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On hockey

Ward's goal a slapstick moment

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / March 13, 2009
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There is still something missing from the Bruins' game, a certain je ne sais quoi, but overall they were a better version of themselves in last night's 5-3 win over the all-but-dead-and-gone-for-the-season Senators at the Garden.

"We seemed to let up," noted goalie Tim Thomas, who backed the win with 25 stops, improving to 29-10-6, leaving him one victory shy of equaling his career high. "We have to get that killer instinct."

"We were tired of losing," added P.J. Axelsson, the Bruins winning for only the fifth time in their last 16 outings. "So, that's good. But I still think we have to be better playing with a lead."

Unlike most nights over the last five weeks, the Bruins poured on the offense early, rolling up a 3-0 lead in less than 11 minutes in the first period. A lead of that magnitude, in their building, against a club with a roster packed with country club tee times and first-class tickets to Maui, should have led to an easy victory for the Eastern Conference leaders.

Instead, it turned into yet another frightening third period for the Bruins, with the Senators taking advantage of a very passive (read: sleepy) Boston attack that had the 2007 Cup finalists only a goal down (4-3) with 10:55 remaining. It wasn't until Phil Kessel potted his empty-netter with 56 seconds left, his second strike of the night, that Claude Julien's charges were able to take a collective sigh and begin to think that some of their "A" game is back within their grasp.

"We want to come to the rink every day with smiles on our faces," said Marc Savard, who picked up an assist on Kessel's first goal, a break-in that jacked the lead up to 4-1 at 4:31 of the third. "It's been a little dull around here."

And gloomy. The club that could do almost no wrong in November, December, and January has been adrift since the start of February. The Bruins' scoring has been challenged, and their net presence spotty, although Julien contends their lack of touch around the net has been a bigger issue than their positioning and grit around the crease. Overall, they have not generated momentum and energy from their back end the way they did earlier, and they certainly haven't had the touch or jam around the net that once had them running off with the conference title.

In one big swoop last night, with the score still 0-0, Boston's fortunes began to change when Aaron Ward: 1) raced down the right side with his first career breakaway and 2) scored his first career shorthanded goal. In Ward's 750th NHL game, he had everyone else at his back, and only ex-Boston teammate Alex Auld to beat.

Ward had just jumped onto the ice, his hooking penalty just expired, and he raced in with a Patrice Bergeron feed, ripping a short-range slapper by Auld.

"I don't have enough skill to see anything develop," said the self-effacing Ward, who figured his last breakaway came in 1990-91, when he was a Michigan freshman and the opposition was Bowling Green. "In my position [as a defenseman], to be there [ahead of the play], then I'm in a lot of trouble."

Despite his Falstaffian review, Ward served as an example of what some of the Bruins forwards should try to emulate. Handed a golden opportunity, he made the most of it, first and foremost by getting his shot on net. Sure, sounds easy. But as a group, Boston forwards in recent weeks have been woefully short on finish, in part because they, too, often have fired off net. Kessel, one of the league's fastest skaters, has been one of the main culprits. Perhaps his pair (Nos. 28 and 29) will get him back on track.

"I feel like I've had a lot of chances," said Kessel, "but I haven't finished."

The 36-year-old Ward, with only 41 prior shots on net this season, doesn't have Kessel's speed and he certainly doesn't have Kessel's loaded kit of dipsies and doodles. But he had the sense to be handed a clear passage right down Broadway, apply sufficient amount of giddyup, and then make sure his shot counted. Right now, that counts for a lot.

"I just wanted to get off the ice and hide," kidded Ward. "I was hoping Bergy would miss me with the puck."

The 1-0 lead in the net, an animated team captain Zdeno Chara came charging over to congratulate Ward, the town's retro pocket rocket. Big Z could be seen mouthing a biggy-sized "Wow!" as he closed in on his sometimes defensive partner to share the love.

"He was laughing," said Ward, "because I didn't shoot it over the net. He found it as comical as I did. It's kind of like an offensive lineman scoring a touchdown in football. And it actually looked like I knew what I was doing."

The Bruins need more of that. In fact, they need a lot of it.

It could be another 15 years before Ward sees another breakaway like that, and by then, he'll surely be watching it on a big screen in his man cave. If the Bruins are truly going to break out of their late-winter doldrums, and it has to be soon (only 13 games left prior to the postseason), they need to get in touch with some of Ward's sense of humor, and then get in touch with his sense of making the most of his (few) chances.

"One of my gripes as a non-shooter when we get to shootouts," mused Ward, "is that you've got to get the puck on the net. I say all the time, all the moves don't mean anything if you don't get it on net. So, I guess I heeded my own advice there a little."

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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