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Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Cure to the Common Cold?

Earlier this year, after an interesting slap of a goal from P.J. Axelsson off a feed from Marc Savard I told Axie; "Hey man, you know how it is. Savard could feed a horse and it would score."

P.J. just grinned.

"He can be pretty with the puck. I'm not," he said.

Axelsson was skating with the top line in the place of Milan Lucic at the time. Lucic had been stagnant of late and head coach Claude Julien cast him down to the hard working third line to regain his grit.

Good thing for Axelsson.

The Bruins are battling through their longest winless streak of the year (0-2-2 the last four). Julien's attempt to jump start the offense has led him to change the lines for tonight's game against the Carolina Hurricanes.

Good idea.

Let's break down the changes.

The first two lines are the generally goal scoring skills lines. The best of the size,
puck handling and shooting are placed in the top six. The sign of a good team is how deep they can go on their third line, though inevitable injuries usually make this unit a mishmash during the dredges of a long season. The fourth line is the checking line, the grit, the enforcers, the puck possession specialists that teams need to wile their way through 60 minutes of treacherous ice time.

The young guns who carried the Bruins are hitting a bit of a wall. Phil Kessel, still the team leader in goals, has three in his last 20 games. David Krejci has a total of 1-3-4 in his last nine. Blake Wheeler, who scored in the first period on the power play against the 'Canes, has rediscovered a little bit of his touch, but has had a rough time of after the turn of the calendar year. Except for this two first period goals against San Jose last Tuesday, Lucic has not had much luck lighting the lamp after coming back from a shoulder injury after the All-Star break.

With Michael Ryder out (see blog post below) it has forced Julien's hand. Ryder had been growing stronger as the year went on, whereas the his younger counterparts slowed down. What is Julien to do?

Lines for February 17 against Carolina:


When you have a creator like Savard the cure is simple. Feed him skaters.

There is no better remedy for the common cold (errr, slump) than getting put right into Savvy's wheelhouse. Hence, Julien has put Wheeler on the the wily center's plate. Coupled with the return of Lucic to the top line the hope is that the two big boys will get the offense off the ground.

It is an interesting ploy to break up the speedy duo of Kessel and Savard. Earlier in the year the thought was to get Kessel going as an elite goal scorer and temper the lack of size with the bruiser Lucic. The combination was quite successful until the last week of December.

Wheeler changes that dynamic, providing another large body (though also an excellent stick handler) that can produce the dirty goals in front of the net that will be the key to getting Boston back to its high scoring ways. The move brings him back to the natural side on the right wing, which one would hope will be beneficial.

The second and third lines are muddled in this line up. Nominally the Krejci line would be considered the second with the Patrice Bergeron line the third. By bringing Kessel down to Krejci the expected result should be a spark for both players as Kessel can create chances for the Czech just like he did for Savard. Vladimir Sobotka, also a Czech, makes a lot of sense playing with his countryman as he can be a goal scorer and provides some grit as he is a speedy little cannonball that can ping pong around on the boards.

As I have mentioned before, I would like to see Bergeron with a little more fire power on his line, especially now that he is really starting to play really well after coming back from his latest concussion. With Ryder out (and Marco Sturm out for the season) there just are not any bodies that the Bruins can feed him.

The checking line is very important to this team, Shawn Thornton and Stephane Yelle are smart and work very well with each other while Byron Bitz has really gained my respect as a physical presence and a heads up player.

The results were encouraging. Wheeler banged his goal while playing with Lucic and Krejci on the power play and Kessel has had some great chances though is perhaps a little snake bitten right now as Carolina goaltender Cam Ward frustrated the young winger. Krejci scored in the final half of the third period on a nice little 1-on-1 break short handed back hander (say that fast).

Overall, not a bad effort by the new lines in the 5-1 win. The kids played well, with Wheeler and Krejci looking better. Kessel will eventually get uncorked but he had his chances. Sometimes it is just not your night.

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