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Bruins drawing on Yelle

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / February 4, 2009
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WILMINGTON - In the last three games, when Byron Bitz served as wingman to Stephane Yelle, the Bruins rookie started to understand the center's hockey sense. A video session yesterday provided confirmation.

"He makes it easier because he's so smart," Bitz said. "The way he reads off me and Shawn [Thornton] and the way he covers us when we get out of position - he's a very smart player."

Before yesterday's practice at Ristuccia Arena, Bitz watched a sequence from Sunday's 3-1 win over Montreal. He was engaged in a puck battle deep in the defensive zone. Bitz gained control, chipped the puck around the boards, and drifted back up the right wing to engage the Montreal point man. On the opposite side, Thornton was doing the same.

For the slightest of moments, all three forwards were high in the zone. Had the Canadiens shuttled the puck back down low, they could have created a three-on-two.

"You always want to have one forward that's down low helping the D out," Bitz said. "The other two forwards are up top covering the defensemen or sagging down in the slot. You never want to have three guys out high. Then they're outnumbering you down low. I started drifting a little bit, but [Yelle] read right off me, came down, and covered me."

The 34-year-old Yelle, signed Sept. 3 to a one-year, $750,000 contract, was enlisted because of his experience, penalty-killing and shot-blocking abilities, and strength on the draw. But the faceoff specialist, primarily a left wing in Calgary last season, started slowly. Yelle lost 11 of 15 draws in the season opener. It wasn't until the sixth game that he won more than he lost (2 for 2). Because of Yelle's rustiness in the circle, coach Claude Julien shifted him to left wing for a stretch early in the season.

But since becoming comfortable with Julien's system and reintroducing himself to center, Yelle has become more dependable on faceoffs. On Sunday, Yelle won 10 of 16 faceoffs over 13:42 of ice time. The day before, Yelle went 6 for 9 against the Rangers. Last Thursday, Yelle won 8 of 12 in a 4-3 overtime loss to New Jersey.

"You work on your faceoffs like we do every game day, and also in practices afterward, he's been taking draws," Julien said. "He just keeps getting better and better. Now he's giving us the kind of faceoff presence that we thought we were getting when we signed him.

"When you play the wing the whole year and barely play center, you lose that touch and timing. He's certainly found it the last couple weeks."

During the last three games, Yelle and his wingmen have found a chemistry that has allowed Julien to roll all four lines. On Sunday, the fourth line hemmed in the Canadiens, cycled effectively, and set up a scoring chance that led to Thornton's winning goal.

"He's just so smart," Thornton said. "He's always in the right spot. When I get the puck, he's exactly where he's supposed to be. Half the time, I can just throw it there. I know he's going to get it. He doesn't make too many mistakes, that's for sure."

Against the Rangers, Julien sent out Yelle for a defensive-zone faceoff in the final minute against Chris Drury. Yelle won the draw, then later in the shift, he carried the puck up the right wall and cleared the zone. The Rangers never got another chance to tie.

"The last little while, it's been good," Yelle said of his game. "That's been my role for most of my career - to be on the ice for later parts of the game or for faceoffs. I'm just happy it works out when it does. The coaches have confidence in you, and that's always good."

Tonight the Bruins play the first of two consecutive road games (Philadelphia, then Ottawa tomorrow). In such instances, Julien prefers to spread out the minutes and play four-line hockey. Last Saturday, Yelle was on the ice for 14 minutes.

Against the Flyers, Yelle should be in for a similar workload. But Julien has shown no hesitation about using his fourth line in tight games.

"At this stage of the season, a lot of times you've got to grind certain parts of the game out," Julien said. "They're extremely good at that. You have your skilled players that use their skill and finesse to score goals. At the same time, you have to wear other teams down. They do that very well.

"In the offensive end, they're very good at creating pressure, bottling them up in there, and finishing their checks. All three are physical players. When you do that, you create some chances as well. On those playoff-type teams, these are some of the ways you can score goals. They proved that in Montreal, all three of them, in creating that chance that Thorny got."

Matt Hunwick (flu-like symptoms) didn't travel to Philadelphia yesterday. Julien said there's a possibility Hunwick could join the team in Ottawa tomorrow, but the Bruins are concerned about his condition and whether he might spread his illness around the team . . . Julien said he will chat with Manny Fernandez to gauge how the goalie's back is feeling and when he might be ready to play.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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