WILMINGTON - For the last two games, both losses, Petteri Nokelainen watched his teammates from the TD Banknorth Garden press box.
Naturally, Nokelainen would prefer the ice-level view.
"Any time you get scratched, it means you're not playing good," said Nokelainen. "I don't know too much about why it's that way. But obviously, I have to play better."
For most of his 39-game Boston stretch - he was recalled from Providence Nov. 4 and had dressed in every match until last Saturday's loss to Detroit - Nokelainen, the Islanders' No. 1 draft pick in 2004, has been a steady soldier. Playing center and right wing on the third and fourth lines, he displayed the energy, skating, and hitting required of a bottom-six forward fighting for ice time.
But with P.J. Axelsson returning from a broken right foot, the Bruins have had 13 forwards available for the last two games, leaving Nokelainen without a spot.
"When you have a healthy team, somebody has to sit out," said coach Claude Julien. "Certain players play certain roles on our team that you need in the lineup. For him, I don't think his game is one that you need to criticize. There are a few areas we've talked to him about where he needs to get better. He's just got to work at it in practice. We're seeing a guy who's enthused about wanting to get better. That's a good sign."
Nokelainen has five goals and one assist, averaging 8:04 of ice time. He has won 53.5 percent of his faceoffs and has been credited with 37 hits, fourth among Boston forwards. The last time Nokelainen was on the ice for an opposing even-strength goal was Jan. 22 in Boston's 8-2 stinker against Montreal.
Nokelainen acknowledged that in his last appearance (Boston's 4-1 win over Ottawa last Thursday), he didn't have the best legs. After the game, the coaching staff told him he needed to play tighter against puck carriers in the defensive zone.
For the last two practices, Nokelainen has skated in a top-six role. Yesterday, with Chuck Kobasew out with a cold, Nokelainen practiced on the second line with Milan Lucic and Glen Metropolit. On Monday, when Marc Savard was suffering from flu-like symptoms, Nokelainen served as the No. 1 center between Marco Sturm and Phil Kessel.
It remains to be seen, however, whether Nokelainen will be back in uniform for game action. Glen Murray is closing in on a return, which would leave Julien with two spare forwards - one too many.
"Coach wants that," Nokelainen said. "It's good for the team when there's competition inside the team, too. There are no spots for free. At the same time, you want to earn your own spot. I just have to get better."
Stopping the rushSeveral times in the Bruins' 4-2 loss Tuesday, the Sabres kicked off three-on-two rushes with one of their signature formations. Buffalo sent its wingers wide with speed to stretch out the Boston defensemen, then shot a third forward up the gut for connecting passes from the wingmen through the seams created by the defenders.
"That's part of their system," said Sturm. "Especially in the neutral zone, pretty much all three guys were on our blue line really high. That's what they did to us. Just throw it to the middle from the outside."
It's a play the Bruins are sure to see in tomorrow's rematch at
"They definitely get a middle drive," said Julien, who saw the Sabres execute the play perfectly when forward Daniel Paille charged to the net and tipped a pass into the cage in the first period.
"They like to push your D back and create some space. If your D cheats a little bit, they're going to find that seam and hit that guy like you saw on that first goal."
Battle royalMost of yesterday's practice at Ristuccia Arena emphasized one-on-one battles down low in the danger areas - real estate owned by Buffalo Tuesday. During one drill, Julien and assistant Doug Houda fed pucks out front to an attacker crashing the net while being checked by a defender. In another drill, the Bruins played one-on-one down low, then the same two sprinted to the other net when a whistle blew. By the end of each full-length drill, both skaters were huffing for air. "One thing we have to do better is pay the price," said Julien. "We've done it and had success. There are times where we don't seem to want to do it and it ends up being a perimeter game in our eyes. If we want to be a harder team to play against, those kinds of things have to happen." . . . Peter Schaefer didn't practice because of a cut on his shin, opened when he blocked a shot Tuesday. Julien said Schaefer required five stitches . . . Murray skated on the third line alongside Axelsson and David Krejci. "Game shape is different than bike shape," said Murray, who didn't report any problems with his hip flexor afterward. Murray did not know whether he will travel this afternoon to Buffalo . . . Julien said there's a good chance Alex Auld will start either tomorrow or Saturday against Florida . . . Zdeno Chara was given the day off to recover from a cold.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.