Cunningham in minds and hearts of former Bruins teammates


Cunningham in minds and hearts of former Bruins teammates

The Bruins played their first Thanksgiving night game on the road in Ottawa in almost 70 years on Thursday night and have been unusually busy in recent weeks with an unending glut of games thanks to a compacted NHL schedule.

Normally, this time of year would be harried and stressful with the NHL schedule and family obligations for the Bruins players and coaching staff. There would be little time for personal reflection or spare thoughts. 

Still, the Bruins were uncharacteristically reflective, thoughtful and full of raw emotion this week after learning that former teammate Craig Cunningham had collapsed prior to an AHL game in Arizona last weekend. The 26-year-old former fourth-round pick of the Bruins in 2010 was in stable but critical condition when the Arizona Coyotes last updated his condition a couple of days ago. Little is known about what exactly befell the gritty forward. 

Kevan Miller played several seasons with Cunningham in Providence and said the news leveled him when he realized just how serious things were for one of his favorite former teammates. 

“He’s a good friend of mine and a good teammate that I played with, and somebody that you hate to see something like that happen to,” said Miller, who was understandably emotional talking about one of his good buddies a couple of days after his on-ice incident. “He’s in our thoughts and our prayers for sure right now. You really can’t say enough about him. It might sound cliché at this point, but the guy is top-to-bottom just a great, great person, a great player and a great human being. He’s a good guy and a good friend of mine, and I just hope he pulls through.”

What is known about the kind-hearted Cunningham is the positive impact brought to the table all of the time in his four seasons in the Bruins organization. 

He was an affable, easy-going presence in the Bruins dressing room who knew exactly how lucky he was to be playing professional hockey and somebody with an almost gentle way about him despite the downright vicious world that the NHL can be on most nights. Milan Lucic said that Cunningham had always been that way going back to their brief time as junior hockey teammates with the Vancouver Giants. That bonded the two British Columbia natives into close friends that relished their brief time playing together in Boston. 

Veteran Bruins forward Brad Marchand didn’t spent that much time actually playing with Cunningham in the NHL, but his friendship with Lucic meant he got to know “Cunny” very well in his time in the organization. 

“Cunny is an incredible person. He’s one of the nicest guys I’ve ever had the good fortune to play with,” said Marchand. “It’s terrible to see what’s happened with him, what he’s had to go through and what his family has had to go through. We’re always talking about him in the room and constantly thinking about him and praying for him. We really hope that he has a good recovery.”

On the ice, Cunningham was a hustling, grinding sort of player who maximized his potential on the way to playing 63 NHL games. He had settled into a veteran role as captain of the AHL Tucson Roadrunners. He is the kind of max-effort player Claude Julien always appreciates. That was the reason why he broke with the NHL team out of training camp 2014-15 while playing 32 games with the Black and Gold that season. 

“If you read what’s been written about him, it’s everything that’s already been said: he’s a class act and you really couldn’t find a better individual as far as a teammate and a player,” said Julien. “As far as a coach, on the ice he was somebody that left everything out there. Just a quality, quality person, so there’s no doubt that everybody is a little sensitive to what’s happened to him right now. 

“We’re all praying and wishing him well. He was a big part of this organization while he was in Providence, and he was one of our leaders there. When he was with us, I really liked his compete level and obviously Arizona thought the same way about him. It’s sad to hear what’s happened to him, and all we can is pray that he recovers and has a healthy life ahead of him.”

People from all around hockey have chimed in with warm memories of Cunningham as both a quality player and an excellent person who has left an overwhelmingly positive impression in his six-year pro career. Nowhere was that impression better or stronger than in New England, where hockey fans in Boston and Providence are hoping and praying a young man full of life and joy can make a recovery after a truly scary on-ice incident last weekend. 

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

TAMPA – David Backes certainly didn’t escape the scary situation with an errant skate blade unscathed, of course. 

The 33-year-old limped his way to the Bruins team bus out of Amalie Arena after Boston’s 3-0 shutout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and needed approximately 18 stitches to close up the gash on his right thigh. But Backes was still able to joke about it as he exited the dressing room while knowing that it could have been much, much worse with that kind of freak accident on the ice. 

"I'll play a second period one of these days,” said a smiling Backes, who was forced out of Saturday night’s loss with the skate blade cut in the last minute of the first period and exited the Florida loss as well after catching a match penalty in the first period as well. Luckily for him, there was no structural damage to Backes’ right leg after Yanni Gourde caught him in the thigh area as both players were down on the ice around the Tampa net.

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There was a lot of blood, however, as he quickly exited the ice, sped past the bench and headed right to the Bruins dressing room with Bruins trainer Donnie DelNegro trailing right behind. 

“I went in and saw him between periods. He’s okay. There’s no structural damage. There will be concern going forward about swelling or infection, but it looks like he’ll be okay. We’ll classify him as day-to-day, but I don’t know if he’ll be ready to play on Monday,” said Bruce Cassidy of Backes, who actually scored the second goal of the game for the Bruins as a power play strike. “You see a guy coming off like that and you see the blood pooling up, and you’re always worried they could hit an artery somewhere. He was able to get up. That was the first good sign and he was able to be tended to quickly. 

“It is scary. But we were told it would be a deep cut that would require some stitches, and it wasn’t too dangerous.”

For now it just becomes an eventful month for Backes where he’s been suspended, tossed out of a game with a match penalty and now forced out of a game after a freak skate blade incident, but there’s no doubt he’ll return better and stronger than ever in rapid fashion as he’s done through the last two seasons with the Bruins.


B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

AP Photo

B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

TAMPA – One has to wonder what the Tampa Bay Lightning are thinking after Saturday night’s game. 

It’s probably something along the lines of “Oh crap” after the Bruins completely shut them down while missing their top defensemen pairing, their best all-around player and top line center, their most impactful rookie forward and also losing their best power forward, who was filling in as top line center, in the first period. The undermanned Bruins made a big, fat statement with their 3-0 win over the well-rested, healthy Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena at the end of a long, four-game road trip, and now sit just two points behind the Bolts with 12 games to play in the regular season. 

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It was impressive enough that the Black and Gold won at all against the NHL’s best team while missing so many of their top shelf players, but to do it while also totally shutting down Tampa’s offense was something worth remarking about. The Bruins defense and goaltending had been playing a bit fast and loose for the better part of a month, and had been bailed out time and again by an offense that’s been dropping big numbers lately. 

But the Bruins went into Saturday night determined to leave an impression with the Lightning about what awaits them next month once the playoffs start, and they did it with physical, gritty defense that left Tampa with little space to operate. Even better the Bruins defensemen moved the puck pretty much perfectly and swiftly all night, blocked shots with hard-nosed determination and proved they could do more than survive without Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. 

That’s damned impressive when you consider the opponents from Tampa Bay lining up against them with a chance to clinch their playoff spot, and what’s on the line for both teams headed into the final three weeks of the regular season. 

“We were looking at it as more of a bounce-back against a really good team, and let’s see where we are. I thought we answered the bell,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “Probably the biggest win in a long time. We've had some nice comebacks and some high-scoring affairs, but it was nice to get a zero [goals allowed] in the column. It’s been a while. 

“It was just good, solid team defense…winning pucks. It was probably not the prettiest hockey, but I thought the goals we scored were pretty nice ones going to the net. It was playoff hockey. I thought we were better at it than they were tonight. Who knows how the next one is going to go, but we’re going to enjoy this.”

It was clear early on that the Bruins wanted to set the tone both physically and style of play-wise, and they did just that. The pounding physicality clearly bothered the Lightning as Steven Stamkos made an uncharacteristic choice to retaliate against Tim Schaller after he threw a heavy hit on the Tampa Bay star player. That landed Stamkos in the box and set the Bruins up for their first of two power play goals on the evening. 

Those two power play goals were proof enough that the Bruins had their special teams in good order, but it took just a combined 23 seconds of power play time to strike for those two scores against the Lightning penalty kill. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to keep Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay coaching staff up at night before the final two meetings between these two teams. The suffocating defense, the stout physicality and the quick strike offense just completely overwhelmed the Lightning, and things went exactly according to the game plan that Bruce Cassidy had set out for them prior to the game. 

“We’re a confident group back there, and when we play the way we’re supposed to we can compete with anybody,” said Kevan Miller, who played a punishing, physical 21:41 of ice time in the win. “It’s that time of year where we’re pushing for the playoffs, we’re grinding away and we knew as a group after [the Florida loss] we needed to tighten things up. We did that. That’s a tough team over there, so you need to take time and space away from them. As a group we did a great job of that.”

About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Bruins early was David Backes exiting quickly at the end of the first after his right thigh got sliced by an errant skate blade. But even the 33-year-old Backes managed to avoid serious injury despite approximately 18 stitches to close the wound, and was cracking jokes about it as he limped to the Bruins bus postgame.

Clearly things can and will change with two games remaining between the two teams in the final three weeks of the regular season. The Bruins should theoretically be even better and more difficult to beat once they got all of their key players healthy, and that’s got to be a frightening prospect for the Lightning. 

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Then again perhaps the Bolts were a little rusty after three days off leading into Saturday night, and they needed to be kicked in the teeth by the Bruins to start getting that hunger back. Either way the Bruins are within a single win of pulling into a tie for the President’s Trophy and home ice throughout the entire Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Nobody should be surprised the Bruins did it once again while fighting through injuries and a brutal late season schedule, and that’s a testament to how stubbornly they’ve successfully plowed through adversity this season. 

The dominant win over Tampa on Saturday night just serves as another piece of compelling hockey evidence that something special is building with the Black and Gold. It’s become impossible to deny or ignore as the Bruins continue bucking the odds in a way that should have everybody else’s full attention around the NHL at this point.