O'Connell Takes Gamble on Bruins

It worked for the New Jersey Devils, so why not the Boston Bruins?

Three years ago, the Devils fired coach Robbie Ftorek with eight games left in the regular season and went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Last week, the Bruins canned Ftorek with nine games left.

So far, the similarities end there.

In their first game under General Manager Mike O'Connell, who took over behind the bench after dumping Ftorek, the Bruins squandered a 2-0 lead in a 3-2 loss to the going-nowhere San Jose Sharks.

In their second, they gave up a 3-0 third-period lead over the going-nowhere Kings before winning in overtime, 4-3, Saturday night at Staples Center.

Afterward, O'Connell looked wrung-out.

"Second thoughts?" he said, repeating a question. "Yeah."

The victory, he said, hadn't done much to raise the Bruin confidence level, even if it did put them two points closer to the playoffs.

"I tried to address the team afterward about that issue," he said. "You know, we've got to find a way ... to play the same way whether we're up or down and we've got to eliminate the scoreboard anxiety

"We've also got to give the other team credit. Sometimes they make good plays and [the puck] ends in our net, but we take it so hard that [we think] we caused it. Somehow, we've got to get that out of our head."

It had been a trying time for O'Connell, and it showed.

"The last few days have been OK," he said, not altogether convincingly. "The buildup to making the decision, that was the hard part ... when you have to let a guy go that you like, and who cared a great deal."

Only a week before sending him packing, O'Connell said Ftorek had "weathered the storm," adding, "I'm prepared to go with him for the rest of the season."

He changed his mind, however, after a 2-1 loss to the Phoenix Coyotes last Tuesday night, putting himself at the center of the storm.

Boston columnists blistered him, questioning the timing of the move, so late in the season. After a 19-4-3-1 start, the Bruins had endured a prolonged slide and after Monday night's 3-2 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs were 35-29-8-4, good for seventh in the Eastern Conference.

But in the eight games before losing at Phoenix they had picked up 11 of 16 points and seemed to have turned a corner.

Then came Phoenix.

"I couldn't wait any longer," said O'Connell, a former minor league coach who before Friday had never coached an NHL team.

Under Ftorek, he believed, the team would continue to wither.

Back home, club President Harry Sinden seemed to endorse the move, even if it continued an era of instability behind the Bruin bench.

O'Connell is the team's 12th coach in 18 years.

"It is a lot of coaches," Sinden told the Boston Globe. "My wife said, 'The Celtics [who have had six coaches since 1985] never do this.' "

Nobody is predicting a Stanley Cup run for the Bruins this spring, but Sinden said, "This really isn't a bad hockey team. It should give a good account of itself for the rest of the year and in the playoffs. ...

"It's a sorry situation whenever this happens. Mike made his decision. I said to him, 'Do you think this will help your team?' He said, 'Yes.' I said, 'Do you think it will stop the decline?' He said, 'Yes.'

"So I said, 'Well, how can you not make the change?' If you are managing something and you have a solution, and you don't do it, who are you?"

Of course, that was before club scoring leader Joe Thornton also questioned the firing, expressing strong support for Ftorek.

And then came O'Connell's first week behind the bench.

By season's end, nine games might seem like a lifetime.

Dump and Chase

Nothing lasts forever, but the dismantling of the only King team that has known any playoff success over the last 10 years has been remarkably swift.

Gone from the team that upset the Detroit Red Wings in the opening round two years ago and pushed the Colorado Avalanche to seven games in the Western Conference semifinals are Luc Robitaille, Jozef Stumpel, Glen Murray, Nelson Emerson, Kelly Buchberger, Philippe Boucher, Bryan Smolinski, Stu Grimson, Mathieu Schneider and Jere Karalahti.

And out the door next, possibly, are Craig Johnson and goaltender Felix Potvin, who are eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer.

"At the time," a former King said, "we thought we could build on our success and the Red Wings, who were older, would tear up their roster."

Instead, the Red Wings added to it and won the Stanley Cup last spring.

Meanwhile, within months, Robitaille and Grimson had left the Kings via free agency, attracting better offers elsewhere, Robitaille from the Red Wings.

Early last season, Stumpel and Murray were traded to the Bruins in the deal that brought top-line center Jason Allison and Karalahti was shipped to the Nashville Predators. After the season, Boucher and Buchberger left via free agency, again for greener pastures, and Emerson retired.

Two weeks ago, Schneider and Smolinski were traded.

"I'd like to think there's room for sentiment in this business," said Coach Andy Murray, whose team has loaded up on prospects and draft picks over the last two years, "but the economics of the game make that difficult at times."

Slap Shots

Nobody has prospered more since leaving the Kings than Glen Murray, who has scored 76 goals in 149 games since he was traded away and is enjoying his second consecutive 40-goal season. He never scored more than 29 with the Kings. "I knew he was going to score, what level I wasn't sure," O'Connell said. "But when we were thinking about making the trade I called Sean O'Donnell [another former King playing for the Bruins] and he said, 'He'll score 40 for you.' I thought he was full of ... but obviously he knew what he was talking about."

Markus Naslund of the Vancouver Canucks was the winner in a poll of NHL players asked to name their choice for most valuable player. Naslund received 12 votes in the survey of 30 players, one from each team, conducted by the Hockey News. Peter Forsberg of the Avalanche was second with seven votes, although an anonymous member of the Columbus Blue Jackets said, "I don't care what Naslund's numbers are, if Forsberg's playing, he's the best player in the game." Goaltender Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils was third with three votes.

Chris Pronger of the St. Louis Blues, sidelined for nearly a year, could be back playing as early as Thursday night against the Florida Panthers, giving him more than a week to get ready for the playoffs

Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News was among those who questioned the high price paid by the Red Wings to pry Schneider from the Kings. But after Schneider contributed a goal and an assist and registered a plus-rating in his first five games with the Red Wings, Kulfan wrote, "Indications are that General Manager Ken Holland made one of the best moves at the trade deadline, filling a need nicely." Schneider is averaging more than 22 minutes, taking a load off Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom.

Marian Gaborik, the Minnesota Wild's first draft choice, after the third-year expansion team clinched its first playoff berth Sunday with a 4-0 victory over the Red Wings: "I've got chills." The Wild is the third expansion team since 1991 to reach the playoffs in its third season: the 1994 Sharks lost in the conference semifinals, the 1996 Panthers in the Stanley Cup Finals.

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