The Bruins got out of Minnesota with two points thanks to Tuukka Rask's brilliant goaltending and a goal from Byron Bitz (his third on the year), plus David Krejci's beauty of a backhand in the fourth round of the shootout.
Boston won all four games on their road trip, catapulting them into first place in the Northeast Division, but the bad news is that Milan Lucic suffered what looked like a serious left knee injury when he was hit by Marek Zidlicky and as he pinwheeled backward, caught his skate into the ice and appeared to seriously twist it on the way down. He hobbled off the ice and had to be helped to the dressing room- doesn't look good, but more on that later when he has an MRI and the severity can be established.
Rask was the story of the night, though- he made 28 saves after the B's were outshot 29-16 and the Wild got the advantage in hard work, skating and overall play. It sure is nice when you have a goalie who can steal a game as Rask did for the Bruins tonight.
But another story of the game was Bitz, who tipped a Derek Morris point shot to give Boston the early lead. It's amazing how far the Cornell alum has come when you consider where he came from.
He was a largely unknown quantity at the 2003 NHL Draft when the Bruins took him with the first of three fourth-round picks (acquired from San Jose in the move down from 16th that year) out of the BCHL. He wasn't in attendance, so I called up his junior team, the Nainaimo Clippers and talked to his coach, Bill Bestwick, who, like most coaches who are advocates for their players, raved about Bitz's size, skill, smarts and attitude. He was kind enough to pass Bitz's home phone number to me in Saskatchewan, so I dialed it up.
I recall that Byron wasn't there at the time, but his dad answered and we had a great conversation. From him, I learned that his son was taken completely by surprise that he'd been picked as early as he was, and was thrilled that it was Boston, because he had grown up a huge Bruins fan and admirer of Cam Neely's as a youngster. His love affair with the Big Bad B's was such that he had his dad put a spoked B at center ice of their backyard rink in Saskatoon.
When I finally did catch up with Byron, I could sense the excitement in his voice and he couldn't wait to get to New York to begin his college hockey career. Based on what I was hearing about him, I had high expectations for him offensively. But, things wouldn't quite work out the way I and others thought for him at Cornell.
Bitz spent four years with the Big Red in the ECAC, and after a very promising freshman campaign, I thought he regressed in his final three seasons. He never did manage to score at a point-per-game pace as a collegian, but to look at the numbers obviously didn't tell the whole story about his experience at Cornell, as Byron told me last year when he first came up to Boston that he learned a great deal about playing defense and being a responsible three-zone player in that program. In retrospect, Bitz grew more as a hockey player as he developed in Cornell's defensive system than anyone really imagined.
To Boston's credit, they signed the Big Red captain after graduation and gave him a shot. However, Bitz's pro career didn't exactly get off to a blistering start. Demoted quickly to Providence, he managed to work himself into coach Scott Gordon's graces with his strong two-way game and toughness. By the end of that first year, he was sporting an assistant captain's 'A' and had impressed both Gordon and assistant Rob Murray to a great degree. When Murray took over at Providence upon Gordon's departure for Long Island, Bitz became one of his go-to guys early in the 2008-09 season.
I even had to eat some crow with Bitz, because going into it, I had him ranked near the bottom of all Boston prospects and even deemed him "the most disappointing" player in the system. How foolish of me. Injuries forced his callup last January and he's been here ever since, an integral part of the fourth line, who is now playing part time on the top unit with Marc Savard.
What has allowed him to flourish in the NHL with the Black and Gold is his size and intelligence. Make no mistake- if he were 6-feet and 190 pounds, he'd be nowhere near an NHL rink. But, as you can't teach size and strength, he creates a tough matchup for opponents. Look at the way he bulled his way to the net in scoring his first goal of the season this year against the Islanders. When he gets a full head of steam going, there aren't many defensemen who can knock him off the puck.
Bitz told NESN correspondent Naoko Funayama tonight in between periods that he's now starting to feel comfortable playing with Savard. That feeling won't likely last, as you can't imagine Bitz staying on the top line for much longer, but Claude Julien is famous for rewarding his players who earn the ice time with opportunities that may exceed their pure talent threshold.
Boston fans love Bitz because he's an honest hockey player who uses his size well and will fight on occasion, but mostly plays it clean and tough. He wasn't a highly-touted prospect who was expected to succeed, but managed to do so after many (present company included) had written him off. To reinforce what an unknown he was, even when he made the big time, one HNIC host referred to him as "Byron Ritz" for an entire game broadcast.
The one they call "Bitzycat" will never score 30 goals in the NHL, or likely even 20. But to win in this league, you need guys like him. The Bruins made a great pick in the fourth round more than six years ago, and Bitz is rewarding their patience with him by providing consistent and solid contributions to the team's success.
How do you root against a guy like that?
Toronto won against Tampa Bay tonight, moving them past Carolina in the standings. The loss helps Boston, thanks to owning Tampa's second-round pick, but every B's fan would rather have seen the roles reversed tonight. Matt Stajan got a goal late in the second period to give Toronto a 4-3 win, with Jonas Gustavsson in net to register the victory. Boston taking the Wild to the shootout also helped in the standings, as the Wild need every point they can get to keep ahead of Toronto.
Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. I hope you have a great day spent with good family, friends and food- in whatever order you wish. B's are back on the ice at the TD Garden Friday at noon against the New Jersey Devils. We're all hoping that Lucic is there with his teammates when the puck drops.