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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Anything Goes On A Friday Night In Columbus

Being such a hopeless creature of habit, I will admit that I was completely thrown off by having the Bruins play on a Friday-something which happens about as often as Kim Kardashian covering up his gigantic ass. For two periods tonight at Nationwide Arena, Boston (13-8-0) was terrible as they fell behind host Columbus (6-11-2) 2-0.

Thankfully, the B's had just enough resiliency to rally in a bonkers third period and then eventually win 4-3 in a shootout. Nobody scored through six rounds so rookie Anton Khokhlachev ended it in the seventh with the lone goal in only his second career NHL game. It had all the makings of a trap game with Montreal and Pittsburgh waiting on the horizon not to mention Thanksgiving break.

Beginning tonight, Boston has three games in four days so head coach Claude Julien elected to sit Tuukka Rask in favor of rookie Niklas Svedberg (25 saves). The move was a no-brainer, even when Svedberg gave up a pair of soft goals in the first period. Ryan Johansen blocked Kevan Miller's shot in his own zone then skated on a partial breakaway before letting loose a shot that Svedberg got plenty of but couldn't keep from crossing the line at 9:52. Johansen's seventh goal of the season was unassisted.

Just 1:38 after Johansen's goal, the Blue Jackets went up 2-0 on Nick Foligno's deflection which actually went off his body. Jordan Leopold took the shot and Johansen had the second assist on Foligno's team-leading 10th goal of the season. Earlier in the frame, Patrice Bergeron's shot was swept off the goal line by a Columbus defenseman.

Svedberg's gaffes had nothing on Sergei Bobrovsky (38 saves) who breathed life into Boston by allowing one of the worst goals you'll ever see in the NHL. To the left of the faceoff dot, Dennis Seidenberg decided to put the puck on the net at 1:28 of the third period and somehow it went in despite not bouncing or doing anything wacky. Matt Bartkowski (who went to nearby Ohio State) and Chris Kelly received the joke assists.

That turned out to be the spark that the B's needed as they tied it at 9:33 on Matt Fraser's re-direct of Bartkowski's slap-pass. Fraser's third goal of the season (1st in 8 games) was also assisted by Bergeron who played it back to Bartkowski at the point. Before you could say full meltdown, the B's were up for the first time (3-2) 1:59 after Fraser's tally. Daniel Paille picked the perfect time to break his slump (1st goal in 37 games!) as he took advantage of the turnover created by Carl Soderberg.

Boston enjoyed that lead for a grand total of 1:15 since Jack Johnson (please read his tragic bankruptcy story) one-timed a pass from Johansen and Foligno. The Bruins quickly bounced back from that devastating goal as they outshot the Blue Jackets 7-1 in overtime. Bobrovsky made up for his poor play by owning overtime. The shootout went on for way too long with not enough goals but you can't argue with the final result.

Columbus is a train wreck so for that reason alone, Saturday (7, NESN) vs. Montreal figures to be way harder. Boston has suffered two humbling defeats (6-4 on Oct. 16 & 5-1 last Thursday) already this season in Montreal so they owe the Canadiens a beating at the Garden. It is a given that the atmosphere will be great, hopefully the game follows suit. Rask has to prove that he can beat Montreal and likewise, his teammates (looking at you Lucic) need to stay focused and not get caught up in the Canadiens' usual garbage.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

LeGarrette Blount Makes His Triumphant Return to the Patriots, Or Something

For a team that for the past decade plus has always prided itself on thinking outside the box and trying to be the smartest guys in the room, it was somewhat refreshing to see the Patriots make an obvious roster move that feels like a perfect fit. Running back LeGarrette Blount wasn't happy in Pittsburgh, so much so that he left the field early in their Monday Night Football win in Tennessee this week. Understandably, he was released by the Steelers and this morning the Patriots signed him to a two-year deal worth the veteran minimum plus incentives.

Jonas Gray has taken over the world this week after his unforgettable performance on Sunday in Indy. He's New England's starting running back for the moment but what if he struggles or god forbid gets hurt? Enter Blount who rushed for 772 yards and seven touchdowns last season with the Pats on 153 carries. He turned it up at the end of his only season with New England by rushing for 189 yards in the regular season finale vs. the Bills and then 166 yards and four touchdowns against the Colts in the playoff opener.

As always, the Patriots made this transaction with the future in mind. Stevan Ridley (out with a torn ACL), Shane Vereen and Brandon Bolden are all free agents next summer. That means that Gray and rookie James White were the only running backs under contract beyond this season before Blount re-entered the fold. To make room on the 53-man roster, defensive tackle Casey Walker was released although he could return via the practice squad (he still has eligibility for that).

Pittsburgh had signed Blount to a two-year deal last summer but predictably, neither he nor the team was content with his lack of production (65 carries, 266 yards, 2 TDs) and overall shitty attitude. However, he was behind his smoking buddy Le'Veon Bell who has become one of the best running backs in the NFL. In his last two games in Black and Gold, Blount's number was only called five times so you can see why he was upset (granted he dealt with it in his typical bozo way). If anything, that's good news for the Pats in the sense that he should be fresh and at 27 in his fifth NFL season, he figures to have a few more productive seasons left.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

No Matter How Bad Things Get For the Celtics, They'll Never Be the 76ers, So There's That

Ladies and gentlemen, the Philadelphia 76ers! The Celtics had the honor of meeting the NBA's current version of the Washington Generals tonight at the Wells Fargo Center and after a sketchy first quarter (where they trailed 27-22), Boston (4-6 overall, 2-2 away) rallied for a 101-90 win over Philadelphia (0-11 overall, 0-5 home).

The Sixers are a complete nightmare, they appear well on their way to another 26-game losing streak like last season, haha why not 0-82 this time? Now that is something to shoot for, they finished 19-63 in 2013-14. And we thought being a Celtics fan these days is rough (it usually is) but how about Sixers fans? Seeing that sorry team, you understand why nobody in such a great sports town goes to see them anymore or remotely pays attention to their constant losing ways.

I feel bad for Massachusetts natives Michael Carter-Williams (11 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists) and Nerlens Noel (10 points, 8 rebounds, 2 steals) who are in their second and first seasons (Noel missed all last season recovering from a major knee injury) respectively with this D-League squad. It's silly to think that all this losing and constant talk of tanking won't have some negative side-effects on such impressionable young guys. They are both immensely talented and it would be a real shame to see it go to waste for much longer (MCW was the Rookie of the Year last season).

After going 0-3 on a painful homestand, the Celts just needed a victory especially considering the minefield they face in their next four games: at Memphis, vs. Portland, vs. Chicago and vs. San Antonio. With no real size inside for the home team, the Celtics' big guys were able to take advantage. Brandon Bass had a game-high 23 points and six rebounds off the bench while Jared Sullinger added 22 points and nine rebounds. Marcus Thornton put together his best game as a Celtic with 13 points and four steals off the bench and Jeff Green scored 11 points. Rajon Rondo had nine points, 13 assists, five rebounds and two steals.

If you play Fantasy Basketball, Sixers reserve guard Tony Wroten (21 points, 7 assists) is definitely an under-the-radar player that you want to own. Other than MCW, Noel and him, it's a team of journeymen nobodies like Henry Sims (14 points) and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute (11 points, 6 rebounds, 3 steals).

In the first half, I briefly entertained thoughts of Boston losing this game and it nearly drove me to tears (not really but you get the point). The C's woke up in the second quarter (24-19) to enter halftime tied at 46. Boston's defense held Philadelphia to 22 points apiece in the final two quarters while they put up 27 and 28.

Keeping Philly to just 90 points represented Boston's best defensive outing of the young season. The Celtics shot 9.9% better from the field (49.4-39.5), dished out 10 more assists (season-high 32-22), scored six more fast break points (24-18) and eight more points in the paint (54-46).

In a hilarious scheduling quirk, the Celts' mini two-game road trip takes them from facing the worst team in the league to the best. The Grizzlies lost 96-92 tonight in Toronto but they still have the best record in the NBA at 10-2. If you decide to watch Friday's (8, CSN) game from the FedEx Forum, make sure that you have plenty of alcohol to get you through what could be a very ugly contest (if you support the Celtics).

The Best Week of Jonas Gray's Life Continues

Can you imagine being Jonas Gray? After not being drafted and bouncing around three different NFL practice squads, he finally get his opportunity and did he ever make the most of it on Sunday Night Football as the Patriots (8-2) embarrassed the Colts (6-4) 42-20. Gray's 37 carries, 201 yards (after the stat correction) and four touchdowns (setting a franchise regular season record) resulted in him being on the cover of this week's Sports Illustrated and it also earned him the AFC Offensive Player of the Week award.

What can we expect from Gray in the last six regular season games and playoffs, starting with Sunday's meeting (1, Fox) vs. Lions (7-3) at Gillette Stadium? It's a cop out but who could reasonably answer that? Obviously, he won't be putting up 200-yard games every week but as long as he continues to churn out positive gains and hangs onto the ball, that's all the Pats need. With no Stevan Ridley for the rest of this campaign, Gray is the only other running back on New England's current roster that can consistently run inside between the tackles.

Ironically, the former Patriot that he most closely resembles in terms of size and running style-LeGarrette Blount-was released yesterday by the Steelers. It makes you wonder if the Pats would bring him back, remember he was on the cover of SI last winter as well after running for four touchdowns vs. Indy in the AFC Divisional game. I'm not a huge Blount fan, he is unquestionably a bozo but if Gray got hurt or struggled, Blount would be a suitable replacement plus he already knows the vaunted system.

This is all just talk radio/Twitter/interwebs fodder, for now we should enjoy this moment because who knows how much longer it will last for our guy Gray who once tried to be a stand-up comedian and even opened up for Dustin Diamond aka Screech from Saved By the Bell. Haha don't believe me? Look it up.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Rask Gets His 1st Shutout of the Season as Bruins Blank Blues 2-0

With one of the best teams in the NHL visiting TD Garden to kick off a huge week, the Bruins picked a good time to play their preferred style of hockey. Boston (12-8-0) shut out St. Louis (12-5-1) 2-0 behind 33 saves by Tuukka Rask for his first shutout of the season (and 24th of his career). Every game seems to bring a different lineup and this was no different as Brad Marchand was scratched but David Krejci returned to action. Through it all, the B's have won six straight games at home.

St. Louis outshot Boston 33-17 which is a little more disparity than the Bruins would prefer but their penalty kill did go 2 for 2. Patrice Bergeron was the recipient of a gift in the first period as Ian Cole's clearing attempt went right to him. Even worse (for the Blues), Brian Elliott (15 saves) was out of position-behind the net-so all Bergy had to do was slot it in the empty cage for his fifth goal of the season. That gives him four goals and five assists in his past eight games.

Boston's other goal had some Cole on it as well since Torey Krug's shot from the point deflected off Cole's knee by Elliott. Matt Bartkowski and Loui Eriksson assisted on Krug's third goal of the season (first since Oct. 21; he missed 4 games). Zach Trotman was sent back to Providence earlier in the day and Adam McQuaid left in the second period after taking a shot off his hand so Bartkowski's role suddenly got that much more important. Since he returned on Saturday vs. Carolina (after 7 DNDs in a row), Bartkowski has looked like a different, more confident guy. Tonight, he was +2 with one hit and one takeaway in 20:52. He'll never be an All-Star or on a top defensive pairing (at least not here) but the B's needed him to be better and he's starting to turn the corner.

The Blues outshot the Bruins 15-3 in the third period but many of those chances were from the outside. Both teams took their timeouts late in the frame and despite a huge advantage in offensive zone time all game, St. Louis could never find the back of the net even when they took Elliott out with a couple minutes left.

Boston travels to Columbus (6-11-1) for the rare Friday night (7, NESN) NHL game. The Blue Jackets are a disaster: in last place in the Metropolitan Division and only one point ahead of the Sabres after getting smoked 5-0 tonight vs. Detroit. The next night (7, NESN), the B's host the Canadiens (14-5-1) and then on Monday (7, NESN) the Penguins (13-3-1) come to the Garden. The Bruins passed their first test and Friday is a good chance to tune up their road record (4-4-0) while giving Niklas Svedberg a start. It's all about Montreal and Pittsburgh, two great litmus tests for Boston before Thanksgiving.

UPDATE 11/19: McQuaid is out for 6-8 weeks after breaking his thumb last night. Poor guy, like last year when he was hurt, the B's have Kevan Miller who is a suitable McQuaid replacement.

Monday, November 17, 2014

What a Turnaround: Pats are the Best Team in the AFC & Maybe the NFL After Pounding Colts 42-20 on Sunday Night Football

Jonas Gray. Who knows where he'll be in a few years but for one night at least, he was the talk of the NFL after an insane performance on Sunday Night Football. In only his fourth career game, he had 38 carries for 199 yards and four touchdowns (setting a new team record) as New England (8-2 overall, 3-2 road) absolutely destroyed Indianapolis (6-4 overall, 3-2 home) 42-20 at Lucas Oil Stadium. The Patriots' sixth win in a row put them firmly in control of the AFC (and two games ahead of the Dolphins in the AFC East) after the Broncos surprisingly fell in St. Louis 22-7 earlier today.

There are many ways to view this victory but for my (lack of) money, the real story for New England is that they can now win on the road against a good (but not great) team even when Tom Brady (19 of 30 for 257 yards, 2 TDs, 2 INTs) is average at best. The Patriots' defense won't put up incredible numbers but the bottom line is that they are getting the job done. Andrew Luck (23 of 39 for 303 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT) does everything for the Colts so when he's off, like he was tonight, they are going nowhere fast. Did I mention that Indy's defense is an utter disaster?

The first half was misleading in the sense that the Patriots dominated but yet they were only up by four points (14-10). On their opening drive (11 plays, 89 yards, 4:14), Gray finished it with a 4-yard touchdown run. Indianapolis put together a good drive but they got stopped in the red zone and had to settle for a 31-yard field goal by the incomparable Adam Vinatieri.

Both of Brady's ugly interceptions came in the first half but the Patriots still managed to go up 14-3 late in the second quarter on Gray's 2-yard touchdown run. The second pick (both by Mike Adams) happened when Brady apparently audibled on a 3rd and 1 play and was forced to throw the ball up for grabs Eli Manning-style. The Colts took advantage to cash in a 10-yard touchdown catch by Hakeem Nicks (remember him?) to cut it to 14-10.

New England had 501 total yards and 33 first downs so when they received the opening kickoff of the second half, they went right back to work. That goal-line machine Tim Wright caught a 2-yard touchdown from Brady after another long drive (8 plays, 80 yards, 3:50). Vinatieri rescued Indy on the next stalled drive with a 53-yard kick (that would have been good from 63) but Gray's 2-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter put the Pats up two touchdowns (28-13).

The Colts cut it to 28-20 on a clever 1-yard touchdown pass to former BC offensive lineman Anthony Costanzo. Gray answered with his last score, a 1-yard touchdown, then Rob Gronkowski (4 catches, 71 yards) took time away from his unstoppable run blocking to catch a 26-yard touchdown where he basically broke Indy's will. Seriously, what an incredible catch and run complete with the dive into the end zone through two guys. If you didn't know before, now it's official: the real Gronk is back and more dangerous than ever.

It didn't help Indianapolis when Dwayne Allen or Ahmad Bradshaw went down with injuries and never returned. Only Coby Fleener (7 catches, 144 yards) really showed up for them. Reggie Wayne (5 catches, 91 yards) got most of his yardage on a one busted coverage that resulted in a 46-yard catch while T.Y. Hilton (3 catches, 24 yards) was completely shut down by a combination of Kyle Arrington and Darrelle Revis. Speaking of Revis, he helped Devin McCourty secure an interception by tipping the ball up the air. Jamie Collins (8 tackles, 5 solo, 2 tackles for loss) and Rob Ninkovich (5 tackles, 4 solo, 1 sack) were also stellar as they helped hold the Colts to 19 rushing yards on 17 carries, haha how is that possible?

New England returns to Gillette Stadium next Sunday (1, Fox) as they host the Lions (7-3, 1st in NFC North) who lost 14-6 this afternoon at Arizona. The Patriots are 6-0 at home this season and the way things are rolling, it's hard to see Detroit winning that game because they typically are mediocre outside of Ford Field.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

There's No Place Like Home for the Bruins, Especially When It Comes to Garbage Opponents

Right after two horrific losses (6-1 at Toronto and 5-1 at Montreal), that were so bad that I didn't feel like writing about them, the Bruins returned to TD Garden aka their comfort zone. Boston (11-8-0) did what they had to do to beat Carolina (5-8-3) 2-1 this afternoon. Like most of their victories this season, it wasn't an artistic masterpiece by any means but for a team that played so poorly on back-to-back nights, at least this was much more indicative of who they are (or rather who they should be).

The Hurricanes scored first, something which has happened to Boston in five of their last six contests, as Jiri Tlusty tipped in Justin Faulk's shot from the point at 7:05 of the first period and Eric Staal had the second assist. Tuukka Rask (33 saves) earned the first star of the game but there was nothing he could do about that high shot that went even higher off the deflection for Tlusty's team-leading seventh goal of the season.

Fortune was smiling on Boston during their fifth-straight win at the Garden as Seth Griffith tied it at 14:24 on one of the flukiest goals I have ever seen. It started with Andrej Sekera fumbling the puck backwards on some sort of ill-fated pass, that ended up going off Griffith then back off Sekera again and past Cam Ward (23 saves). You'll probably never see a goal like that in the NHL, at least not for many years. Griffith's fifth goal of the season (tying him with Carl Soderberg and Brad Marchand for the team lead) was unassisted but we all know that Sekera deserved something special for that monumental fail.

The Bruins got the game-winner on their own accord. A strong forecheck led to Brad Marchand stealing the puck and feeding Patrice Bergeron for one of his patented quick shots after a turnover. Dennis Seidenberg had the second assist on Bergeron's fourth goal of the season and Reilly Smith did his part by screening Ward.

All that stuff happened in the first period with basically nothing to write home about or remember about the second or third periods. Yay afternoon games! Boston outshot Carolina 14-3 in the second and the Hurricanes returned the favor by outshooting the B's 15-4 in the third but it didn't matter. The key sequence of the game also took place in the first when Boston killed a 5-on-3 for 1:43 just 12 seconds after Tlusty's goal. If Carolina had added another goal or two then, who knows what would have happened?

Finally, the Bruins play another quality team at the Garden on Tuesday (7, NESN)-those have been so few and far between. St. Louis (11-4-1) currently leads the very difficult Central division in the Western Conference and they are 9-1-0 in their last 10 games entering tonight's game vs. Washington.

David Krejci and Zach Trotman were the scratches today, meaning that Matt Bartkowski played for the first time in eight games. He finished +1 with four shots, two hits and a blocked shot which for him is a highlight reel game. Milan Lucic also looked like himself with a game-high six hits, he was way more active than he's been in weeks.