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Chiarelli has Julien's back

by John McGourty
The average time span between a general manager's "vote of confidence' in his coach and that coach's termination is probably about 10 days. The NHL has already seen seven coaches fired this season.

Thus, it was probably inevitable that a hockey writer would ask Boston Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli about Claude Julien's fate when the Northeast Division's first-place team went through a 6-9-4 slump. The Boston Herald's Stephen Harris posed the question on March 20.

Chiarelli eschewed the vote of confidence and gave Harris a terse response, so terse he used 25 percent of the words twice.

"That's not possible," Chiarelli said. "One hundred percent not possible."

That was two days before the Bruins' important home game against the New Jersey Devils, the Atlantic Division leaders who had closed within three points of the Bruins' Eastern Conference lead. Given the way the teams were playing, the Devils appeared a good bet to win that game and go on to the Eastern Conference title -- if they could hold off the surging Southeast Division leaders, the Washington Capitals.

After leading the conference all season, the Bruins appeared to be a strong possibility to finish third in the East.

But Chiarelli's strong defense of his coach obviously lit a spark under the Bruins, now winners of four consecutive games, including a 4-1 manhandling of the Devils to start the streak. Sure, some said Martin Brodeur gave up a couple of easy goals -- but the truth is the Bruins beat the Devils in every facet of the game, and would have kept beating them if they took it out back in the alley.

The Bruins have failed the Devils' test many times over the past 15 years, but they were clearly the better team this time.

A strong argument could be made that it was the most important Bruins' victory in a decade or more. Boston's victories last season in Games 5 and 6 in the first-round playoff series rank highly but in the end, it was the Bruins' fourth-straight first-round playoff loss in eight years -- and they missed the playoffs in the other four seasons. They haven't won a Stanley Cup series since they beat Carolina in 1999 before falling to Buffalo.

If the win over the Devils wasn't the Bruins' biggest game of the decade, it was the kick in the pants they needed. The Bruins then rolled to victories over Toronto, Philadelphia and Tampa Bay and looked good in all of them. Well, except for Manny Fernandez in the Toronto game. Fernandez and Toronto's Justin Pogge were awful, giving up 10 goals by the 12:44 mark of the second period. Pogge was pulled but Julien left Fernandez in to get his rhythm and his first win since January. Fernandez and Curtis Joseph each surrendered only one goal after Pogge departed.

Fernandez bounced back with an excellent game against Tampa Bay, so Boston goes into the final week of the season with its goaltending in good shape.

"Guys have got to feel confident, no matter what happens, that another goalie can help them win," Fernandez said after the Lighting game. "I've got to make sure my game is there, whenever I come in.

"We've looked each other in the eye, and from here on out we'll let the personal stats take a hike," Fernandez said. "What's important are the two points every night."

That's important because Fernandez dropped a peg in fan esteem on Jan. 8 when he threw a fit after surrendering a goal after the Bruins scored an empty-net goal in the 6-4 victory over the Ottawa Senators. Fernandez was in a close race with teammate Tim Thomas for the lowest goals-against average in the NHL, and some fans and radio hosts criticized him for putting personal goals above team victory.

He said the right things Tuesday.

Something Special
-- It's not just the points that Jason Spezza has been producing, it's the way he's playing. Watch his body language: He's convinced he's one of the NHL's top players -- and lately he has been.

Spezza, 25, has 29 points in the 28 games since Cory Clouston took over as coach of the Ottawa Senators and has looked like the Senators' best player -- with all due respect to captain Daniel Alfredsson, who leads the team with 49 assists and 72 points.

Spezza has 30 goals and 38 assists for 68 points in 76 games, well below his better than a point-a-game pace of the past three seasons. Spezza had 90 points in 68 games in 2005-06; 87 points in 67 games in 2006-07 when the Senators went to the Stanley Cup Final; and 92 points in 76 games last season.

Spezza has 146 goals and 413 points in 398 NHL games, one of the few NHL players with more than five years experience who has averaged more than a point a game.

The difference in Spezza now from earlier in the season is not so improved point production but a desire to dominate the game, which he is doing for longer and longer stretches on his shifts. He seems much more physical, combining the stickhandling of Joe Nieuwendyk, the strength of Jason Allison and the confidence of Phil Esposito.

The Senators have been eliminated from playoff consideration, and eight Eastern Conference teams are glad they won't face them in the first round. But they will be a big factor in the division next season.

Here's an early tip on your 2009-10 fantasy team: Spezza breaks the 100-point mark next season for the first time in his career.

Welcome back, Lefty -- Jay Harrison, the Toronto Maple Leafs' third-round pick, 82nd overall, in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, was signed last week to play again for Toronto. Harrison played for Zug in the Swiss A League this season after eight seasons split between the Leafs and their AHL affiliates in St. John's and Toronto.

We heard one commentator say that Maple Leafs re-hired him for his "experience," adding Harrison has played 14 NHL games. That's 1.75 games per season!

Harrison was signed because he's a left-handed shot and with Tomas Kaberle out of the lineup, Harrison became the only left-handed shooting defenseman on the Maple Leafs. The concept of an NHL team with six starting right-handed defensemen is almost incomprehensible: Only 27 percent of NHL defensemen shoot from the right side.

Games in hand -- The Montreal Canadiens went into their final six games of the season in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, one point behind the seventh-place New York Rangers and one point ahead of the ninth-place Florida Panthers. The Rangers and Panthers each have five games left.

The Canadiens visit the Islanders on Thursday and the Maple Leafs Saturday on Hockey Night In Canada. They host the Senators on Monday, then travel Tuesday to visit the Rangers and Thursday they go to Boston. The Canadiens return home next Saturday to host the Pittsburgh Penguins in another Hockey Night In Canada feature. With that schedule, if they can get the needed points to hold off the Panthers, they will be worthy qualifiers.

The Canadiens have been excellent at home, going 24-8-7. They are only 15-19-3 on the road so, naturally, four of their final six are road games.

Interestingly, the Canadiens and Panthers have scored as many goals this season as they have surrendered while the Rangers have given up nine more goals than they've scored. Penalty killing and early-season overtime and shootout success have been the keys to the Rangers' edge.

News and Notes -- Montreal goalie Carey Price hasn't lost in regulation since March 6, after going 2-10-1 in his previous 12 games ... Maple Leafs' GM Brian Burke promised on Wednesday, the day after his team was eliminated from the playoff race, that Toronto will make the playoffs next season ... Kaberle returned to the Maple Leafs' lineup Wednesday after missing 25 of the past 27 games ... Buffalo went into Wednesday's game in Atlanta with two games in hand over the Rangers and Panthers and one over the Canadiens ... Defenseman Teppo Numminen returned to Buffalo's lineup Wednesday after missing 14 of the past 16 games.
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