2010-2011 NHL season preview: Boston Bruins

GYI0060279309-zdenochara-elsa-getty.jpgLast season: (39-30-13, 91 points, 3rd place in Northeast Division, 6th in Eastern Conference) After manhandling Buffalo in the first round and getting out to a 3-0 series lead against the Flyers in the second round, Boston folded up shop and lost in seven games. What turned into a feel-good season after some early struggles became the ultimate kick in the groin.

Head coach: Claude Julien returns for his fourth season. He’s pretty well established the brand of hockey he wants played in Boston with a defensive-minded, counter-attack style that doubles to also bully opponents around the ice. The Bruins have done well with Julien in charge, making the playoffs in each season he’s been there, so if you’re looking for a ‘hot seat’ candidate, look away from Boston.

Key departures: D Dennis Wideman, F Miroslav Satan, F Vladimir Sobotka, F Steve Begin. Forward depth takes a bit of a hit while losing Wideman might hurt their production on the back line.

Key arrivals: F Nathan Horton, F Tyler Seguin, F Gregory Campbell. Horton and Campbell come over in the trade with Florida that sent Wideman there. Horton should provide power forward goal scoring while Campbell will work as a grinder/Colin Campbell’s Wheel of Justice repellent. Campbell recuses himself from making punishment decisions on any games involving his son Gregory’s team.

Under pressure: Patrice Bergeron. Lots of players to pick from on the Bruins roster, but Bergeron is the most experienced of the bunch and with Savard out for an undetermined amount of time, the pressure is on Bergeron to step up his game in a big way. While his role of late has been to play as a hybrid checking center, getting a few more goals from the former team leader in points would help soften the blow of losing Savard in a big way. While No. 2 overall pick Seguin will have his own brand of pressure, the heat is on Bergeron to hold it all together.

Protecting the house: Tuukka Rask and Tim Thomas will again get together to establish a formidable duo in net, only this time around Rask figures to shoulder most of the load. Provided Rask can avoid the Blaine Lacher/Andrew Raycroft second-year letdown, the Bruins figure to be tough to score on once again. Thomas has spent the offseason getting in shape and rehabbing from labrum surgery on his hip. If he bounces back in a big way, the Bruins’ potential two-headed monster in goal will be nasty.

Outside of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, the blue liners have some question marks around them. Johnny Boychuk had a breakout season and if he can continue to be tough, that will help. Matt Hunwick, Mark Stuart and Andrew Ference will all have to be more consistent. Hunwick will potentially see his workload increase with Wideman gone.

Top line we’d like to see: Milan Lucic-Seguin-Horton. Letting the new kid in town run with a couple of bruisers, one who can finish well in Horton and the other who’s good about clearing room all over the ice, might prove to be the best thing for the 18 year-old Seguin. This line would also prove to be ridiculously young with Horton checking in as the old man at age 25. As it is, we’ll have to settle for the projected line of Seguin with Bergeron and ageless wonder Mark Recchi. Past, present, and future working together. Get on that one marketing department.

Oh captain, my captain: Chara once again wears the ‘C’ and who better to do it than the 6-foot-9 physical force? Chara’s done well as the go-to guy for rallies in Boston, but you have to wonder if perhaps he’s gotten a bit more negative attention after the Bruins choke job in the playoffs.

shawnthornton1.jpgStreet fighting man: While they’re trying out Brian McGrattan as a potential enforcer, the man that does most of the talking with his fists is Shawn Thornton. Being one of the most quotable guys in Boston helps make him even more of a fan favorite. With the Bruins’ team heart being called into question repeatedly last season, perhaps standing up for each other a bit more would put a lot of this to rest.

Best-case scenario: Injuries to Marc Savard and Marco Sturm don’t keep the Bruins down. Seguin steps into an NHL job seamlessly from junior hockey. Horton becomes a 40-goal scorer. Rask becomes the second-coming of Gerry Cheevers sending the Bruins into the Stanley Cup finals.

Worst-case scenario: Savard struggles all year long with concussion problems and can’t step back in as the team’s No. 1 center. Bergeron and David Krejci don’t make the ‘jump’ offensively to fill those needs. Seguin plays like an 18-year-old kid while Horton plays more like Lucic, meaning he plays physically but doesn’t punch in the goals they’re looking for out of him. If everything breaks poorly like that, the Bruins would again be fighting to get into the playoffs. Thankfully in the Eastern Conference, things are a bit more wide open.

Keeping it real: The Bruins can easily win their division and be a top-three seed as the rest of their division mates have much bigger questions marks. If the offense can get more consistent and the goaltending stays as good as it has been the last couple years, the Bruins figure to be a difficult and dangerous team to deal with.

Stanley Cup chances: On a scale from 1-5 with one being the worst and five being the best, the Bruins are a solid 4.

(Photo: Elsa – Getty Images)

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    After surgery, Joe Thornton should be ready for 2017-18 (Wherever he plays)

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    On Monday, we found out that Joe Thornton made the “courageous” (or … outrageous?) decision to fight through tears to his ACL and MCL and suit up for the playoffs.

    (That still warrants a moment of reflection, because, wow.)

    The San Jose Sharks sent out a positive update in that regard: after successful surgery yesterday, Thornton is expected to be ready to play by the start of the 2017-18 season.

    So, that answers one big question. It doesn’t settle an even bigger one, though: where will Thornton play next year?

    Patrick Marleau indicated that he believes he has “at least five good years” left, a fine thought that becomes trickier when you consider San Jose’s salary structure problems for 2018-19 and on. The impression is that Thornton wants to come back, too, but what if he – justifiably – seeks security in a longer term deal?

    That situation is currently unclear, but at least it sounds like he’ll be healthy to start next season, whether he remains a member of the Sharks or joins a different roster.

    Ovechkin on facing Crosby, Penguins: ‘You don’t have to be afraid’

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    ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) Sidney Crosby is standing in Alex Ovechkin‘s way again. Of course.

    Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins extinguished two of the Washington Capitals’ best Stanley Cup hopes in 2009 and 2016, going on to win the championship each time. Now as Ovechkin and the Capitals face a summer of change, it’s only fitting that perhaps their best chance to win it all means going through defending champion Pittsburgh in the second round.

    Ovechkin knows the playoff history, the blowout loss at home in Game 7 in 2009 and the overtime loss on the road in Game 6 that ended last season. He brought them up unprompted Tuesday as if to try to bury them in the past.

    “We play them twice in the playoffs and we don’t have success,” Ovechkin said. “We lost in Game 6 and Game 7. You just have to move forward. You don’t have to be afraid. You know you play against Stanley Cup champion and they are very good team, but so we are. This battle have to be done if we want to get success.”

    In franchise history, the Capitals have only beaten the Penguins once in nine playoff meetings. That matters more to the respective fan bases than players, only a few of whom are still around from 2009.

    This season brings a matchup of the top two teams in the regular season, put on a crash course to face off before the conference final by the NHL’s division playoff format. Crosby said, “You kind of expected we’d see each other at some point,” and the Capitals figure no better time than the present to tackle their biggest obstacle.

    “You usually have to go through the best team to get to where you want to go,” said center Jay Beagle, who is going into his third Capitals-Penguins series. “It was either now or maybe in the third round. Let’s do it now.”

    What better time for a renewal of Crosby versus Ovechkin, which to this point has been a lopsided rivalry? Crosby owns a 38-21 record in their meetings in the NHL regular season and playoffs, world junior championships, world championships, World Cup and Olympics.

    Ovechkin, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft, and Crosby, the No. 1 pick in 2005, have been stars for more than a decade and have been compared to each other for longer than that. They spent some time together at the gathering of the NHL’s top 100 players during All-Star Weekend and their friendship has evolved over time.

    “We respect each other,” Ovechkin said. “That battle between me and him, it’s great. I think me and him enjoy it, you guys enjoy it, fans enjoy it. But right now it’s not about me and him, it’s about Caps and Penguins.”

    Crosby and Ovechkin are quick to deflect the spotlight to star teammates – Pittsburgh has Evgeni Malkin and Washington has Nicklas Backstrom – and shift the focus to team play. Over his three years as Capitals coach, Barry Trotz has seen Ovechkin grow up and his priorities change.

    Trotz has seen Ovechkin celebrate teammates’ goals harder than his own and languish in losses all while putting up goals at a faster clip than anyone in this generation.

    The only thing that has evaded the three-time Hart Trophy winner and six-time Rocket Richard Trophy winner is the Cup. Trotz said Ovechkin understands what he means to the team, the league and what’s left undone “before the sun sets on his career.”

    Ovechkin is 31 and still has four years left on his contract. But with winger T.J. Oshie, defenseman Karl Alzner and others set to be unrestricted free agents – and the salary cap crunching the Capitals, too – there’s an urgency about winning this year.

    That means trying to finally get over the second-round hump.

    “It’s a big opportunity for us to beat the Stanley Cup champion and play the next team in the third round,” Ovechkin said. “Obviously we’ve never done it before. It’s a big opportunity for us to move forward and get success.”

    NOTES: Capitals RW Tom Wilson left practice when he took a puck off the left ankle. Trotz called it a stinger and said he was fine. … Ovechkin missed the second half of practice after breaking a skate. … C Lars Eller didn’t skate, with the team calling it a maintenance day.

    AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed.

    More AP NHL: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

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    Karlsson explains how Senators plan on getting to Lundqvist

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    GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) After struggling through a subpar season by his standards, Henrik Lundqvist was at his best when the Rangers needed him in the first round.

    The 35-year-old goalie will again have to be at the top of his game against Ottawa for New York to reach the Eastern Conference finals for the fourth time in six years.

    “Hank has been through this before,” coach Alain Vigneault said Tuesday after the Rangers began preparing to face the Senators in the conference semifinals.

    “I think he’s really thriving on the pressure and the opportunity. … He wants to be a difference-maker and he’s looking forward to this series.”

    This season, Lundqvist had to deal with periods of inconsistency – highlighted by winning a season-high five straight starts Feb. 2-11 and then losing three of five from Feb. 26 to March 7 before a hip injury cost him nearly three weeks.

    He then won just once in six starts (1-3-2) after returning in late March and finished the season 31-20-4 with a 2.74 goals-against average and a .910 save percentage – career worsts for the latter two.

    However, since the playoffs started he has been sharp, getting his 10th career postseason shutout in the opener against Montreal and then finishing with a career-high 54 saves – regular season or playoffs – in an overtime loss in Game 2.

    Lundqvist finished the first round with a 1.70 GAA and .947 save percentage – both the best among all goalies. He gave up just four goals on 88 shots while the Rangers won the last three games of the series after allowing seven goals on 87 shots in losses in Games 2 and 3.

    “The guys played so hard with a lot of structure in front and made it so much easier for me to focus on my game and try to do my part,” said Lundqvist, who has 2.25 GAA and .923 save percentage in 122 postseason games.

    “It was a great feeling to see the way we worked, especially the way we battled back the last couple games.”

    He had a big save in the clinching Game 6 win against Montreal with the Rangers leading by one and less than two minutes remaining, making a lunging pad stop on Tomas Plekanec‘s backhand follow attempt in close.

    “I knew I was in trouble because I wasn’t in good position on the first play and then he threw it at me,” Lundqvist said. “My first thought was `don’t knock it in,’ and then it ends up right on his stick. It was just a desperation save. Luckily he didn’t put it far corner.”

    Now, he’ll be going up against an Ottawa team lead by former teammate Derick Brassard (two goals, six assists in first-round win against Boston), Bobby Ryan (four goals, three assists) and fellow Swede Erik Karlsson (six assists).

    “They have some key players in their core group that play a big part for their team,” Lundqvist said. “When you watch them play, it’s a lot of tight game (and) strike when they get a chance.”

    Lundqvist knows how tough his good friend Karlsson is to contain. The defenseman and team captain has topped 50 assists and 70 points in three of the past four seasons.

    “You can stop him, you just got to be really good,” Lundqvist said. “You got to have a game plan and follow that. He’s definitely one of the best players in the game, and he plays a big part for them to have success. He’s a good skater, sees the game really well.”

    Karlsson, in turn, believes the key to beating Lundqvist is to frustrate him.

    “We’re going to have to make it hard on him,” Karlsson told The Canadian Press in Ottawa. “If he sees the puck he’s going to make most of the stops and we’re going to make it hard in front of him by putting a lot of traffic in there and throw a lot of pucks at him. The more shots we have the more opportunities we’re going to have for one to go in.”

    Game 1 is Thursday night in Ottawa.

    Follow Vin Cherwoo at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP

    More AP hockey: https://www.apnews.com/tag/NHLhockey

    Ducks have better chance to slow McDavid with healthier defensemen

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    Trying to stop – or at least inhibitConnor McDavid is likely to be a conundrum for opposing teams for, oh, the next decade or two. Still, it helps matters to at least be near 100 percent.

    The Anaheim Ducks dispatched the Calgary Flames (a team with some serious firepower on the blueline and also magician-forward Johnny Gaudreau) in four games despite serious limitations on defense. It seems like they’re getting closer to being their full-fledged selves, as the team website revealed that Hampus Lindholm and Cam Fowler seem likely to play in Game 1. Also, Sami Vatanen is getting better.

    Much has already been made about the Ducks matching up Ryan Kesler and Andrew Cogliano against McDavid, at least when they can.

    “We’ll start looking at things and try to come up with some sort of plan,” Cogliano told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s dynamic. I think with how good he is sometimes you look [past Draisaitl]. Not that he flies under the radar, but he’s a player you have to keep an eye on, too.”

    Still, Randy Carlyle faces some interesting choices as far as which blueliners to send out against McDavid.

    Fowler is more known for his offensive skills, but his skating ability makes for an intriguing option, at least if he’s close to 100 percent. Lindholm might not get much press just yet, but he’s quietly building a resume as one of the league’s best defenders. It’s a little tricky with them being even somewhat slowed by injuries, though.

    For what it’s worth, the Ducks had some success against McDavid in 2016-17, limiting him to zero goals, one assist and just two shots in three regular-season games.

    It’s dangerous to put too much weight on such stats, especially considering the small sample size. The bottom line is that Carlyle gets the final change for Games 1 and 2, a potentially key advantage against McDavid and the Oilers.

    You know, assuming there’s even an ideal matchup for Anaheim.