Friday March 19th, 2010

It was, without a doubt, the most heavily-hyped match in what's been a listless season for the Boston Bruins. For the price of admission, a boisterously disenchanted fan base wanted to see the hometowners (hard to call 'em heroes at this juncture) wrest two points from the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins and have someone, anyone, exact a little revenge for Matt Cooke's near decapitation of Marc Savard the last time the two sides met. Not necessarily in that order.

They quickly got some of what they came for. Bruins enforcer Shawn Thornton hopped onto the ice less than two minutes into the game, a surprisingly early entrance for the fourth-liner. Pens coach Dan Bylsma obliged by sending Cooke over the boards. Seconds later, the two squared off to the left of Marc-Andre Fleury.

Give Cooke some credit. As the man who delivered that Grade 2 concussion to Savard with a ruthless hit 12 days ago, he understood his role in this drama. Responsibility is at the core of the Code, after all. So he stood up to the larger Thornton and even got in the first punch before he was felled by a cascade of rights that continued even after he fell to the ice. And the crowd, silenced by so many disappointing nights this season, roared.

That each player was able to skate to the box under his own power was no small blessing considering the carnival of carnage the league has staged over the past couple weeks. No blood. No broken bodies. Just five minutes to rest some sore knuckles, and on with the game.

The question then was: would that be enough? Would the Bruins be satisfied with their pound of flesh? Apparently they were. A little too satisfied. "Him stepping up and doing the right thing put some water on the fire," Thornton said of Cooke afterwards.

And so, instead of building on the emotion of the beating, the Bruins seemed drained by it. They managed just five shots on net in the first period, and five more in the second. Even a fight instigated by captain Zdeno Chara couldn't raise their intensity. And another questionable play by Cooke, this time an apparent slew foot on Dennis Seidenberg behind the Boston net, went unchallenged.

Big, Bad Bruins? More like little, sleepy cubs.

The Pens took advantage of that lethargy, scoring a goal in each period and limiting the offensively-challenged Bruins to just 17 shots on the way to a decisive 3-0 win. What could have been the defining moment of this frustrating campaign, a spiritual circling of the wagons that empowered and emboldened the Bruins as they aimed to secure a playoff bid and erase a season's worth of disappointment was, instead, rock bottom.

No question the Pens, even without Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, are a more talented team. That said, they're hardly invincible. Perhaps if Boston had spent more time studying tape of how the Devils methodically disabled Pittsburgh's leaden defense on Wednesday, they'd have gotten what they really needed out of this game: two points.

Because, for all the talk of avenging Savard, that moment of truth quietly passed nearly two weeks ago. The time to address that bit of business was either while Savard was lying on the ice or the very next moment that Cooke stepped on it. That it was left to fester and distort what really mattered on the night is a blight on the character of this team. And the fans, who seemed alone in recognizing that winning and physical accountability are not mutually exclusive, let them know it.

So now what?

Nearly 40 years removed from their last Stanley Cup -- a sad state highlighted by a pre-game ceremony honoring members of the legendary 1970 squad -- this team will go down to the wire just to make the postseason. With 12 games left, the eighth-place Bruins hold a slim, three-point lead over the Rangers and Thrashers, with a must-win game against New York on Sunday afternoon. On paper, there's hope. But the serenade of boos that filled the building as the B's skated off tells you that the fans believe that the timer has already pinged on this season.

At this point, why believe otherwise? Listening to Claude Julien rattle off a list of excuses for his team's performance had to be painful for the die-hards who believe his robotic approach to the game is a big part of the problem. And if young players like Milan Lucic and Blake Wheeler, the league's smallest 6-5, 205-pound winger, can't drum up the hunger to make an impact in a game like that one, then when?

They'll put up with a lot in Boston. But a lack of passion? That's an ender.

If there's a bright side in the aftermath of the James Wisniewski hit that knocked Chicago's Brent Seabrook senseless, it's that we're seeing a growing reluctance for teammates, and teams, to stick up for on-ice assaults perpetrated by a player wearing the same laundry.

"First of all, we love the way Wiz plays and we want him to play the game hard," Ducks GM Bob Murray told the Orange County Register. "That's how he has to play and he's very effective doing that. In this instance, he crossed the line. He went too far and he knows he was going to get suspended. I applaud the league cracking down on these things."

This comes just a week after respected Pittsburgh Penguins vet Bill Guerin distanced himself from the actions of Cooke.

"We're all under the same umbrella, whether the guy's on my team and I'm sitting right next to him or he's playing in California," Guerin said. "It doesn't matter. We're all playing in the same league. We all want the same safety. We all want to be looked after the same way. I understand [Cooke] is on my team but, hey, he's in a tough spot."

Not everyone gets it of course, a sad fact emphasized by my colleague Jim Kelley. And Murray did color his comments by adding that he thought that perhaps his player was penalized more heavily than, say, a certain superstar in Washington. "I sure as heck hope that if we're going to crack down, then crack down across the board no matter if you're a star player or not a star player ... that everybody gets whacked. And it can't just be on certain people at the right time," he said.

Regardless of the duration, it's become clear that the suspensions are toothless in terms of deterrence -- this was Wisniewski's second of the year and overall the 28th in the NHL this season. If there's going to be any meaningful change in behavior, it has to start with the players. Not in the broad NHLPA brotherhood sense (as if that headless group can do much more than issue hopeful press releases at this point), but teammate to teammate. Accountability that begins in the room and in the organization is the path to fewer incidents on the ice. Nice to see that at least some teams are starting to get the picture.

GONE GOPHER

"I am fully committed to this team and university," said Minnesota Golden Gophers center Jordan Schroeder back in November. "I have no intention of leaving college early to play pro hockey."

Things change, of course, and despite that public declaration of loyalty, it was something less than a surprise to hear that Schroeder had foregone his final two seasons with the Minnesota Golden Gophers to go pro with the Canucks this week.

Schroeder, the team's first-round pick in 2009, was the latest player that scouts feared was regressing under the guidance of Gophers coach Don Lucia. The Tom Cruise-sized pivot boasts NHL-caliber speed and playmaking skills, but saw that his stats deteriorated after losing linemates Ryan Stoa (who went pro with the Avs) and Jay Bariball (injury). More of concern than his shrunken numbers, though, was his diminished drive. Too many nights he was invisible on the ice, a problem that stemmed, to the eyes of one scout, more from unwillingness than inability to fight through coverage.

"It was a round peg, square hole situation," the scout said. "You could sense his frustration with how he was being used."

Schroeder was only the latest in a growing line of players to bolt Minnesota early. Defenseman Sam Lofquist left in November to join the Guelph Storm of the OHL. More famously, Kyle Okposo and Erik Johnson departed early to sign NHL deals, with the Isles loudly expressing their concerns about Lucia's handling of their top prospect. The veteran coach earned a long leash with two national titles (2002 and 2003), but after missing out on the playoffs for the second straight season, it's clear this program is in decline. It'll be interesting to see if the team that drafts Nick Bjugstad, a likely first-rounder and Minnesota's prized recruit for next season, advises him to pursue other options. It's thought that certain teams interested in Bjugstad are leaning towards pushing him in another direction.

Schroeder, meanwhile, is headed to Manitoba of the AHL to start his pro career. He could see time in Vancouver before the season is over.

BUTLER DID IT

Bobby Butler, mentioned in last week's column about promising college UFAs, cemented his credentials this week when he was named as one of the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Award. The 21-year-old New Hampshire senior leads the nation with 27 goals in 37 games and was honored by Hockey East as its Player of the Year. Butler was one of four free agents who made the long list, along with Chase Polacek, a speedy junior forward from RPI who was third in the nation with 52 points, goalie Cody Reichard, the CCHA Player of the Year from Miami (Ohio), and the Nard Dog's favorite, goalie Ben Scrivens of Cornell.

The other nominees include a pair of Red Wings prospects: Maine forward Gustav Nyquist (121st overall, 2008) who led the nation in assists (41) and points (59), and Brendan Smith (27th overall, 2007), a Wisconsin junior who topped all defensemen in scoring (15-29-44).

Other drafted players in the running for the award: Northern Michigan forward Mark Olver (Colorado), Denver goalie Marc Cheverie (Florida), Wisconsin forward Blake Geoffrion (Nashville) and Denver forward Rhett Rakhshani (NY Islanders). The winner will be revealed April 9 at the Frozen Four in Detroit.

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