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Major plus

Posted by Bill Porter January 8, 2009 05:59 AM

Marc Savard has the puck on his stick, and he's racing into the zone. He shoots, he scores. No, check that. He dishes off, and somebody else scores. Hey, who cares, as long as the team wins. Right? Whatever it takes. That's Savard, one of the best playmakers in the game. In any game.

Some look for glory. Savard looks for a teammate. He can’t help himself.

“He’s a selfish [expletive added for comic effect],” says Phil Kessel, one of Savard’s linemates and Boston’s leading goal scorer. “He’s a passer. His vision is outstanding. He finds everyone and makes great plays. That’s how he is. He likes to pass the puck, and he always looks to pass before he shoots.”

Savard, now looking to shoot some more to round out his game, is an important part of the engine powering the Bruins’ U-turn from a band of underachievers who, in recent years at least, could go for a Sunday spin around the Frog Pond without being recognized. The resurgent Bruins are talented players willing to address their defects. “Address and adapt,” is how the team’s third-year general manager, Peter Chiarelli, summarizes key elements in the successful approach that has landed Boston among the NHL’s elite. There is no better example of these principles in motion than Savard, whose nickname is Savvy.

“He does everything for us,” coach Claude Julien says. “He’s been on the power play, kills penalties. He’s a good faceoff guy. He wants to be someone you can rely on in any situation.”

On the right track
In Savard’s case, flaws are hard to find these days. The 31-year-old center and Ottawa native, in his third season with the Bruins, led the team and was fourth in the league in scoring with 49 points on 13 goals and 36 assists going into Tuesday’s games, and was third in the league in assists. He works hard and also works his mouth as one of the chattier Bruins, offering encouragement and some good-natured trash.

But the number that highlights his most significant achievement in Boston is his plus-minus of plus-25, tied for tops in the league with teammate Dennis Wideman. Bruins Blake Wheeler and David Krejci were third and fourth in the league at plus-22 and 21 respectively, highlighting Boston’s successful emphasis on the two-way game.

In his first season in Boston two years ago, Savard led the team in points with 96 on 22 goals and a career-high 74 assists, the most assists by a Bruin since Adam Oates’ 80 in 1993-94. But Savard also finished 2006-07 with a plus-minus of minus-19, a signal to both player and team that his focus on defense needed sharpening.

“Marc had his best statistical year in a while, or close to it, in that first year,” Chiarelli says. “But he and I felt he had to be better on the two-way side of the game.”

Savard totaled a team-high 78 points on 15 goals and 63 assists last season. Those numbers dropped from the previous year, but he wound up at plus-3. “His points went down a bit, but the success of the team went up,” says Chiarelli, whose team made the playoffs last season for the first time since 2003-04. “He was penalty-killing last year. He was put on in defensive situations, he was backchecking better, and he was competing better. You could just see his game come around.

“A large part is conditioning, but I think the biggest part is mentality. And you see what’s happening this year; his points are up and the team is doing well.”

Follow the leader
Julien underscores a resurgence for Savard that parallels the team’s. “Right now what’s impressive with him is how he’s really evolved and taken pride in wanting to play the two-way game, and that’s serving him well,” the coach says. “He’s still getting points, but he’s really doing some good things on the other side of the puck, and that makes him an even more valuable player and a more reliable player. He’s found that groove where he feels good about breaking up a play and back-checking and being the first guy back.”

Savard, selected 91st overall in the fourth round of the 1995 draft by the New York Rangers, signed with Boston as a free agent in July 2006 after seven seasons of mostly minuses in Calgary and Atlanta. He is happy with his game now, for the most part. “I’ve been steady at both ends and consistent this year,” he says. “On the negative side, I’ve got to get more shots at the net and score some more goals.”

Savard had two goals and seven assists in the last five games. He could enhance his playmaking by becoming more of a scoring threat. “Right now people know his strength is in his passing,” Chiarelli says. “It’s like in basketball. When you’re a good shooter, they have to come and face you and you can dish off. He’s changed his game a little bit to become a two-way player, and he can also change the offensive side of his game.”

Savard has long been admired as a playmaker. Atlanta Thrashers tough guy Eric Boulton, a teammate of Savard’s in the 1990s with the Oshawa Generals and more recently in Atlanta, says Boston’s opponents have to be aware of Savard’s knack for the setup. “Every time the puck hits his stick, he’s looking to pass right away,” Boulton says. “He gets it and he moves it. When he has the puck, you’ve got to be looking to pick up guys, because he’ll find them.”

Among those Savard often has found, along with Kessel, is Milan Lucic, who has benefited from playing on the same line with Savard at times. “When you’re playing with a guy like him you always have to be ready, because he’ll find you in all sorts of different situations,” Lucic says. “He demands a lot from himself and from his linemates. He’s turned himself into a real good team player the last two years.”

As a sign of Savard’s unselfishness, Kessel points to a 3-1 road win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Dec. 4 in which Kessel scored two goals assisted by Savard, including an empty-netter in the final second of the game. “He could have put that one in the empty net, and instead he gave it to me,” Kessel says.

One thing Savard does as well as setting others up for shots is talking during games. “Sometimes you can hear what the guys are saying on the bench,” Chiarelli says. “I don’t know acoustically why, but you can. I just hear his voice all the time. He never shuts up. Call him vocally active.”

Savard came to Boston because of its commitment to winning, as evidenced by, among other things, the signing of towering defenseman Zdeno Chara and the presence of players such as Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm. He also likes the city and rink.

And he arrived with something else in mind. “One of the reasons I came here was to try to win a Stanley Cup, and we’re on the right track for that,” Savard says. “We have a good solid base and some good young kids coming up through the ranks. It’s an exciting time for Boston, and I’m glad to be part of it.”

Bill Porter is an OT contributing writer.

2 comments so far...
  1. I think all of the players have been looking for the pass lately instead of putting the puck on net and half the time that last pass gets picked off. They don't seem to shoot unless it's an open shot. I would like to see more shots leading to some garbage goals or goals off rebounds.

    Posted by Roy January 8, 09 10:15 AM
  1. i agree 100% with roy. every goal now has to be a work of art now. just shoot the puck, who cares how it enters the net. a goal is a goal, and a win is a win!!! it is like in baseball, the guy hits a long fly on the warning track for an out. the next guy hits a bloop single, which do you take? thank you, enough said!!! shoot the puck BRUINS, TRY WINNING 11 IN A ROW NOW!!!

    Posted by BLITZER54 January 8, 09 01:03 PM
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