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Savard has finally become a complete player

by Larry Wigge
The name Savard has been important in the 31 playoff meetings between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins over the years -- mostly from a Montreal standpoint, with Hall of Fame defenseman Serge Savard leading the way to Stanley Cup titles in 1968, '69, '71, '73, '76, '77, '78 and '79 and Denis Savard to another in '93.

But the Bruins, first overall in the Eastern Conference, are hoping Marc Savard can lead them to their first Cup since 1972.

Last year, Savard made his first playoff appearance after 10 seasons in the NHL with the New York Rangers, Calgary, Atlanta and Boston. He had 1 goal and 5 assists in the Bruins' seven games against Montreal. But this time, he's coming in with much more confidence and experience -- not to mention an interesting ulterior motive to beat the Canadiens.

"Like most fans from Ontario, I grew up rooting for the Maple Leafs," Savard told me at the All-Star Game in Montreal. "Toronto wasn't a good team when I was growing up, but I loved them anyway. What I couldn't understand is how my dad always cheered for that other team, the Canadiens.

"Because of my dad, it seemed like I was always watching the Canadiens in the playoffs. So I've always felt it would be a little more special to play against them ... and beat them."

While Savard previously had 97- and 96-point seasons with Atlanta and Boston, respectively, in 2005-06 and '06-07, his 25 goals and 63 assists for the Bruins this season were overshadowed by his plus-25 and leadership skills never attributed to the 31-year-old, 5-foot-10, 191-pound center from Ottawa.

Marc made it to his second straight All-Star Game the old-fashioned way ... with hard work and attention to detail at both ends of the rink that helped him to that impressive plus-minus total as well as being ninth in the NHL in points and sixth in assists.

Savard's always showed off his playmaker extraordinaire skills. But there were plenty who said he was a one-dimensional, get-your-points guy who would coast at times and didn't care as much about play at the other end of the rink -- entering this season minus-76 in his 10-year career. That's not the case anymore.

Savard credits former Atlanta Thrashers coach Bob Hartley with helping him work hard offensively and defensively ... and, yes, it also took a benching by Boston coach Claude Julien during the regular season to Marc and one to Phil Kessel in the playoffs last spring. Savard was OK when Julien told him that he and Zdeno Chara were part of his foundation of leaders -- and that everyone had to follow the leaders so that the team would be mentally tough when necessary.

Savard recalls the conversation he had with incoming Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli in July 2006, when Savard and Chara signed with Boston as free agents, saying, "At my age, I was looking for a team with a commitment to winning. When Peter talked to me about coming to Boston, he told me he had already signed Zdeno and he explained his plans for rebuilding the Bruins. Obviously, he sold me on his game plan."

But Chiarelli may not have told Savard about the iron-fisted defensive rules of Julien.

"Finding our team's identity was most important," Julien explained. "Detroit has the puck-possession game. Peter and I wanted a hard-working team that played an up-tempo game, but was first and foremost accountable defensively. And we felt Boston fans wanted to see a team that works hard every night and plays with a lot of energy and passion.

"I think today you see how much of a leadership role Z and Marc have taken in bringing that style of play to the Bruins."

Making split-second decisions on the move isn't easy. But for a player with the playmaking skills of a guy like Savard, there may be an under-the-radar secret waiting to be uncovered in the playoffs in Boston this season.

"He's the best playmaker in the League right now," said Ilya Kovalchuk, who once converted passes from Savard when he was in Atlanta. "He's the best passer I've ever played with. He's got that vision. He sees everything.

"You don't think he sees you ... but he does. All you have to do is find an opening and he'll find you."

Rookie winger Blake Wheeler was benched as a healthy scratch March 7 at Chicago and he recalls some pretty good advice from Savard that day that helped get him back in the lineup ... and productive again.

"To me, the only reason he wasn't as good a two-way player was because he didn't work at it. When you get down to it, that's all he needed -- someone to ride him a little, someone to point out how good he could be with and without the puck."
-- Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien, on Marc Savard

"Savvy told me that the one thing struggling players have trouble with is hesitating on offense," Wheeler said. "You always have to be on the move and going to the net. And when you're on the ice with him he'll get you out of a slump in a hurry with one of those seeing-eye passes to the spot where you should be going to the net."

Losing that one-dimensional reputation and finding an edge that he never played with was a job Julien relished, having seen him playing in juniors for a long time and coaching against him at the NHL level when he was in Montreal and New Jersey.

"To me, the only reason he wasn't as good a two-way player was because he didn't work at it," said Julien, who also challenged Savard to come to camp this season in better shape. "When you get down to it, that's all he needed -- someone to ride him a little, someone to point out how good he could be with and without the puck."

Julien also encouraged Savard to be less predictable, not to pass first ... but rather shoot a little more often.

During a trip to St. Louis just before Christmas, former Bruins defenseman Dennis Wideman told me he's seen the change in Savard.

"He's always had that uncanny ability to get the puck to players, even when everyone on the ice knew that's what was going to happen," Wideman said. "However, this year, he's shooting more and loosening up defenses. That makes him an even bigger weapon.

"When he's shooting, you can't believe how much more room he creates out there for all of us."

Said Savard, "When you don't score for a while, you think, 'I really have to WANT to score goals.' That was good advice."

It doesn't hurt that David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Stephane Yelle give the Bruins pretty strong depth up the middle, letting Savard lead and make those marvelous plays to make Boston a strong threat to run the table in the East.

"You can see him growing as a player, a leader," Chara said. "He's taken that role seriously. You hear him directing players where they should be on the ice now. That wasn't the case the last two seasons."

One-dimensional? Not even close.

"I want to be out there in the last minute of a game, whether we need a goal to win it or need to get the puck out to prevent the other team from beating us," said Savard.

"In fact, I get angry if I'm not out there at the end of the game to help the team win, to take a key faceoff or to just get the puck out of our zone. It's funny but I never realized how little things like that on the defensive end will create offensive chances at the other end."

This Savard won't be out to help the Montreal Canadiens add to their rich tradition.
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