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What’s that old saying? “If it seems too good to be true, it usually is?” Oh yeah.
With the loss of defenseman Andrew Ference, many Bruins fans may find themselves repeating that phrase with frequency in the next few weeks.
Ference suffered a fractured tibia in Thursday night’s 6-1 thrasing of the Montreal Canadiens. Stationed in front of the net on a Bruins penalty kill, Ference was the unfortunate recipient of an Andrei Markov slapshot off the back of his leg. As a result, the Habs found themselves on a de facto 5-3 power play, with the Bruins defender crumpled in a heap behind the net. Ference managed to get to his feet, and after about 30 seconds was able to clear the puck the length of the ice and get to the bench for a line change. He did not return to the game, and on Saturday news broke of the injury, and the resulting 6-8 weeks that he will miss.
The injury comes on the heels of an otherwise tremendous week from the Bruins. Faced with a daunting triumverate of Original Six teams, Boston managed to take 5 of a possible 6 points from the Chicago Blackhawks, Montreal Canadiens, and New York Rangers, and if not for a two-goal collapse at Madison Square Garden in the third period, Boston would have come home with a perfect 3-0 week.
Ference in particular was a force in the first two wins of the week. The defenseman has been a stalwart all season long, logging big minutes and playing tremendously in all three zones. His play coupled with the emergence of Dennis Wideman has lightened the load on B’s captain Zdeno Chara. Remove Ference from the Bruins backend and suddenly, the outlook begins to become a bit gloomy.
Take for instance the Rangers game on Saturday. Boston was without the services of Ference for the first time this season, and although the defense held up it’s end of the bargain for most of the game, they collapsed in the third, allowing the Rags to score two goals late in the frame, eventually leading to a Bruins shootout loss. Would Ference have helped? He certainly wouldn’t have hurt, as both goals were scored when Chara and Wideman were on the bench. Chances are Ference would have found himself on the ice with those two off, and I’d wager to bet he’d have been able to stop at least one scoring chance, if not both.
What’s more worrisome however is the outlook regarding the Bruins for the next 6-8 weeks. Boston has relied as much on an explosive offense and stellar goaltending in their quick start as they have on their defense, but let’s not forget coach Claude Julien preaches a defense-first mentality, which the players have practiced with aplomb since Julien’s arrival in the Hub last year. The idea that the Bruins will play a tight checking, defensive style of hockey has almost become secondary, but the fact remains Boston is one of the league’s top clubs due in large part to their defense. It’s not known how the loss of Ference will affect things, but chances are good they might struggle a bit, if only due to personnel issues.
Perhaps the biggest personnel issue Boston faces is a lack of depth on the backend, both in the NHL and throughout the organization. Unlike the forward corps, where Boston has at least 12 players capable of playing a top 9 role, the defense is much thinner, and players will be looked upon to step up in the absence of Ference.
No other player will be relied upon more heavily to step up his play than Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart. Stuart, drafted 21st overall in the 2003 NHL draft, has been on the radars of many for years now. For starters, the 2003 draft is perhaps the strongest class in recent history, with no less than 15 potential All-Stars going in that first round alone. Eric Staal, Marc-Andre Fleury, Thomas Vanek, Dion Phaneuf, Mike Richards, and Ryan Getzlaf among a number of others found themselves drafted in that class, and Stuart has a long way to go to be included in that list. Despite Stuart’s amateur credentials, including a strong four years at Colorado College and captaining the United States to the gold at the 2004 World Junior Championships are impressive, his play thus far in the professional ranks has been less than stellar. A victim perhaps of unrealistic expectations (one scout referred to him as the next Scott Stevens), Stuart has struggled in the NHL, finding himself a regular in Julien’s dog house since the coach’s arrival in 2007.
That’s not to say it’s been all bad for the defenseman, though. Stuart has shown glimpes of the potential that made Boston pick him ahead of Getzlaf and New Jersey’s Zach Parise, and his toughness and leadership has never been questioned. It’s the consistency that has been lacking from his game, and if Boston hopes to play at the level they’ve grown accustomed to so far this season, Stuart wil lbe a key contributor to that. His ice-time will increase with the loss of Ference, and hopefully so will his confidence. If Stuart continues to struggle with his game-to-game consistency however, Boston may have a tough time playing at the level we’ve seen from them, especially in the last two weeks.
Stuart isn’t the only player the Bruins will look toward to bolster things on the backend, however. Rookie Matt Hunwick, a healthy scratch for much of this young season, has been thrust into the fold as of late, first for Shane Hnidy and on Saturday for Ference. The speedy young defenseman from Michigan has an impressive skillset, and is perhaps Boston’s best skater from the blueline. He’s also more natural with the puck on his stick than Hnidy or Stuart, and has looked good in his short stint thus far, managing a +1 against the Rags on Saturday night. If Hunwick can limit his mistakes and contribute some offense, the loss of Ference will minimize itself considerably.
Regardless, Boston has no answer for the loss of Ference in the organization, and short of a trade for a #2 defenseman, the Bruins will be tested. How teams respond in situations like this often dicate the remainder of the season, so here’s to hoping the B’s don’t miss a beat.
Milan Lucic has become nothing short of a star in his short time in Boston, but Lucic’s biggest moment may have occured on Saturday night against Montreal, when the bruising winger finally tangled with Montreal defenseman Mike Komisarek.
The fued between the Boston forward and Montreal blueliner has been developing since last season. Montreal ran the table in the regular season against Boston, beating the B’s eight straight times on their way to capturing the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Boston, meanwhile, finished 8th, and took the Habs to seven games before bowing out. Throughout those 15 games between the Original Six rivals, no two players went at it more than Lucic and Komisarek. Questionable hits, hip checks, slashes, cross checks, and shoves were the norm whenever these two got near each other, and the yapping back and forth was an indication of things to come.
Despite the numerous transgressions on both sides, things never escalated to the point of fisticuffs, with Habs proponents alleging Komisarek was too valuable to lose for 5 minutes and B’s fans countering that Komisarek had to answer the bell eventually for his questionable antics. Komisarek finally did on Thursday night, and the results weren’t pretty.
With his team down 6-1 midway through the 3rd period, the Canadiens defenseman found himself on the ice with Lucic, who had scored a goal just minutes earlier to add insult to injury. Komisarek challenged Lucic, and the Boston winger happily obliged. Squaring off at center ice, the two exchanged blows, with Lucic eventually gaining the upper hand, landing three strikes to the face of Komisarek which sent the Hab sprawling to the ice. Understandably amped, Lucic raised his arms in triumph, shouting to the delirious Boston crowd on his way to the penalty box.
At the young age of 20, Lucic is already well on his way to cementing his status in Boston lore, with events like Thursday night adding to his ever-growing legend. He may never score like Neely (not many have), but the overall effect he brings to the ice game in and game out will never be questioned. It’s players like Lucic who help teams win championships, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Milan sport a ‘C’ on his sweater within the next 10 years.
Surely, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this? One of the hottest teams in the NHL, in 1st place in the Northeast division, wasn’t supposed to be led by two 34-year-olds, one an undrafted journeyman and the other an oft-injured malcontent. Well, that’s what they’d have you believe, at least. They being the hockey prognosticators, who picked Boston to miss the playoffs in 2008-2009, mostly due to suspect goaltending.
Apparently, Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez never read the season previews.
The two-headed tandem has led Boston to the top of the Northeast division, and thus far, it appears Boston is a top contender for Lord Stanley’s grand prize, thanks in large part to the two backstops.
Thomas in particular has been outstanding, and this week simply bolstered his resume, going 1-0-1, stopping 60-63 shots for a .953 save percentage. On the season, Thomas leads all NHL goaltenders in both save percentage (.945) and Goals Against Average (1.76). Take away the third period collapse against New York on Saturday, and those numbers would be even more impressive.
Of course, Thomas’ counterpart hasn’t exactly been a slouch, either. Fernandez was superb against Montreal on Thursday, turning away 27-28 shots for a .964 save percentage. All together, Fernandez has posted an impressive 4-1-1 mark to go with a .919 save percentage and 2.31 GAA.
The two Boston netminders have played integral roles in the emergence of the Bruins this season, and perhaps eventually the naysayers will finally admit their mistakes and give credit where it’s due. Then again, I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Dennis Wideman, after Boston’s shootout loss on Saturday night: “If you would have told me at the start of this week, we were going to get five out of six against Chicago, New York and Montreal, I think we probably would have taken that.”
I can’t put it any better than that. Taking five out of a possible six points against those three teams is remarkable, especially considering how well Chicago, Montreal and New York have played thus far. Chicago currently sits second in the Central division, trailing only Detroit. Backed by a youth movement similar to the one in Boston, the Blackhawks have been on a roll as of late, and beating Chicago is an impressive win for Boston. Further, the Bruins handled the Hawks rather easily, although the shootout ending would contradict that. Nevertheless, the high-flying Blackhawks had a difficult time generating much offense, and Boston carried play throughout.
Much has been written about the Montreal game as well, and I can’t add much else to the conversation. The B’s humiliated Montreal both on the scoreboard and with their fists, and in snapping their 12-game regular season losing streak, they exorcised their demons as well. The developing Lucic-Georges Laraque feud could prove to be quite interesting, as well. Laraque, speaking to a Montreal radio station, called Lucic’s actions after his fight “childish,” and says he “embarassed” the Bruins forward by following him around and asking him to fight, to no avail. Something tells me there will be more to come regarding those two.
The Rangers game was certainly the least fulfilling game of the week, which is understandable, but it’s also debatable that the loss was perhaps the least fulfilling game of the season. Leading by two with just six minutes to play, the Bruins defensive zone coverage broke down as Nigel Dawes and Markus Naslund scored to tie the game at 2-2, a game Boston would eventually lose in the shootout. Losing a lead in the 3rd period is never acceptable, and the Bruins shootout woes continue, as they fall to 1-4 in the skills competition game decider. The shootout itself is a questionable way to decide games, but it’s here to stay, and until Claude Julien figures out the shootout, the Bruins will continue to surrender points, which could end up costing them come April. Plus, if I see Patrice Bergeron try that five-hole move one more time, I might lose it. Mix it up Bergy!
Busy week for the Bruins, with four games on the slate.
Last week: 3-0
Record to date: 3-0
Is there any other way to end this column than with the Milan Lucic – Mike Komisarek fight? Methinks not.
Around the Rink is a weekly hockey column, published on Mondays. If you have any comments or questions for Reid, he invites you to e-mail him at reidATsportsofbostonDOTcom. Maybe you’ll make it into the next column.