Bruins

Kessel on fire as he returns to Boston

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Kessel on fire as he returns to Boston

BOSTON -- Phil Kessel is returning to Boston yet again with the Toronto Maple Leafs to square off with the Bruins, but for the first time since leaving Boston, Phil the Thrill is going to be feared when he hits the Garden ice.

Kessel leads the NHL with seven goals, 12 points and a plus-7 in five games for the Maple Leafs coming on the heels of a three-point performance in a 4-3 shootout win over the Winnipeg Jets on Wednesday night. Hes been the beneficiary of a wide open system employed by the Leafs this season, but it appears that Kessel has also taken the step to the next level this season.

You know that Kessel has turned a corner when those around the Leafs organization including the media are thumping their chest about the trade with the Bruins thats netted Boston Tyler Seguin, Dougie Hamilton and Jared Knight and a brilliantly bright future.

Only one Maple Leafs player in the NHL's modern era (since 1943-44) scored at least seven goals in the team's first five games of a season: Hall of Famer Sweeney Schriner scored eight goals in Toronto's first five games in 1944-45. So Kessel is making history with Toronto, and hes also within the last couple of games started having success against his former hockey club in Boston.The sprinting start to the season is part of the Kessel modus operandi for his NHL season, and the gifted scorer had seven points (5 goals and 2 assists) through his first seven games with the Leafs last season. Clearly this year's scoring outburst is a step up from there, but many around hockey -- including Claude Julien -- are curious to see if the ending is equally spectacular this time around.Because the endings for Kessel haven't been quite as jaw-dropping as the beginnings."He's off to a good start again. That's a trademark for Phil is that he gets off to a good start. I watched him play last night and he's playing extremely well," said Julien. "His line has been doing a lot of damage out there on the ice. We need to understand the danger of that and be very aware when they're on the ice."

It sets up an interesting match-up against 19-year-old second year forward Tyler Seguin, who is also emerging this season with five points (1 goal, 4 assists) in 6 games as a viable offensive threat. But a Bs team averaging an NHL-worst 1.69 goals per game this season will need to generate a lot more offense to offset the former phenom forward thats on pace for a ridiculous 115 goals and 197 points this season.

That wont last and it will be interesting to see how much staying power Toronto has after getting off to a decent start last season as well. But nothing about Thursday nights game will get the introverted Kessel nervous about another return to Boston thats become a normal part of the season routine.

It gets old when you guys ask all the time, said Kessel when asked about heading back to Boston. You know, its a couple of years ago. I dont get jitters anymore. Going back to that first year I was a little nervous.

Theyre a great team and were going to have to battle hard to win tomorrow.

The 4-0-1 record built up by the Maple Leafs in the first five game are looking like a pretty good team themselves in the early going, but it's important to keep in mind the Leafs had the exact same record to start last season before the bottom dropped out.Theupstart Leafs and the desperate Bruinswill make an interesting dynamic for both Kessel and a Bruins team in search of a victory fix up -- and upagainst their fierce division rivals in this Year of the Kessel.

Bruins goalie decisions may become tougher than you might think

Bruins goalie decisions may become tougher than you might think

BRIGHTON, Mass – The good news for Tuukka Rask on Friday is that there was no dark, quiet room required for the Bruins goaltender when he reported to the Warrior Ice Arena practice facility for treatment for his concussion.

Instead, the Bruins goalie got going on the concussion protocol after getting steam-rolled by Anders Bjork at practice on Wednesday morning and started the road back to recovery from his first concussion suffered at the NHL level. In the further good news department, Bruins backup netminder Anton Khudobin stepped up in Rask’s absence and stopped 26-of-29 shots in a winning effort over the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday night.

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So now Khudobin has twice as many wins as Rask in half as many starts in the opening two weeks of the season. That’s certainly good for the Russian backup that stumbled out of the starting gate last season but has really fortified his spot early this year with a strong training camp followed by a .928 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average this year.  

“I’ve been there before. I’ve played many games in a row before in the AHL and the NHL, so it’s the same routine. It’s just harder to be honest when you’re playing one game every two weeks or something,” said Khudobin. “I’ll talk to Goalie Bob about what I did good or bad, get ready for practice, stretch it out and warm it up, go get it at practice and get ready for the games.”

That’s in stark contrast to Rask, who has a pair of losses to the worst team in the NHL last season, the Colorado Avalanche, and a defeat out in Las Vegas where he was out-dueled by Bruins castoff Malcolm Subban. The defense hasn’t been particularly good in front of him in those games and the team only scored a total of four goals in Rask’s three losses, but the All-Star netminder was also far from sharp with an .882 save percentage to start the season.

The home loss to Colorado, in particular, was a poor performance from Rask where he buried his team with an early deficit once a couple of soft goals by him in the first period. Compounding the lack of quality play from Rask was his odd choice to cease talking about team performance with the media following the loss to the Golden Knights.

“I just try to go out there and give us a chance to win every night. That’s what I’m focused on. I’m not going to comment anymore on team play that much,” said Rask after the Sunday loss in Vegas. “We can just talk about goaltending. That’s just the way it is. Sorry.”

It certainly sounded and felt like Rask was directed to only talk about his own play by somebody higher up in the Bruins organization, and it was that kind of a development rather than the Bruins goalie passive-aggressively dissing his teammates. But that kind of directive from the organization would also speak to some pre-existing friction between Rask and his teammates where past criticism has perhaps rubbed some of them the wrong way.

It felt that way when Rask and David Krejci spoke about things in a tense dressing room in Las Vegas following last weekend’s loss, and it felt that way late last season when the Finnish goalie stayed home in Boston while watching Khudobin win one of the biggest games of the season in Brooklyn against the Islanders. At times in the past, something hasn’t always felt quite right about the dynamic between Rask and the rest of the Bruins, and it’s not a particularly good sign that both parties seemed to already be headed down that path just five games into this season.

All of this makes for some very interesting timing with the Anders Bjork collision into Rask that knocked him for a loop, and has now opened the door wide for Khudobin to start a few games in a row. Should Khudobin play well and continue to backstop a winning hockey team playing hard in front of him, it will make for a much tougher goalie decision than some might anticipate. Rask is clearly the better goaltender in terms of talent, upside, resume and accomplishments over the last eight years, but the question becomes how much is that offset by the Bruins team potentially playing a better brand of hockey with Khudobin between the pipes.

Maybe it’s because Khudobin is the backup and the Bruins are trying to play tighter defense in front of him, but it’s hard to argue the fact that Boston seems to play a smarter, stronger game when the backup gets the call.  

“That’s what I’m there for, but at the same time, I wasn’t thinking, 'Oh maybe [Rask] is going to get hurt and he’s not going to play [the next few games].' I’m not thinking that way, definitely,” said Khudobin. “I was just focusing on my practice. Whatever coach is going to tell me after the practice, then I will keep moving from that point.”

The best-case scenario for the Bruins is that Khudobin plays good, strong, winning hockey in Rask’s absence and that in turn lights a fire under the No. 1 goaltender after he looked fairly laissez-faire in his first few games this season. That’s what everybody saw out of Rask late last season when he was called out by the Bruins coaching staff and challenged by a red-hot Khudobin pushing for some big game starts.

Perhaps that is exactly the kind of collective kick to the hockey pants that’s needed for Rask to start carrying the Bruins team once he gets healthy again.

A deeper question, however, would involve asking how much longer the Bruins want to hitch their wagons to a $7 million a year goalie that needs to mentally recharge his batteries from time to time, and who begins to wilt performance-wise if he makes more than 55-60 start in an NHL season. Members of the Rask Fan Club will point to his career .922 save percentage, but it's been three years since he's been able to consistently reach that level of performance. 

The older Rask, 30, gets, the more baggage is getting added on with a performance level that’s dropped from his Vezina Trophy-winning days. Some of that is clearly about the defense getting a makeover in front of him, but it’s also about Rask just not always being as consistently good when Boston needs him most in the big games.

Khudobin certainly wouldn’t be the long-term answer for the Bruins, and the jury is out on whether or not Zane McIntyre has a future in the NHL as a goalie. So there’s no long-term solution if they suddenly decided to go away from Rask for any reason. But if this humble hockey writer was coaching the Bruins and Khudobin goes on a winning tear over the next few weeks? A healthy Rask wouldn’t automatically be handed his No. 1 workload upon his return, and it would be a couple of goalies splitting time to decide who wants it more.  

That kind of situation might not be up to goaltender controversy standards at this early point in the season, but there’s nothing wrong with making Rask grind for it a little when he does come back after breezing through some early season losses. 

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Morning Skate: Habs' Pacioretty blames himself

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Morning Skate: Habs' Pacioretty blames himself

Here are all the links from around the hockey world, and what I’m reading, while watching the Montreal Canadiens crash and burn in the Atlantic Division.  

*Max Pacioretty is certainly falling on his sword up in Montreal calling himself “the worst one on the ice” as the Habs really struggle to get going this season.

*Brad Marchand was on the Twitter machine after Thursday night’s win and having some fun with what his video game controller probably looks like when he plays hockey.

*Pro Hockey Talk has the details of the Erik Gudbranson boarding hit on Frank Vatrano from last night that looks like it’s going to get the Vancouver D-man suspended.

*Oliver Ekman-Larsson is still adjusting to the changes that are taking place with the Arizona Coyotes as they struggle in the desert.

*The Maple Leafs are looking and acting like contenders early on up in Toronto, and that would be a very good thing for the NHL.

*For something completely different: The Backstreet Boys are going country? Now I’ve definitely seen it all.