On Hockey

Timing still on his side

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 20, 2010

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For a second, maybe a fraction less, it looked as if Mark Recchi and Tim Kennedy would battle for the puck that Patrice Bergeron sent skittering down the right wing. Recchi and Kennedy were in chase, headed to the rear wall in Boston’s offensive end, the final minutes of the third period ticking down as the Bruins pressed to break a 1-1 tie.

One-on-one. Recchi vs. Kennedy. Had Kennedy taken possession, he probably would have steered it to the far corner, perhaps icing it.

But Recchi had different designs.

“I caught him proper,’’ said the Bruins right winger, who knocked Kennedy to the ice, took possession of the puck and dished to the slot to set up the Bergeron goal that lifted the Bruins to their 2-1 victory last night over the Sabres in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference first-round series. “I knocked him off the puck. He was leaning in a little there and I knocked him off the puck.’’

No league for old men, huh? No one is telling that to the 42-year-old Recchi, whose spirited play and boundless guile have helped the Bruins to a 2-1 series lead. Three games into the postseason, the sure-shot Hall of Famer has a pair of goals and last night’s winning assist, the latter a textbook example in sheer hockey know-how and chutzpah. Kennedy looked like a freshman spending his first day at Recchi University and Lesson 1 was a tough one.

“It’s just my fault there,’’ said Kennedy, who has a family name that rarely gets so leveled in this part of the country. “I’ve just got to win that battle. You can’t let that play happen.’’

Recchi has made a lifetime of plays such as that, in part why he is still in the goal-and-assist business while most NHLers his age long ago headed for their toney lakeside cottages and an endless string of charity golf tournaments and paid autograph gigs. He is 1,571 games into his career, with 1,485 points, hundreds of those piled up on plays like that winning assist with 7:03 left in the third period.

“I was trying to keep control of the puck,’’ Recchi said. “To do that, I needed to create a gap there, so I’m just sort of lucky [Kennedy] fell. But my goal there was to create a gap, get some space, and go from there.’’

The oncoming Bergeron, racing into the slot from the blue line, skated into his right winger’s perfect dish and fired home a one-timer for the winner.

“Unbelievable,’’ said an admiring Bergeron. “Coming from him, it doesn’t surprise me, to be honest. He’s been doing that all year. He did it last year. He has been doing it his whole career. I knew he would be going down the middle, and what we wanted to do there was get a good forecheck going, and Rex is so good with the puck, he wants to win every battle. As soon as he won it, I just wanted to stay open.’’

It’s the playoffs, the stakes higher and the play grittier. Opportunities typically are few, and often fleeting. Teams with Stanley Cup aspirations have to make the most of what comes their way, grab the cash when the till is left open. Recchi spotted that as he and Kennedy converged on the puck. Money in Recchi’s pocket.

“Maybe I could appreciate more what he did if I had been sitting on the bench,’’ said Bergeron, noting how the heat of the moment often doesn’t allow for full appreciation for plays like Recchi made. “He’s just so strong. I knew he was going to win that battle. It’s his experience, his strength, the whole thing. He’s awesome to watch.’’

In Game 1 of the series, a 2-1 Sabres win, Recchi scored Boston’s only goal, jumping into the slot and potting a loose puck after Zdeno Chara was turned back on a slapper. Recchi knew when to jump in off the wing and just where to fire the puck. Saturday afternoon, he potted the empty-net goal that closed out a 5-3 victory.

He is not the fastest. He is not the strongest. But in a league that favors the young, the quick, and the bold, Recchi keeps his legs moving, his mind active, his name on the scoresheet.

That combination now has the Bruins within a couple of wins of moving on to Round 2.

“He outthinks ’em and outworks ’em,’’ said defenseman Johnny Boychuk, whose own increasing experience is taking its toll on the Sabres, including a heavy check last night on Matt Ellis. “And he’s always more determined. He’s not old in my book, for sure. He’s like a young guy out there. He’s been around a while, but he battles every night, no matter what. He raises his game.’’

So much of it is simple anticipation. When Chara let go that shot in Game 1, Recchi was circling off the boards, timing his leap into the middle, his shot to Ryan Miller’s stick side. When Bergeron pushed the puck deep last night, he was calculating his distance to the wall, how Kennedy was leaning, what he would need to do to take possession and make his pass.

“You’ve got to always be thinking ahead,’’ he said. “You’ve got to . . . when it’s there, it’s like you can’t think about it, you just do it. It’s one of those things, I guess, you have hockey sense or you don’t have hockey sense. It’s reacting and getting into those areas.’’

Still playing, still getting there, and taking the Bruins along with him.

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