Bruins

NHL's loss could once again be Hockey East's gain

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NHL's loss could once again be Hockey East's gain

Boston University hockey coach Jack Parker doesnt especially remember packed houses for Terriers hockey games during the last NHL lockout in 2004-05.

Thats probably because Terriers hockey has always been kind of a big deal on their Commonwealth Ave. campus, and the Scarlet-and-White crazed BU hockey fans have always packed the house.

How did the last lockout impact the BU hockey program? The detail Parker remembers most was the school's star-studded alumni game. New York Islanders goaltender Rick DiPietro was there, carrying the puck up the ice like a forward from his place between the pipes, attempting to score goals. Tony Amonte, Mike Grier, Chris Drury, Tom Poti, Shawn Bates, Jay Pandolfo and Joe Sacco were also among the accomplished BU alums that showed up for the benefit game with the NHL just entering a year-long hibernation that year.

Weve always drawn well. It might have affected other schools with bigger crowds than usual, said Parker. I can tell you that it drastically affected our alumni game. I think we lost 9-2 and Ricky DiPietro kept trying to score goals from his net by carrying the puck out. We dont have an alumni game scheduled this year, but I probably should have done one if wed known there was going to be another lockout.

On a more serious note Parker guessed that no NHL will mean more TV face time for the NCAA hockey programs built in New England.

We have our own TV package with NESN, and I think were going to have some better choices for games being broadcast if the Bruins arent playing on a Friday or Saturday night, Parker said.

Even though there won't be a repeat alumni game this season with BU alumni like Matt Gilroy, Ryan Whitney, John McCarthy and Chris Bourque, Hockey East itself may once again be an unwitting beneficiary if the NHL misses significant time due to the lockout.

Programs like BU and Boston College wont see much of a bounce because theyre well-established programs with their own rabid following. But theres a reason Hockey East last sold out both nights of the Hockey East tournament at TD Garden in 2004-05 when the NHL was on a season-long hiatus.

Theyve sold out one night or the other during the two-night tournament in the seven seasons since, but that was the last year college hockey filled the Gardens seats to capacity for two straight nights.

Hockey East commissioner and Harvard alum Joe Bertagna is a firm believer there still isnt a very significant cross-over between pro hockey fans and college hockey fans. The lockout gives those NHL hockey fans the chance to feed their hockey hunger this fall and winter with college games.

It also arguably gives hockey fans a chance to view the game in its purest form.

Sure there wont be the blood and guts glory of NHL fights or the elite playmaking skills of a Sidney Crosby-type player on display -- there hasnt been an offensive talent like that in Hockey East since Paul Kariya playing for Maine in the early 1990s -- but every hockey fan should take in the rivalry of a Boston College-Boston University hockey game at least once. This might just be the year to do it while the TD Garden goes silent on Thursday and Saturday nights with most of the Bruins fleeing for paying puck gigs in Europe.

I dont know about nationally, but Ive always felt that the Bruins crowd and the college hockey crowd dont overlap all that much, said Bertagna. Maybe with more of the college hockey players in the pros that dynamic has changed a little, but when I was growing up they were two very different crowds.

The New England breed of hockey fan is going to be starved for hockey once October and November roll on without the NHL, and both Division 1 college hockey and the AHL should see a bump in attendance. Bertagna didnt want to be perceived as profiting on the misery of an NHL saddled by labor strife, but there is tangible evidence his league will gain some fans this season.

Bertagna further indicated both NESN and NBC Sports are going to be looking for additional programming if there are no NHL games until mid-December at the earliest.

I dont want to seem eager to capitalize on somebody elses misfortune because we are partners with TD Garden, and I can feel for what theyre going through, said Bertagna. But having said that I can see two ways the lockout could affect us . . . especially if its long. I think both NESN and the NBC Sports will be looking for other programming, and theyre already doing our games to an extent. It would be a natural place to look for more college hockey.

The reality is the last time we sold out the building on both nights of the Hockey East tournament was the last time there was a lockout. Weve had good crowds, 14,000-15,000, but that was the last time we banged both nights out. I think it was because those other parallel hockey fans that dont usually come to our games hadnt been in to Causeway Street all year. They were hungry for hockey at that point, and we were able to provide them with a good event at the Garden.

That could mean an expanded TV schedule for Div. 1 college hockey as well as greater exposure for a college sport thats been woefully under-promoted through the years.

Cory Schneider, Brian Boyle, Chris Bourque, Andrew Alberts, Daniel Winnik, Ryan Shannon, Jimmy Howard and Stephan Gionta all starred for Hockey East during that 2004-05 lockout season in an excellent showcase of future NHL careers. That same level of quality player will be in Hockey East again this season skating for Boston College, Boston University and the eight other schools making up whats arguably the best college hockey conference in the country.

The quality of local college hockey coupled with the inexpensive ticket prices offer a nice alternative to those puck fans flush with Bruins tickets for games that will never actually be played. The coaches across Hockey East are hoping to see some of those unfamiliar faces in their rinks this season while Donald Fehr and Gary Bettman keep hammering out a new collective bargaining agreement.

I hope the NHL lockout ends today just like I hope the referee lockout ends in the NFL, said Merrimack hockey coach Mark Dennehy. But were also very excited and if we can occupy some pro hockey fans in the meantime then were happy to do that as well.

There are people that dont cross over -- theyre more pro hockey fans than college hockey fans. College hockey is one of those sports where you come to it once and you can really get hooked. In these difficult economic times its definitely more fiscally affordable than the NHL. The students in the crowd and the culture of college hockey bring things to the arena that youll never see at a pro hockey rink.

The sad fact is NHL fans wont be truly happy until logic and reason prevails in the CBA negotiations between the players and the league.

But, just as was the case in 2004-05, there are hockey alternatives locally for the discerning fan. Perhaps the most effective message from the NHL fan base would be to simply move on to something else like Hockey East, and show stingy NHL owners just how easily they could be replaced if they dont get their act together.

Miller, Krejci game-time decisions tonight; O'Gara called up

Miller, Krejci game-time decisions tonight; O'Gara called up

BRIGHTON, Mass – It wouldn’t be a Bruins game this season if there weren’t some health question marks entering a game night, so the B’s will once again have a few players up in the air for the lineup tonight against the Buffalo Sabres.

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David Krejci (back) and Kevan Miller (upper body) were both on the ice prior to morning skate and Krejci participated in the optional practice, along with Patrice Bergeron and a handful of others on Saturday morning at Warrior Ice Arena. Krejci and Miller were termed game-time decisions based on the way things went this morning and Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy could have more lineup juggling in front of him based on those players.

Krejci said he was taking things “day-by-day”, but didn’t think it was going to be a long-term injury even if he misses the game.

“We’ll kind of take it day-by-day and we’ll see. I feel better than two days ago, so I guess we’ll be taking it day-by-day,” said Krejci. “I got hit in the last game and that forced me to leave the game. It’s a brand new injury and it just happened the other day. So that’s what it is.

“I don’t think it’s an injury that would be long term. It’s just one of these things that happens [during the games]. I wouldn’t lie to you if it was something that was a week or two weeks. We’ll just see how I feel later tonight. Injuries happen to every team. Hopefully, this is it for us here early in the season, and down the stretch, we’ll be healthy pushing for the playoffs.”

First the definite situations for the Black and Gold: Bergeron will play for the second game in a row and Paul Postma will be in the lineup, with Adam McQuaid shelved for the next couple of months with a broken leg. Beyond that, the Bruins could swing Miller from the left side to the right side if he plays, Charlie McAvoy could be added to the penalty kill and David Backes could end up playing some center if Matt Beleskey draws back into the lineup.

“We’ll probably move people around. [David] Backes, [Tim] Schaller has played some center over the years and obviously [Patrice] Bergeron looks like he’s going to play,” said Cassidy. “I think we’ll be okay. We sat out a forward the [Thursday vs. the Canucks], so we’ll move people around.

“Kevan will be a game-time decision, so we had a discussion about that and we’ll look into that as well. [Krejci] got hit in the lower back the other night, tried to finish and it’s one of those ones where at puck drop we’ll know.”

Robbie O’Gara popped on the Bruins roster on their team website early on Saturday afternoon, so the Yale alum will get the call if Miller can’t answer the bell on Saturday night. Another piece of good news: Noel Acciari skated with the injured players ahead of the morning skate and appears to be progressing slowly from his broken finger.  

Anything, it seems, is possible for these banged-up B’s as another body drops with each passing game or practice. Here are the projected line combos and D-pairings vs. the Sabres based on an optional morning skate:

Marchand-Bergeron-Bjork

DeBrusk-Krejci-Pastrnak

Schaller-Nash-Backes

Beleskey-Kuraly-Agostino

 
Chara-McAvoy

Krug-Carlo

O’Gara/Miller-Postma

 
Khudobin

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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