Newark, NJ --
|Boston Bruins Blake Wheeler (26) shoots around St. Louis Blues' Manny Legace, center, to score his second goal of the first period as the Blues' Brad Boyes (22) looks on in an NHL hockey game Sunday, Dec. 21, 2008, in St. Louis. (AP Photo/Bill Boyce) |
This morning, USA Today
listed possible candidates for the NHL's Rookie of the Year Award -- the Calder Trophy.
Defenseman Matt Hunwick's success since taking over for Andrew Ference
after the veteran was lost to a broken tibia has been well-documented and he was among the blueliners. But Boston's Blake Wheeler was front and center amongst the forwards.
Bruins center David Krejci
, who is the pivot for Wheeler's line, wouldn't disagree and after the game on Sunday the Czech-born said as much about his American left wing to the media gathered in front of his stall in the visiting locker room in St. Louis.
"[Wheeler's] one of the best players I've ever played with," said Krejci. "And when we get a rush, he knows just how to get ready for the shot, and he's...he's got great hands and a great shot."
Boston head coach Claude Julien continued the love-in for Wheeler and his linemates later that same afternoon.
"Obviously, all three guys were really good tonight, and Krejci had three assists, I think, by the first period, and Wheeler had a couple, and then [Michael] Ryder scored that big goal in the second period to get us the lead again," he said. "I thought that line played well.
|Boston Bruins Michael Ryder, second from right, celebrates his goal with teammates Blake Wheeler, right, and Matt Hunwick (48) as Atlanta Thrashers' Bryan Little (10) skates past in the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Dec. 13, 2008, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer) |
"[Wheeler] did a couple of things tonight that we've talked about, and it turned out well for him."
Julien doesn't think the Bruins have seen all that Wheeler can give, either.
"We've put him in positions where he's killing penalties, and I think the better he gets defensively, the better a player he's going to be," said the head coach. "We all know how good he is offensively; he's doing great things with his size and his strength on the puck, and then being able to play well defensively, killing penalties, is going to make him an even better player."
Wheeler's highlight reel, shorthanded goal in the first period may have been the best goal he's scored as a professional and could certainly compete for one of the best in the slick goal scorer's personal file.
"I was initially looking to make a pass back to David, and he...went off for a change, and the only thing I could really do was react," he said. "There was a guy coming at me, and I sort of reacted, I guess, a few times, and got lucky and got the puck by the guys.
"[Manny] Legace made a great save on the first one -- I can't believe he saved it -- and then luckily it came right back to me and I just had to hammer it home."
Wheeler also said that earlier in the season he may not have had the confidence to make that play and praised the B's coaching staff for their handling of his first professional season. It's their confidence in his abilities that has allowed his hockey abilities to come to fruition.
"Maybe early in the year I would've just dumped it in," said Wheeler. "I think the way the coaching staff have handled me has been unbelievable.
"They just want me to keep going out there and playing hard...I think they understand that I'm a young guy, I'm going to make some mistakes out there, but my intentions are good."
|MINNEAPOLIS - DECEMBER 1: Blake Wheeler #17 of the Minnesota Gophers passes on December 1, 2006 at Mariuccci Arena in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images) |
Because it has coincided with the Boston Bruins success as a whole, his own early success has been especially gratifying for the former University of Minnesota forward.
"It feels good," he said. "What more can you really say?
"When you're having success as a team, like I already said, everything sort of trickles down.
"Just to be part of that team and that chemistry has been the biggest thrill for me. Obviously to be scoring goals in this league is a pretty great feeling, but being a part of this locker room and competing with these guys and getting wins, that's been the most special part for me so far."
---Angela Stefano contributed to this report.