Saturday March 29th, 2008

Ask an old-timer to describe the prototypical Montreal Canadien and he'll quickly paint a visual picture of a player gifted with speed, fury and elegance ... topped off, of course, with the gift of a francophone surname.

It's equally easy to conjure up the ideal Boston Bruin. He's a menacing bruiser in black and gold who's just as capable of beating you with his fists and his broad shoulders as with his lunchpail ethic in front of the net. Fancy's all well and good for those Quebeckers, but the Boston fans have always been more of a ham sandwich kind of crowd.

While imagining that player's no problem, it's been a bit of an issue actually dressing one. With apologies to the great Raymond Bourque, it's been more than a decade since Cam Neely retired and the team hung up the Help Wanted sign, hoping someone would come along and re-establish the identity forged by the team under Harry Sinden and Don Cherry, among others.

Well, it looks like they've finally got their man.

Unless you watch the Bruins regularly, the name Milan Lucic might not stand out when mentioned alongside fellow freshmen Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane or Peter Mueller. But with his first season under his belt, the bruising 19-year-old winger looks set to become just as vital a cog in his team's future as any of those blue-chippers.

The fans in Boston recognized that Thursday night, voting Lucic the winner of the team's Seventh Player Award. The honor goes annually to the Bruin who exceeds expectations. And if you say nothing else about Lucic, you have to admit that.

As the captain of Team Canada for last summer's Super Series against the Russians, Lucic was the ideal leader: hand working, conscientious, and capable of amping up the team's emotion with a big hit or a timely goal. Bruins fans saw the fear in the Russians' eyes and began dreaming of him donning the black and gold and terrorizing the hated Habs.

One problem: he couldn't skate worth a lick. Not such a big deal in junior hockey. But his early twirls around camp prompted one insider to say, "He looks like he's slogging through slush out there."

That should have been enough to earn him a trip to Providence for his first pro campaign. But each night during the preseason, he forced his way into the next game with a fight, a YouTube-worthy hit, or a surprisingly deft offensive play. And when the team broke camp, there he was, unbelievably, a Boston Bruin.

But unlike the bonus babies, he was brought along slowly, grabbing just six or seven minutes a night, really no more than he could chew. And somehow, in that limited time, he continued to find ways to catch someone's eye, to keep a job.

But more important than game night was the time spent at practice, working on his skating. If you went a couple weeks without seeing him, you'd be stunned by the improvements he'd made. Even after making remarkable gains in the skill, no one's going to film his stride as for a how-to tape. But they could use him as the perfect example of what can be accomplished through grim determination to succeed.

Over the season, the kid who no one expected to be there forged himself into a player that coach Claude Julien can use in multiple situations, and now earns upward of 14 minutes a night. He set a career high with 18:38 of ice as he picked up two assists in a critical win over Toronto on Tuesday night. And if the Bruins, currently holding down eighth spot in the East, make the playoffs, he'll be a factor that the opposing coach will have to account for.

The team may not get far in the postseason, especially if they line up against the Canadiens, a team that's on an 11-0 roll against the Bruins. No matter what happens though, Boston fans can gladly go into that long summer knowing that their team again has it's heart.

They're not the Big, Bad Bruins yet. But with Lucic, it's a start.

No surprise to hear that the NHLPA this week slammed the door on the NHL's proposal to move the start of free agency from July 1 to July 7. Although the league tried to sell it as a way to avoid the hassles brought on by dealing over the Canada Day and Independence Day holidays, it smelled like a fast one from the start. Essentially, it would have allowed teams to close a bothersome little loophole.

Under the CBA, players who make less than $1.5 million have until July 5 to elect for salary arbitration. That essentially left a five-day window for a restricted free agent to consider offer sheets before having to finalize a decision regarding his current team. If the date had been moved to the seventh, that window of opportunity would have been closed for the player, though it would not have impacted the ability of the teams to file for arbitration.

In their entreaty to the PA to move the UFA/RFA date, they didn't mention advancing the arbitration date.

Nice try, fellas.

San Jose's 14-0-2 mark may be the most publicized stat of the post-trade deadline period, but it's far from the most impressive. Try this one on: in the 14 games since he joined the Tampa Bay Lightning, checking center Jeff Halpern has exploded for eight goals and seven assists.

Actually, that should just be 13 games. He played only 13 seconds against Pittsburgh last Friday before leaving with an injury. Either way, it's an amazing and completely unexpected outburst from a grinder who compiled just 25 points in 64 games with the Stars before the deal.

As thrilled as the Lightning are with his production, the numbers look even better by way of comparison. Brad Richards, the centerpiece of the deal who went to Dallas in exchange for a package that included Halpern essentially as a throw-in, has nine points in 10 games (a stat skewed by the five assists he had in his first game as a Star). Since that night, he's struggled to find the chemistry with a series of linemates in Dallas that Halpern has enjoyed with Mathieu Darche and Michel Ouellet. Ironically, neither player clicked when skating with Richards earlier in the season. No doubt the Stars make this trade 100 times out of 100 if given the chance for a mulligan, but it's funny how trades can work out over the short term.

No surprise to see Lightning coach John Tortorella named Friday to fill that role for Team USA at the upcoming World Championships -- after all, it appears as though every other soon-to-be idled NHL bench boss is Canadian. Well, other than Atlanta's Don Waddell, but he's busy filling the GM role for the Americans. Still, this is a big opportunity for Tortorella who, surprisingly, has never held the head job for Team USA in the past. The results he gets here could influence USA Hockey's decision when it comes time to choose the man who'll do the job in Vancouver in 2010.

The late start of the tournament, which gets underway May 2 in Quebec City and Halifax, means that rosters won't be finalized until after the first round of the playoffs conclude. Still, look for the Yanks to make some early commitments, leaning heavily on younger players like Dustin Brown, Kane, David Booth, Kyle Okposo, Mueller, Erik Johnson and Jack Johnson with an eye toward building chemistry for the Vancouver Games.

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