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Northeast: Boston again the hub of hockey

by John McGourty
Barring a major reversal in team fortunes, the Northeast Division may already be decided. The Boston Bruins, the No. 8 team in the Eastern Conference and second in the division a year ago, are the runaway conference and division leaders this season, 12 points ahead of last year's conference and division leader, the Montreal Canadiens, after their 3-1 home triumph Tuesday against the Habs.

Montreal, which has been slowed by injuries to captain Saku Koivu, Chris Higgins, Alex Tanguay and Mike Komisarek, is nine points ahead of the Buffalo Sabres, who are nine points ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Ottawa Senators, Stanley Cup finalists two years ago, have sunk to the bottom of the division, four points behind Toronto, struggling with defensive, goaltending and second-, third-, and fourth-line scoring woes.

Brian Burke, who was the general manager of the Anaheim Ducks during their 2007 Stanley Cup victory against the Senators, became GM of the Maple Leafs in December, the biggest personnel change in the division this season. While some have speculated there will be leadership changes in Ottawa soon, Senators owner Eugene Melnyk has repeatedly insisted the team will turn around and make the playoffs.

Northeast Division teams are 78-53-20 against the rest of the NHL this season; 22-18-5 against the Western Conference; 28-15-9 against the Atlantic Division and 28-20-6 against the Southeast Division.

Here's a look at the good and bad of the first half from the Northeast Five:

Player of the First Half: Marc Savard, Boston -- The first-line center, an 11-year veteran who signed a four-year free-agent contract three years ago, has transformed himself from a passing wizard and defensive liability into a tremendous team leader and two-way player.

Savard leads the NHL with a plus-29 rating and is fourth in the NHL with 38 assists and 52 points, while adding 14 goals. Savard has been paired with Phil Kessel and, for most of the season, with Milan Lucic on one of the NHL's best lines. Kessel, temporarily sidelined by mononucleosis, is fifth in the NHL with 24 goals.

"I think he deserves a lot of credit for what he's done so far this year, there's no doubt about that," said Bruins coach Claude Julien.

Savard admits he wasn't an all-round player when he was with the New York Rangers and Calgary Flames but that he started to improve after signing with the Atlanta Thrashers, where he played three seasons.

"I've been building every year since Coach Hartley helped me out in Atlanta and I came here and learned a lot from Claude," Savard said. "With our system, it makes it a lot easier to be a better plus player than what I've been in the past."

Coach of the First Half: Claude Julien, Boston -- The combination of Boston GM Peter Chiarelli's correct personnel decisions and Julien's defense-first system have rocketed the team from 23rd-best in the NHL in 2007, the year before Julien was hired, to second-best, behind only the San Jose Sharks.

As of Wednesday, the Bruins were tied for the NHL lead with 32 wins, were tied for the League lead with Detroit with 157 goals, led the League by surrendering only 95 goals, had the third-best power play and eighth-best penalty kill, the best road record and second-best record during the past 10 games. They were confidently dominant Tuesday in their 3-1 home victory against the Montreal Canadiens, the divisional rival who defeated the Bruins last season in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Interview Julien's players and they all say the same thing; it's the system and every player's commitment to it. Julien holds intricate practices to reinforce the key concepts of his system and isn't afraid to bench players or change lines.

The best of Julien's system is that it's simple. Players know where they are supposed to go in all conceivable situations. Players nod and point to each other during play, they forecheck as hard as any team in the League and they switch "looks" in midshift. 

"We just tried to play the system, and defense is first," captain Zdeno Chara said. “Of course, if there is an opportunity to jump up and help out with a rush, you have to make a decision. But the main thing was playing solid defensively."

Julien keeps his players guessing. In the midst of a recent eight-game win streak, Julien shook up his first and third lines an delivered caustic comments.

"We needed some changes on the lines. They got a little stale," Julien said.

Rookie of the Year: Blake Wheeler, Boston -- Columbus Blue Jackets goalie Steve Mason is the leader in the race for the Calder Trophy and Chicago Blackhawks right winger Kris Versteeg, a former Bruins' prospect, is the leading rookie scorer, with five more assists and five more points than Wheeler. But since Dec. 1, Wheeler has 5 goals and 16 points and is plus-16 while Versteeg has 6 goals and 13 points and is plus-3. If they keep up those paces, Wheeler will outscore Versteeg. If that happens and Mason can't keep Columbus in position for a playoff spot, the Calder should be Wheeler's.

Toronto's Mikhail Grabovski is second-leading scorer in the Northeast with 12 goals and 23 points, but is minus-3. The rookie having the second-best season in the Northeast is Bruins defenseman Matt Hunwick, who has 3 goals and 15 points and is plus-13.

Wheeler was a first-round pick of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2004 but never signed with them, instead playing a year in the USHL and three years at the University of Minnesota. He signed with Bruins last summer and has never played in the minor leagues. He plays on a line with center David Krejci and Ryder and it has been one of the NHL's best, if not the best, for the past month.

Biggest surprise: David Krejci, Boston -- Krejci was a highly touted Czech teen player who came over to play his 18- and 19-year-old seasons with Gatineau in the QMJHL. He excelled there and his first season at Providence. The Bruins took him with the 63rd pick in 2004.

"My wife does. And she's not happy with all of you."
-- Unlike his wife, Ottawa Senators coach Craig Hartsburg doesn't read the newspaper.

He came up last year and posted 6 goals and 21 assists and was minus-3 in 56 games, looking more like a fill-in until they could someone better than an emerging star. But Krejci is centering the NHL's hottest line, working the middle between a raw rookie and a reject, right winger Blake Wheeler and veteran Michael Ryder.

Ryder's revival has been a result of playing again for a coach that appreciates him and knows how to use him to best advantage, and the passing skills of Krejci. Wheeler walked into the NHL without a minute of minor-league experience and is the second-leading rookie scorer and second in the NHL with a plus-28 rating. 

"He's a skilled player,” Chara said of Krejci, who has 16 goals and 30 assists. "He can make moves. He can score goals. He played a very strong game."

"Skill is not going to make you a successful player in this league," said Krejci. "I believe I have some skills, yes, but I have to work hard, do all the little details."

"This is a breakthrough year for him, but really it started last year when (Savard) was injured. He really took charge," Julien told reporters.

Around the Northeast -- Bruins left winger Marco Sturm has played in only 19 games this season and underwent knee surgery Tuesday. He is expected to miss the rest of the season. He is in the second year of a four-year deal. ... Montreal was 25-10-6 at the midpoint of the season, better than their 20-13-8 record last year when they were the best team in the East. ... Goalie Brian Elliott, who led Wisconsin to the 2007 NCAA championship, is 2-1 after making his first three NHL starts this past week. Elliott lost 2-0 Saturday to the New York Rangers and beat the Carolina Hurricanes 5-1 Tuesday. He has a 1.53 goals-against average and a .941 save percentage. Elliott was 18-8-1 with AHL Binghamton this season, with a .926 save percentage and a 2.31 GAA. Both Elliott and Montreal backup goaltender Jaroslav Halak were taken in the ninth round of the 2003 Entry Draft. ... Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn and Maxim Lapierre also went in that round. ... The Maple Leafs surpassed most fans' expectations in the first half of the season but are trending downward lately, losing four in a row and eight of their past 10 games. They have scored only 9 goals in their past six games. ... Buffalo center Derek Roy has been one of the NHL's best players over the past two seasons, scoring at better than a point-a-game pace. Roy has 48 goals and 121 points in his past 121 games, according to Bucky Gleason of the Buffalo News. ... Rookie Chris Butler's solid play on the Buffalo defense could imperil the jobs of either Henrik Tallinder or Teppo Numminen, one of the last former Winnipeg Jets still playing in the NHL.

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