Monday, March 19, 2012

Return of the Rolston

Words cannot describe how happy this makes me. TWO OF MY FAVORITES, HAPPY!
The Bruins beat the Maple Leafs 8-0 on Monday night, sweeping the season series with Toronto with 6 wins, and outscoring the Leafs 36-10 and shutting them out twice. Tim Thomas earned the shutout; while he only had to make a few saves, he made some great ones. The Bruins had a strong defensive game all night, however, and appear to be learning how to walk again after months of stumbling.

I have a lot of feels and thoughts.

According to WEEI Bruins blogger @DJ Bean on twitter, Thomas discussed that he had actually been sick when Tuukka went down with the injury, which explains a lot, doesn't it?
Here's an interesting note: Tim Thomas said he had a virus when Tuukka Rask got hurt, wasn't better until a week later...Thomas: "I knew that I might be in a situation where I had to play a lot of games, but the only thing is, when it happened, I'd had a virus for a couple of weeks when Tuukka got hurt. It took me about a week after he left to totally get over it, but now I'm feeling better."
Thomas' shutout was his 5th of the season and his 31st win on the year. In total, he stopped 13 shots - 2 in the 1st period, 5 in the 2nd, and 6 in the 3rd. The Bruins didn't have many more shots themselves - 24 total on the night (9 in the 1st, 8 in the 2nd, 7 in the 3rd). Given the shot totals for the Bruins each period, it makes sense that they scored only 1 goal in the 3rd after 4 in the 1st and 2 in the 2nd! Reimer faced only 9 shots, making 5 saves while Gustavsson stopped 11 of 15.

The numbers look awful, of course, and do reflect how bad the Leafs played, but it is all too similar to what the Bruins experienced frequently in recent times in which every shot on net against them seemed to go in before the goaltender - whether it be Thomas, Rask, or Turco - had a chance to make a meaningful stop, or any stop at all. In fact, this game in terms of the 1st period goals-against breakdown for the Leafs reminded me a lot of how the Bruins played against the Lightning in Tampa a few nights ago when they lost 6-1.

But I digress...Tonight was a fabulous win for so many reasons. Mainly: Rolston

After 8 years of wishful thinking, Rolston returned to the Bruins as I prayed...and it's awesome, as I predicted.

Brian Rolston had a goal and 3 assists and earned the #1 star honors. His 3rd period goal off of a nasty slapshot on a nice feed from David Krejci was just as nice as any Chara slapshot - almost. Speaking of Chara slap shots...

Rolston's game is picking up as he shakes off the fail of Long Island and returns to the awesome that occurs when he puts on a Bruins jersey. Earlier this season with the Islanders, he had a total of 4 goals and 5 assists. With the Bruins, he already has 2 goals and 6 assists - 1 point shy of his total in the 1st half on the Island. He had been in danger of falling short of at least 20 points a season for only the 3rd time in his long career, but at this pace, he may easily surpass 20 points! He and Chara make an interesting pair on the point of the PP, although how that will be affected by Peverley's return will be tricky. 

The Bruins power play was a perfect 2 for 2 with goals from Chara and Marchand. It was Chara's 10th of the year.

Chris Kelly, who opened the scoring, ended up having the game-winning goal since the Leafs failed to score at all. This means that Chris Kelly has 3 GWG against the Leafs this year, and the Bruins are 15-0-0 when Kelly scores a goal!

Benoit Pouliot had his first multi-goal game of his Bruins career. He also had an assist. The line of Pouliot-Kelly-Rolston dominated and each player earned a star honor in the night's 3 stars. It is symbolic of the importance of the depth and balance the Bruins once had and can have again by getting scoring from multiple lines if another line is not producing. Bergeron missed a few wide open opportunities, but it was fine, because on this night, it was the 3rd line who stole the show for a change.

It is important to note that the Bruins may have played well, but Toronto played so poorly that the Bruins were far more successful than they otherwise may have been. This is okay, because a game like that is what a team like the Bruins need after recent struggles. As I pointed out in an article about the numbers game, I agree with the assertion that as long as shots are attempted consistently, the distribution of goals will even out over time and remain around the same percentage as the rest of the league. The Bruins had a lopsided and ridiculously high shooting percentage through November and December, and that was balanced out by the pathetic shooting percentage of the past few months. Now it's time to get it on an even keel going into the playoffs. 

As I have also claimed, this process is slow and steady. Although this 8-0 blowout seems like anything but slow and steady progress in the right direction, it is clearly building upon improvements over the past few games, with the biggest break coming in the hard-fought win against a top, streaking Philadelphia Flyers team on Saturday. 

The Bruins have their confidence back. Whether or not it will remain consistently is obviously going to be a huge test, especially given the desperate teams in the West they will be facing on the California road trip for the next 3 games. I am optimistic that they will put forth strong efforts overall; they have regained confidence in themselves as individuals, in each other as teammates, and in their goaltender. And, again referencing the numbers article, when you have good goaltending, offense - which was non existent for the February Bruins - comes more easily, so to speak.

Do not expect the Bruins to score an average of 6 goals a game going forward. Expect them to play a lot of tight, close-scoring games, but have confidence that they will be able to find ways to win those games once again because they are putting back together the broken pieces of the team. Illness and injury are inevitable and continue to hurt the Bruins, as Tuukka Rask will obviously continue to miss time into the playoffs, and Nathan Horton may not return at all this season, but in the same idea of "balance" - the Bruins had so few injuries last year, it was bound to happen that they would be barraged by injuries this year. And thinking about the number of man games lost total this year - 101, I think - it isn't as devastating as it seems, and is nothing compared to other teams. As those injured players start to heal up - Rich Peverley being the most important factor - and praying that our players remain injury-free as they now are (like Daniel Paille seeming injured after taking a Chara slapshot to the leg, but confirmed as completely fine after the game thankfully!), the good luck and the bad luck are no longer coming in waves.

I think of it as the Bruins destiny is now more so in their own hands than it has been for the most part of this season. The destruction of confidence that comes with such consistent and mind-boggling losing can spiral out of control and take a long time to get under wraps again. We are seeing signs of change in playing style coming into the past few games that hint at regaining control of their own game by bringing the effort that, for whatever reasons, had not been present for a long time.

Of course I don't want to be overly optimistic. I was deliriously happy after the shootout win against Philly, and it's hard not to be giddily excited after a win like tonight, but the Bruins still have a long way to go. 10 games left in the regular season could result in any variety of post-season match-ups, and it's important that they finish in a position to face one of the lower ranked teams, with home ice advantage. Years past have proven that this is by no means a recipe to win, but after the year they had in the playoffs last year, I think it is important for their own psyches to meet the expectations to finish in that position, whether or not its expectations the players themselves have or the pressure from the outside.

Regaining control of a division and conference standing and lead could also have significant positive impacts on the team and confidence. Like I said before, with confidence on a variety of levels under control in a more realistic way, they can let their skill as a team and work ethic overall be a larger determining factor. Rather than pointing towards potential locker room problems, injury bugs, under-performing players, and flat out not showing up to play for games, the Bruins, I think, will start to look more like themselves. That doesn't guarantee they will be a dominant team, or even one of the best teams in the league; but it does guarantee that they will have a chance to win, and go far into the playoffs if they can spend the next 10 games of the regular season reestablishing how to work hard every night, for every game, to earn every point. 

With Peverley now "day-to-day", what will happen to the line-up in his return? Assuming that the line of Pouliot, Kelly, and Rolston has found enough chemistry to at least be efficient night in and night out - not with the expectations to necessarily put up numbers like tonight of course - it may be questionable to tinker with it. Jordan Caron has played so well and earned his spot on the top line, although he did not factor in on the score sheet tonight except in taking an unnecessary penalty in the 3rd period.

Perhaps that is another exciting motivator to look forward to down the stretch - the players will again have to start fighting for their spot on the roster. As awful as our defense has looked, Joe Corvo lost his spot on the roster with the arrival of Mike Mottau and Greg Zanon; Zanon seems to have proven that, despite some early disasters, he is the 6th defenseman that the team has the best chance with going forward. The Bruins are now 2-0 with Corvo as a healthy scratch, which is too small a sample size to truly draw meaningful conclusions, but it certainly is enough to make you want him to remain a healthy scratch until someone fails to compete hard enough for their spot on the roster. In that case, I suspect Mottau will get a shot before Corvo does. 

This road trip should be interesting. Like matinee games, late-night games are always a throw-off, although only to us on the coast that the team is not on. I think it is important that they come back with at least 4 out of 6 points, but expect them to push for the full 6. 

The first team they will face is San Jose on Thursday night. San Jose beat the Bruins 4-2 in October while the Bruins were still trying to catch their breath early in the season. The Bruins outshot the Sharks, but Niemi beat out Thomas as the Sharks best players - Couture, Pavelski, Marleau - got goals. From what I can remember, San Jose has always caused some nervewracking problems whenever we face them ever since the Thornton trade. The October loss to the Sharks was Thornton's 1,000th NHL game, and he was paid tribute in Boston for the milestone. Now that the sentimental reconciliation is over, hopefully the Bruins can take advantage of a team that is having somewhat of an identity crisis as well.

As of right now (11 pm on Monday night), the Sharks are in a serious battle with the Anaheim Ducks in a 2-2 game after the 1st period. San Jose currently sits in 9th place in the West with 82 points in 71 games played; the Pacific division leaders however, are only 1 point ahead - both Dallas and Phoenix have 83 points - but San Jose has 1 game in hand on Dallas and 2 on Phoenix. San Jose is also tied at 82 points with division rival, the LA Kings, holding a game in hand on them as well. 

Thornton is 4th in the league with 52 assists, and the Sharks - not including tonight - have won 2 in a row. Thornton leads the team with 68 points, followed by Marleau and Couture with 57 each. Couture - picked last at the All-Star Game - has 30 goals for the Sharks. Marleau has 27 and Pavelski has 25. Defenseman Dan Boyle has 34 assists. When the Sharks top guys are scoring, they are pretty tough to beat - but that is precisely why the match-up of Chara and Seidenberg is the Bruins secret weapon. The PK will be huge - the Sharks 4th-ranked PP is a force to be reckoned with. San Jose is 2nd in face off win % in the league, while the Bruins are in 1st - so the face off circle will also be very significant.

The Sharks recent games have shown they can beat the top teams - they beat both Detroit and Nashville in the past 2. In the weeks prior, however, they have had some tough losses such as to the Blue Jackets, Oilers, Wild, and also Detroit and Nashville.

I can only speculate and look at numbers and articles about these temas the Bruins are facing, but from what I understand, they are teams that have potential to be good but have performed overall mediocre, not unlike the Bruins. So each game should be interesting.

On Saturday Boston will then play the Kings - who they shut out 3-0 on December 13, amidst their hot streak and ridiculous peak. It was Tuukka Rask who got the shutout, however. Jonathan Quick is a pretty great goaltender; the 3rd Team USA Olympic goaltender in 2010 behind Miller and Thomas, Quick currently has 7 shutouts and a 2.00 GAA. Important to note is that the Bruins were outshot 41 to 22 in that game despite the win. Peverley - who may very well be ready to return by then - scored, along with 2 goals from Marchand, both assisted by Bergeron.

As aforementioned, the Kings are in a tight playoff race in the West, currently in 10th place at 82 points, but within 1 point of a playoff spot. They will face the Sharks on Thursday (between now and Thursday, the Sharks will play Anaheim tonight and the Kings on Tuesday, which are bigger games than the Bruins coming to town. Meanwhile, the Bruins will have 2 days off before playing San Jose.)

The Kings are on a 4 game winning streak, but they will face San Jose as well as St. Louis before they see the Bruins on Saturday. St. Louis, obviously, is a top team and was the first to clinch a playoff spot this year. Still, the Kings 4-straight wins have come against Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and Anaheim. 

The Bruins better get their scoring straightened out over their practice days and against San Jose. The Kings have the 2nd lowest goals against average per game at 2.15, 2nd to St. Louis. A goaltender chess match may be the key though - LA is 2nd worst in the league in goals scored per game. Not surprisingly, LA keeps opponents at low scores well enough to rank them 4th in PK%. Recent reunited teammates Mike Richards and Jeff Carter have 15 and 20 goals respectively. Anze Kopitar, who plays well against every team, including the Bruins, leads with 62 points - most goals, assists, and a lot of power play, short handed, and game winning goals. Scary to consider, too, is Dustin Brown, who recently has played extremely well and has 6 game winning goals among his 19 total goals. Kings defensemen Drew Doughty and Justin Williams are also going to be huge.

On Sunday the Bruins will face the Ducks to finish the trip. The Ducks are pretty much out of the playoff race, although they will fight hard. They have the ever-dangerous Corey Perry most notably. Since I've been writing, they have taken a 4-2 lead over San Jose! This will be the only game between the Bruins and Ducks this year. Last year, Jonas Hiller shut out the Bruins in Boston 3-0. Anaheim has actually dominated Boston the past few years, beating them in all 3 games in the past 2 seasons.

I think the 2 days off the Bruins have before the Sharks game will be very helpful. I look forward to seeing a continued and improved effort. I certainly hold firm on my belief that the Bruins have put a long, steady decline into rock bottom to an end and begun perhaps a very gradual, but hopefully steep, ascent back into being a competent team. I think it starts with Tim Thomas - and despite the fatigue he may have (although if he was sick, maybe the 'fatigue' we saw wasn't as bad as assumed), he still has a lot of Tim Thomas-caliber play left in him this season!

Other notes from tonight's game: Lucic's beatdown of Komisarek - it is wonderful to see him kick a guy's ass in a Habs jersey then again in a Leafs jersey. Campbell was also an assist shy of a Gordie Howe hat trick, and Pouliot 1 goal shy of a regular hat trick. Oh well! Against the Leafs, Kelly, Pouliot, Caron, Seguin, Marchand, and Lucic have each had 2-goal games.

Let's hope I am this positive after the game Thursday! To prepare, I want to further look into the advanced stat numbers as how they may apply to the Bruins now, and the teams they are facing. If I can make sense of it, keep an eye out for another article!

P.P.S. Chiarelli said that they will not be extending any more player contracts until the season ends. That means we won't know the future of Kelly, Campbell, or...(umm, who else am I missing here? I know we have a few RFAs, but I'm more concerned with UFAs) until the season ends, and I don't know if I can handle that.

Oh yeah, and honorable mention to the Doctor!

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