Five Minute Major: Kesselmania II

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Five Minute Major: Kesselmania II

(Originally posted on 4SportBoston.com )

I don’t remember NESN putting as much hype into the return of Joe Thornton a few years back as they did into these past two games featuring Phil Kessel back at the Garden, but the network seemed to be having fun with the aura surrounding the game.

I will tell you one person who didn’t have any fun, and that was old Phil the Thrill himself. The totals after two games in Beantown over the past six days? Zero goals, zero assists, zero points, two shots, and a -3.

Stretches like that happen in hockey, but for Kessel, the big bagel came at a very inopportune time, as he was back in front of packed barns on Causeway Street thirsty for his failure.

Those fans got what they paid for on Saturday as Kessel was a non-factor all night, except for when his no-effort, no-thinking pass off the half-boards landed square on Zdeno Chara’s stick for a bomb from the point to extend the Bruins’ lead. A great play in 2008 by Kessel. This year, not so much.

Thursday night, Kessel wasn’t as much of a direct factor in the game, more of a space-filler. That was just fine for Bruins fans, as they still took every opportunity to rain down boos on him every time he touched the puck...usually for 3-4 seconds before multiple Bruin defenders encroached upon him.

Between the lack of points, the turnovers and the general ineffectiveness, Bruins fans saw exactly what they wanted from Kessel, except for maybe a big crumpled mess after a Big Z body check. Alas, that will have to wait for the next meeting between the two teams.

Moving on from Kessel to players who actually showed up for Thursday’s game, it may be time for what every hockey fan and writer loves the most…a good old-fashioned goaltending controversy.

Besides quarterback in football, there is no position in sports so important to a team’s success than goalie. Due to that importance, there is always a question of how can the position be improved and any time the starter starts struggling, calls go out for the backup to play or trades to be made.

The Bruins thought they had locked down the goaltender position locked up with Tim Thomas.

The former journeyman won the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender last year and seemed to have finally earned the immovable starter tag with a big (and justly awarded) contract. However, 22-year old Tuukka Rask has made things very interesting this year.

Finally seeing regular playing time at the NHL level after a few years of work in the minors, Rask has excelled this year. He is 9-2-2 and is second in the NHL in goals-against-average at 1.97 and third in save% at .932.

He earned the majority of those wins while Thomas was out with an undisclosed injury, but now the Tank is healthy and Rask is still getting the playing time. That is not uncommon in the NHL. Head coaches will ride a hot goalie until his pads fall off, and the guess here is that Thomas understands that.

He had to fight and claw for his playing time his whole career, and while he probably doesn’t relish time on the bench, he knows that is how things go. Plus, it is better for the team.

Thomas has played a lot of games over the past three+ seasons (194 from 2009-2009 when you include this season.) He is 35 and will benefit from not having to play 55-60 games. Also, competition never hurt anyone.

Complacency in goal is deadly and Claude Julien is most likely okay with his two keepers having to earn their playing time.

It will be interesting to see how the rotation shakes out over the next few weeks. There are nine games left in December over the final 17 days. Another underlying factor is Thomas’ quest to make the Olympic team.

Now, I am positive Julien and the rest of the B’s management don’t have Team USA has a high priority, but no doubt Timmy would like to make the team.

While fellow American Ryan Miller of Buffalo is the probable starter at Olympus, Thomas needs to establish himself as the backup. Again, Thomas is a professional and I don’t envision him causing a stir, but something to keep an eye on.

In honor of the Mark Stuart-Jamal Mayers fight from Thursday, let’s go serve the “Five Minute Major”

1.  It has been a while since Bruins fans have had someone to truly hate. Being able to focus all your attention on someone just because you hate them and not because they are a good player is one of the fun things about being a sports fan.

Now, the loyal followers of the Black and Gold have that in Phil Kessel. It isn’t that he left Boston. Countless players have left over the years, including players better than Kessel.

No one hates Joe Thornton (except Kevin Paul DuPont) and no one hates Bill Guerin or Brian Rolston or Mike Knuble. In fact, people remember how good they were and what they brought to the Bruins.

With Kessel, it is the fact that he turned his back on the team and the city. Jack Edwards, who is my personal favorite announcer in Boston and worth tuning in to any Bruins game by himself, said it best last night.

He mentioned that he talked with Bruins veterans and they said the problem they had with Kessel was that he “didn’t want to be a part of this.”

Kessel’s rejection of a big contract extension and force of a deal to Toronto was proof that he wanted no part of playing in Boston. His ex-teammates in Boston took that as a rejection of the family they created here and there is no longing for his return.

Think about how you see Big Papi out hugging Pedro and even Johnny Damon. There wasn’t one shot of any Bruin going over and saying anything to Kessel. Maybe it happened behind closed doors, but doubtful.

2.  Speaking of Edwards, he gets a lot of grief from hockey fans for being over the top. To that, I say hockey is an exciting game and Edwards absolutely loves hockey and the Bruins.

His creativity and passion is evident in his broadcasts and his banter with color analyst Andy Brickley is top-notch. They are one of the best duos in the NHL.

The sequence from Thursday’s game surrounding David Krejci’s breakaway goal exemplifies this. Edwards’ voice shows you how big of a save Rask made, and then he slowly raised it up again appropriately when Krejci broke in alone.

Then, after the goal, Edwards came back with “There is equipment all over the ice as Krejci undressed Vesa Toskala.” Immediately, Brickley analyzes the whole sequence of events. It was textbook broadcasting.

(Video of the breakaway can be found on 4SportBoston.com )

3.  Back to the game, and this may be heresy in Boston, but Claude Julien is the best coach in Boston right now. I submit that coaching an NBA team is about as difficult as rolling a ball rack to the court.

Bill Belichick is not having his best season right now, whether it is because of inferior players, perceived hubris or inability to change. Terry Francona is in his offseason, but the last two seasons haven’t been anywhere near as good as his first four.

Julien was Coach of the Year in the NHL last season and proved last night why he won that award. It was talked about in the papers today, but he deftly maneuvered his team to its first goal of the game with some quick thinking.

After the Maple Leafs iced the puck with their fourth line on the ice, Julien changed his lines, matching up his best line against a tired group of thugs. Five seconds later, the B’s had a 1-0 lead following a pretty play off the draw.

Julien is a master of the matchups and he puts his players in the best position to have success on a nightly basis. He doesn’t ask them to do too much beyond their capabilities and his players respond.

In the third period, after Toronto scored two quick goals to climb back within one goal, Julien called a timeout.

He didn’t break any sticks or toss any water bottles. He didn’t bench anyone. He calmly asked his players to relax and refocus. He sensed they needed the quick breather and it worked.

The B’s put together a good shift right out of the timeout and Toronto was unable to tie the game.

4.  One of hockey fans’ favorite pastimes is counting down the minutes on a minor penalty between two players who wanted to fight but for whatever reason didn’t get to and earned roughing penalties.

That happened last night as Mark Stuart and Jamal Mayers wanted to go, but Mayers’ sweater came over his head and the linesmen stepped in. The two players skated to the penalty box and waited out their two minutes.

Immediately upon returning to the ice, they turned to each other and finished their business. No sucker punches, no stick work, just two guys who knew the rules and wanted to take care of things.

Situations like that are almost like the WWE’s Royal Rumble. You know at the end of two minutes another battle is about to happen.

People who don’t appreciate fighting in hockey are not hockey fans. It has its place and its reason.

Yes, safety is paramount, and that is why the first attempt was stopped. The other 19 members of each team appreciated what Stuart and Mayers did. The sellout crowd appreciated it. I appreciated it.

5.  The third period was up and down for the Bruins, but the way they closed out the game was impressive. They withstood Toronto’s rush at the beginning and never gave up the lead.

In a seven-minute span in the middle of the period, the Bruins traded chances back and forth with the Leafs, having the better opportunities. It was an impressive stretch without a whistle, as the speed and athleticism of the game were on display.

The type of play the NHL would show on a “Why You Should Watch This Game” video. Then, the B’s buried the Leafs with a power play goal late.

Mark Recchi worked hard, creating space and opportunity at the net. After his first shot was thwarted, he waited and collected a pretty pass from Blake Wheeler to regain the two-goal lead.

The old man then added an empty-netter for the 5-2 win. The lack of panic from the Bruins and the refocusing on shutting down the Leafs was a great takeaway heading into the game against the Islanders on Saturday.

With that, Kesselmania at the Garden is over until March 4. Now, the Bruins can focus on extending their lead in the division and solidifying their positioning in the playoff chase.

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