WILMINGTON - Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas have two priorities when a puck speeds into the Bruins' zone along the wall: Scurry behind the net and seal off the rim. Then get the puck to a teammate to start the breakout.
Two tasks that sound easier than they are.
"Your first instinct is to just get rid of that thing," said Fernandez, the crisper puckhandler of the two. "But here, you've got to look around, see what's available, and make the right play."
The boundaries set by the behind-the-net trapezoid (no stickhandling in the corners) have made the art of puck playing a greater challenge for netminders. But with players being forbidden to slow forecheckers who are intent on mashing defensemen in the corners, a goalie with good stick skills can be an asset to his teammates.
When Fernandez leaves his crease to chase down a dump-in, it means his defensemen, who usually have their backs to their opponents, don't have to play the puck and risk leaving themselves vulnerable.
"I don't like the guys to get hurt back there," said Fernandez. "I don't like to get the guys run over, either. Any time I see it's a close call, I usually try to get out there and get it out of the way of the first guy, then let them battle for it. At least they don't get hit. They don't have to get the puck first and they don't have to take on a major hit. I'm trying to take that hit away from that first forechecker. At least he's not running our guys over. Any time they do get that hit, I feel real bad. Hopefully, I can just help out that way."
In Minnesota, Fernandez's job was simpler. When teams rimmed the puck into the Wild zone, Fernandez was asked to play it and send it back up the ice for his forwards to chase down. Under coach Claude Julien's puck-possession system, Fernandez and Thomas are instructed to make crisp first passes to their defensemen or backtracking forwards, allowing the Bruins to keep control and initiate the breakout.
Just before he exits his crease to retrieve the puck behind the net, Fernandez relies on the following technique: Take a peek at what's in front - where his outlets are positioned, what trajectories the forecheckers are taking, how fast the puck is traveling - then get out of the crease as fast as possible to halt the rim.
It's a trick that didn't come naturally for Fernandez.
"You take a last picture," Fernandez said. "You know exactly where the guys are coming from. That's a big thing, too. That one look that you take comes with confidence. At the beginning, I didn't take that last picture. So, I got stranded. I got the puck and I didn't know where to go with it. You can't really pick your head up. If you do, you're probably [in trouble] because there's usually a guy coming from behind or a guy coming from out front. By taking a last look, you kind of have an idea of where the last forecheckers are coming from and where to aim to."
The perfect scenario: Fernandez tracks down the puck. His defensemen, free from heavy forehecking hits, serve as first-pass recipients. Fernandez gets them the puck, forwards are positioned up the ice for outlet passes, and the Bruins streak the other way with speed through the neutral zone.
"Our [defensemen] are always outlets," Julien said. "Worst comes to worst, our forwards are coming back along the boards and helping out that way. Our goaltenders have been pretty good at helping out and getting the puck. The main thing is for our goaltenders to come out and stop those rims. Both guys have done a pretty good job of it. After that, it's about us giving them outlets so they can move it as easily as possible."
All indications are that Sturm could return to the lineup tonight against Toronto.
"He's felt pretty good the last few days," said Julien. "He's willing to give it a try, but I think we'll wait to see how he feels and make that decision on game day."
Sturm will participate in today's morning skate. If things go well, the Bruins will make a determination. They could also wait until after pregame warm-ups to determine Sturm's availability. Sturm (6-6 -12 in 18 games) hasn't played since Nov. 17 against the Maple Leafs because of a neck injury.
If Sturm is available, Vladimir Sobotka would most likely be the healthy scratch.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.