The notion of starting a new season in a foreign country is a strange one. With all the pageantry that comes with it, not to have it on Canadian or US soil just seems pointless. Having regular season games abroad is alright a few weeks in—the NFL playing a game in London seems to have been a good decision for the popularity of the sport in the UK—but the season opener?
The most glaring issue is the time difference. The two Bruins-Coyotes games played in Prague over the weekend started at noon Eastern Time. Considering the fact that the NHL is still struggling for fans, scheduling six games in the first three days to be played at an awkward time for US audiences is a mind-boggling decision.
Do you want to watch your team’s first game of the year as you eat breakfast? Apparently commissioner Gary Bettman thought Coyotes fans did.
Regardless of what times the games started, the most important thing is that the 2010/11 Boston Bruins season has begun. You’d be forgiven for thinking that no one told the B’s, however.
If anything, Boston looked nervous, which, when one thinks about it, is understandable if unacceptable as an excuse. After all, the last time we saw this team, they were choking their way into the history books and out of the playoffs, as they lost a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers.
They made slack passes, seemed uncomfortable in possession and often looked lost in centre ice. The first Phoenix goal was lucky, with a lively and fortuitous bounce from the boards helping Radim Vrbata score in front of a home crowd. They should have had more than just one by the end of the first period, but when the Bruins somehow played worse after the break, they jumped all over them, and goaltender Tuukka Rask.
Under two minutes into the second, an unmarked Taylor Pratt slipped a rebound past Rask. 15 minutes in, Daniel Paille gave the puck away to Scottie Upshall, who easily beat Rask on the breakaway.
Despite allowing four goals (the fifth was an empty-netter in the third), Rask had a solid game. He made three or four great saves on breakaways, and it would have surprised no one if the Bruins had trailed by seven after two periods. In a game where almost nothing went right, his 32 saves ended up being a highlight for Boston.
Ilya Bryzgalov was great in goal for the Coyotes, but in the third, Boston finally beat him, as Milan Lucic found offseason pickup Nathan Horton open in the slot to score his first goal in his new uniform.
Five minutes later, he added his second from roughly the same position, rifling a shot high past Bryzgalov on the far side. The goalie was steadfast after that, however, and finished with 40 saves—a figure that highlights Boston’s main problem in the game.
Their offense created a few decent chances, and outshot their opponents 42-37, but their puck control was abysmal, particularly in the neutral zone.
In game two, they were more responsible and careful with the puck. They returned to the physical style of play which had eluded them at the end of the Flyers series and the season opener on Saturday. Shaun Thornton was more aggressive, Lucic almost came to blows with Ed Jovanovksi and Zdeno Chara—the ink still drying on his seven-year contract extension—was a bigger presence at the back.
The Coyotes weren’t allowed to break on the Boston goal with the abandon they had the night before, they managed just one shot in the first 15 minutes of the second period, and were outshot 13-4 to begin the game. Perhaps most importantly, the better defensive performance helped keep things relatively quiet for Tim Thomas.
The 36-year-old Thomas got the start ahead of Rask, who had effectively leapfrogged him in the depth chart last season.
Thomas had surgery on a torn labrum in his left hip in May, and while he was never faced with a barrage of shots from the Coyotes, he looked comfortable enough back between the pipes, picking up his 18th career shutout.
On the offensive end, the Bruins also improved from the night before, and their one bright spark from the 5-2 loss, Nathan Horton, continued his fine performance. He set up Lucic for Boston’s first goal, and then after brilliant puck work from Mark Recchi in the circle, Horton turned and fired a sick wrist shot past Bryzgalov to make it 2-0 in the second.
The third period brought what will probably be the main talking point from the Prague trip. Michael Ryder lobbed a pass up the middle, which was batted down by second overall pick Tyler Seguin, who then slotted the puck past the helpless Bryzgalov for his first NHL goal, taking the net off its moorings in the process.
It’s easy to dismiss one performance as the aberration, but the Bruins’ problem is that it’s hard to know which was the most indicative of the season to come. If it’s the second game, hopes will be high of another playoff run. If it’s the first, maybe it would be best to get ready for some Celtics basketball.