

The Bruins just seemed to be a little off all night, with most passes just a tick behind and shot after shot being misfired. The Flyers, on the other hand were doing all the right things. A team known for a lack of discipline over the years, the Flyers baited the Bruins into multiple penalties in the first period, doing their best to get under Zdeno Chara’s skin and get the big guy off the ice.

Facing a 1-0 deficit in the third period, the Flyers stormed back for three goals in the final stanza including two off the stick of defenseman Kimmo Timonen. This Flyers team has been a major disappointment this season, so it is safe to say the Bruins ran into a squad that put together probably its best overall effort.

The loss capped a tough weekend for the Black and Gold. On Saturday, the B’s lost in overtime, 3-2, to this season’s nemesis – the New York Islanders. The Bruins had a lead in that game as well, but couldn’t hold on and watched as the Isles stole a point with a breakaway goal 46 seconds into overtime.

The Bruins were riding a pretty hot streak around Thanksgiving, with wins in five of six games to end November and points in all six games. In December, the B’s are 3-2-1, riding a “feast or famine” run. In the wins, they have been dominant. In three victories, the Bruins have scored 16 goals to their opponents’ five. However, in the three losses, the Bruins have been outscored 11-5.

The troubling sign is that these last half-dozen games have included just one against a team currently in the playoff chase – a 5-1 loss at Montreal. This stretch was supposed to be a chance for the Bruins to put some serious space between themselves and the pretenders in the race for the postseason.

Instead, the Bruins have not really solidified anything, keeping a five-point cushion between themselves and an early date with their golf coaches. All the while, Ryan Miller has been playing out of his mind in goal for Buffalo, keeping the Sabres ahead of Boston for the division lead and home ice in the first round of the playoffs. While it is technically still early in the season and there are 50 games left, the current setup of the NHL with points awarded for losses in overtime or shootouts allows for teams to stay in the race too long and makes every game important.5MM2

With that beings aid, let’s take a quick look at Monday’s game in an abridged version of the “Five Minute Major.”

1.  Anytime the Bruins and Flyers get together this year, talk turns to the upcoming Winter Classic. This weekend’s game was more of a preview as the two teams met in Boston at the same time the ice began to be laid down over at Fenway. Players from both sides were able to stop by the Fens on Sunday and see how things were going. Based on the talk from both teams on whether they could shoot a puck over the Green Monster as if it were a home run, it is clear that everyone is excited to play in the game.

Last night, the squads skated warm-ups with their toques they will wear Jan. 1 on. A nice visual that will look even better on a frosty morning New Year’s Day. While I will be able to go to the college games on Jan. 8, a big part of me is jealous of the 40,000 people who will fill Fenway Jan. 1. Anyone who has watched the last two games on New Year’s Day understands how much of a spectacle this is and just how lucky Boston is to host this event. The NHL, the Bruins, and the Red Sox are doing a great job of promoting this event and everyone involved should be proud.

2.  The one thing that makes the Winter Classic a truly spectacular event is a good game on the ice after the pomp and circumstance prior shuts down. If the Bruins and Flyers can put together a game on Jan. 1 like they did last night – with the result flipped, of course – then all will be good in the Hub of Hockey.

wcmatchupchararichardsFrom a pure entertainment standpoint, the B’s and Flyers played hockey the way it is supposed to be played. The two teams put 65 shots on goal. They combined for 60 hits and a few moments of aggravation . Sure, it is rare that these two teams get together and all gloves stay where they are supposed to be, but fights don’t always make a game interesting. The feisty players – Shawn Thornton and Zdeno Chara for the Bruins and Daniel Carcillo and Riley Cote for the Flyers – were jawing with each other all night and if the game wasn’t as tight as it ended up being, something may have developed.

Rhode Island native Brian Boucher was great in goal for the Flyers and Tim Thomas was okay for Boston. The two Philadelphia goals were tough to place blame on Thomas for. The first came after Marc Savard had a few mental lapses on defense and the second was deflected in by Blake Wheeler. Performances like that from Thomas will get the win more often than not.

3.  As well as Savard has played since he returned from injury, last night was not one of his better games. He was on the ice for all three Philadelphia goals, had zero shots on goal and lost 7 of 11 faceoffs. At the same time, it was crystal clear that he is still in need of a certified sniper on his wing.

Countless times throughout the night – and those previous – a nifty pass off the stick of Savard was just out of the reach of Byron Bitz. Now, Bitz is a serviceable NHL player, capable of playing a physical game when needed and sound in his defensive end. When he was lined up with the fourth line, he fit that role perfectly. Maybe, Claude Julien was hoping his large frame would open up space for Savard and Bitz could then collect the trash in front for a few rebound goals. However, that isn’t happening and the Bruins have to be looking for some way to add a quick shot who can handle Savard’s passes.

Milan Lucic is probably two weeks away from returning and could fill that role, but that isn’t a guarantee. Mark Recchi is probably too slow to skate with Savard. The best option is probably Marco Sturm or maybe even Michael Ryder but Julien seems reluctant to move those players around. The question is how many more times can management watch Savard beat a defender or three and sauce a pass right into the slot to watch it fumbled away like an Arizona Cardinals offensive possession.

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

4.  Case in point on Savard is the fact that he ranks 10th on the team in assists this season. Of course, he has played less games than the nine players above him, but six assists in 17 games is not anywhere near the pace he should be on. Only two of those assists have come on the power play. The lack of man-up assists can be attributed to the team as a whole being terrible on the power play for most of the year, but Savard’s numbers are not for a lack of trying.

Zdeno Chara, on the other hand, is racking up the assists with 17 already this season. His career-high is 34 and he is well on his way to matching that. While Big Z hasn’t scored as many goals as anyone would like, he is still facilitating the offense and getting pucks on net which lead to chances for the bodies in front. Chara is also beginning to show a bit of an edge in his game and his pot could be close to boiling over.

The problem is, a lot of players are willing to agitate the big fella and get him started, but not many are willing to go all the way – either because they are trying to draw a penalty or they are genuinely cognizant of the fact that trying to fight a 6-9 guy is a terrible idea. Chara is at his best when playing with a controlled frenzy and not seeking out confrontation, so it will be interesting to see if his emotions get the best of him soon.

5.  A nice side note from last night’s game was the presence of Steve Yzerman in the press box. Stevie Y, the former Detroit Redwing great, is the GM of Team Canada at the Olympics this February. His attendance at last night’s game was focused on two players – Philly’s Mike Richards and the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron. Those two are very similar players who are great on draws and can anchor a third-line to matchup against the  opponents’ best line.

For Bergeron to be in contention for an Olympic berth is quite a story. He wasn’t invited to the summer camp held for 40-odd Canucks who were considered the best bets for the team. Of course, people were still worried over his concussion history and wanted to see if he had his whole game back. It is clear based off his efforts this season that Bergeron is back to 100%. He is at the top of the league in faceoff wins and leads the Bruins in points. He can kill penalties and run a power play and has no trouble in his own zone.

If an Olympic team is really not going to be an all-star team and rather one designed to win close hockey games, players like Bergeron are key to their success. Every Bruin fan will be proud and excited if he makes that squad in February.

The B’s are off until Friday when they head to Chicago to play the Blackhawks in a nice Original Six matchup. The Hawks are one of the best teams in the NHL with superstars in Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. It will be a fun game to watch and another good barometer of where the Bruins stand in relation to the rest of the NHL.



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