The Bruins appear to be snapping out of the funk they were mired in for much of the second half of the season. And they may just have things going in the right direction at just the right time with the postseason just around the corner.
Boston headed into a clash with Washington on Thursday having won five of its last six games, solidifying their hold on the top spot in the Northeast Division as the season heads into its closing days. Still, even with the improved play of late, there are plenty of questions to answer before heading into the playoffs, and I've tried to address as many as possible in the latest edition of the Bruins Mailbag.
As always, I'd like to thank all the readers who sent in questions and apologize in advance if I wasn't able to get to yours. Please keep submitting your questions and I'll answer as many of them as I can as we head down the home stretch of the season.
With the return of Rich Peverley, are the Bruins finally balanced enough to make a Cup run? — Joe Guaragna via Facebook
The Bruins are certainly a more balanced team with Peverley back in the lineup. He gives them a well-round top six even without Nathan Horton, teaming either with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand or David Krejci and Milan Lucic, with Tyler Seguin free to slide into the right wing spot on the other of those two lines, gives the Bruins a solid top two units. With the third line of Benoit Pouliot, Chris Kelly and Brian Rolston red-hot of late (a combined 10-18-28 in 7 games heading into Thursday) and a fourth line always capable of producing some offense as well as energy, especially with Jordan Caron (4-5-9 in his last 13 games) now skating with that unit, the Bruins can once again attack in waves as they did so successfully in last year's Cup run. Having Horton would make them even more dangerous, but even without last year's playoff hero, the Bruins definitely have a balanced attack to make some noise in the playoffs again.
They also have a deep and balanced blue-line corps with Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg back together, solid secondary pairs with Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk and Greg Zanon and Adam McQuaid, plus veteran depth in Mike Mottau and Joe Corvo. But as is always the case in the playoffs, the Bruins' chances for another Cup run will come down largely on the performance of the man between the pipes. If Tim Thomas can come close to matching his work from last spring, the Bruins could be celebrating once again. But he set quite a standard to match, so replicating that won't be easy.
If Tuukka Rask can't play during the playoffs, what will the Bruins do for a backup to Tim Thomas? –Mike Robischeau via Facebook
Rask remains hopeful of being ready to return by the start of the playoffs, and the original 4-6 week prognosis for his recovery would put his return date right in that range. If he's not, then Anton Khudobin would serve as Thomas' backup. Marty Turco is not eligible to play in the postseason because he was signed after the trade deadline. Khudobin would have been the choice to back up Thomas when Rask was hurt, but he was injured himself at the time, necessitating the Turco signing. But Khudobin has returned to action in Providence and has been playing well. He was re-signed last summer for exactly this situation, being on hand to fill in if either Thomas or Rask was sidelined, so the Bruins should have confidence to call upon him now. Of course, regardless of who is serving as Thomas' backup, they are unlikely to see any playoff action. Thomas played every minute of last year's Cup run and will be depended upon again this spring.
When are they going to start resting Tim Thomas for the playoffs? They're five points up on Ottawa with a game in hand. If they win Thursday, they're seven points up on the Sens with five games to go. — Geremy Martin via Facebook
Thomas was expected to start Thursday night against Washington, his 17th appearance in the last 18 games. A win as you mentioned would put the Bruins on pretty secure footing for the division title and second seed in the East. I would expect Thomas to get at least a couple of those final five games off unless the Bruins lose a couple in a row and their seeding is put in jeopardy again. Claude Julien has already been giving Thomas some days off from practice, so even though he's racking up a lot of games, he is getting some rest. Still, Marty Turco will likely get one or two more starts, or the Bruins could bring up Anton Khudobin to give him a taste of NHL action to be better prepared if he needs to serve as Thomas' backup in the playoffs.
Doug, you wrote: "Fighting remains an integral part of the NHL game, providing an outlet for frustrations less dangerous than the stick-swinging alternatives, a way to hold players accountable for questionable actions on the ice and an effective means of changing momentum. And yes, it is also an important component of the overall entertainment package for many fans."
How can similarly physical/violent sports (football, rugby) survive without fighting as an outlet for the frustrations of their players, many of whom are hit on every single play? Aren’t the officials supposed to hold players accountable by enforcing the rules? Finally, I love hockey and am old enough to have seen the Flyers win their two Cups, but find the Olympic game superior to the NHL because the larger ice makes room for skilled players and punishment comes in the form of legal hits (Alex Ovechkin on Jaromir Jagr) rather than fighting. Hockey needs more [Sidney] Crosbys, Ovechkins, [Claude] Girouxs, not more fights. — Pat Donohoe, Schnecksville, PA
Comparisons to other sports are among the weakest arguments regularly raised against fighting in hockey. Why don't you ask why hockey doesn't allowing tackling like football and rugby? Or maybe you should be wondering why football and rugby aren't played on skates. Those are just as relevant questions. Every sport is played under different conditions with different rules in place. Attempting to apply the same standards to very different games is simply not practical or worthwhile. The fact that hockey is played in a confined space with no out of bounds and features each participant wielding a lethal weapon has led to fighting being an accepted part of the professional game.
As for using officials to hold players accountable, in an ideal world that may work, but conditions in the NHL are far from ideal. Even with two referees, plenty of action behind the play is missed. That's without even factoring in the issues with inconsistency that have plagued NHL officiating. And frankly, even when penalties are called, a two-minute minor or even a five-minute major aren't much of a deterrent for most players, nor apparently is supplemental discipline with the rising number of suspensions doing little to stop the steady stream of questionable hits. The threat of having to answer for your actions has been neutered to a large degree by the instigator rule and fighting certainly isn't a cure-all that prevents all cheap shots, but it does keep some of the dirty play in check, often more effectively than the punishments outlined in the rulebook. Hoping officials hold players accountable rather than the potential to being forced to answer for their actions in a fight also doesn’t address the other reasons why fights take place, such as changing momentum in a game.
The Olympic argument is another classic staple of the anti-fighting lobby, but again has little relevance to the NHL game. In many ways the Olympic game is better, as you would expect from a tournament lasting just a couple weeks and featuring the best players in the world in a limited field of 12 teams with national pride at stake. If you want to drop 18 teams from the NHL and reduce the schedule to a handful of games followed by single-elimination playoffs, then you can get that same level of play in the NHL, fighting or no fighting.
Also, the larger ice argument betrays your flawed logic. First, the last Olympics weren't even played on the larger ice, as the Vancouver Games in 2010 were held at the Canucks home arena with NHL rink dimensions, yet somehow the players involved managed to showcase their skill in a memorable exhibition. Second, the larger ice does not equate to a more open game or more entertaining product, as teams in European leagues with the bigger surface often employ trapping defenses and play even more conservative systems than in the NHL. You may also want to reconsider the "legal hits" you so admire instead of fighting. Ovechkin's hit on Jagr in 2010 was a check to the head that would be penalized and likely draw a suspension in the NHL today. It should have been penalized under international rules when it happened as well, but I guess refs can't always hold everyone accountable after all.
I don't think you'd find many hockey fans who wouldn't want to see more Crosbys, Ovechkins and Girouxs in the game, but it's not fighting that's keeping them away. It's the fact that they are rare talents and there simply aren't many players of that caliber. And since you want to abolish fighting, you probably should not hold that trio up as your gold standard anyway. After all, Crosby has had five fights in the NHL, Giroux three and Ovechkin two (plus another in the preseason), not to mention three suspensions to Ovechkin for other offenses. None of those guys have a problem with fighting. In fact, 99.5 percent of NHL players polled recently by Sports Illustrated voted in favor of keeping fighting in the game. Maybe it's time to finally listen to people who are actually involved in the game when it comes to this issue.
What's the Bruins' record with Joe Corvo in and out of uniform? — Rob Mason, Everett
Corvo played in every game for the first 70 games of the season, with the Bruins 40-27-3 through that point. That had lost four straight and were 3-7-0 in their last 10 games before Claude Julien shook up the defense and made Corvo a healthy scratch. The Bruins then proceeded to win five of the six games they played without Corvo. I don't believe Corvo's removal was necessarily the catalyst for that turnaround. I think it had much more to do with the team returning to its more structured game, a better overall commitment to a 60-minute effort and the reunion of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg on the top defensive pairing to stabilize the defense overall. Corvo will return to the lineup Thursday against Washington with Seidenberg sidelined with an infection in his leg, so Corvo will have a chance to prove he wasn’t the anchor dragging the Bruins down.
Will Horty [Nathan Horton] be back for the playoffs or is he gone for the rest of the regular and postseason? — Zach Sherburne via Twitter (@TeenagePotato)
There has been no official word from the team on Horton at this point. Obviously, with only five games remaining in the regular season after Thursday, time is quickly running out on any potential comeback this year. Horton has not resumed skating and if he does get back on the ice, it will take some time for him to get back into game shape with the amount of time he's missed since suffering this latest concussion on Jan. 22. Attempting a comeback in the midst of the playoffs with the intensity of postseason action is a lot to ask, so it would appear that a return this year is unlikely. But again, there has been no official decision made to this point and Horton remains with the team continuing his recovery.
Are Bruins going to peak at the right time? — Diana Yeatts via Facebook
It appears that way. Thursday's game against a desperate Washington club trying to claw back into a playoff spot will be a good measuring stick, but the Bruins do seem to have snapped out of their second-half slide and have turned things around the last couple of weeks. They've won five of six, including three straight. Two of those wins came on the road in Los Angeles and Anaheim, an even more encouraging sign considering the Bruins had won just five of their previous 15 games on the road, losing four straight before beating the Kings on Saturday.
As mentioned above, with Rich Peverley back and Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg reunited on the blue line, the Bruins have better balance and depth throughout the lineup. Tim Thomas has snapped out of his funk with some strong play of late, and the team does appear to have a chance to carry plenty of momentum into the postseason, which is obviously when they need to be playing their best.
Have questions for Douglas Flynn’s mailbag? Leave them in the comments section below, send them to him via Twitter @douglasflynn or send them here. He will pick a few questions to answer every week. Be sure to check back to see if your question was answered.