Everyone asked today about Steve Montador’s Game 6 goal, the one that put the Bruins ahead, 2-0, Tuesday night, concluded his answer with one point: Byron Bitz did an unheralded great job in front of the net.
And a better truth hasn’t been spoken in this Eastern Conference semifinal series between the Boston Bruins and Carolina Hurricanes. In fact, you can make an argument that without the rookie forward’s insertion into the lineup, the Bruins wouldn’t still be alive to face the Hurricanes in tomorrow night’s Game 7 at TD Banknorth Garden.
“It’s all about body position. It’s putting yourself between him and the puck,” Bitz said today about his knack for screening a goaltender like he did on Montador’s goal. “So using a big frame like mine, it’s tough for guys to get in there when I get between them and the puck. And after that it’s just making a move to try to make a play or getting to the net.”
With Bitz in and Blake Wheeler out, the Bruins officially have four lines with both scoring and physicality. That makes them a much tougher team to beat, as the Hurricanes have found out. With the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Bitz on their line, offensive stalwarts David Krejci and Michael Ryder have room to roam and the Bruins’ blueliners have someone to hinder the view of goaltenders on point shots.
“If we didn’t have ‘Zee’ here, he’d look a lot bigger,” Montador cracked while comparing Bitz to 6-9 Zdeno Chara.
Since his January call-up to Boston, Bitz has been a frequent visitor to the press box on game nights. But he has kept himself ready by simulating game action on days he has been scratched and treating every day as though he’s going to play. And on the ice, when given the chance to play, he has succeeded by utilizing the skills he developed in college and fine-tuned at Providence (AHL).
“I think going to Cornell really prepared me for the role that I entered into here,” he said. “We played a defensive style, a puck-control style, and if you didn’t take care of the puck, you weren’t going to play. So I learned that early there and carried it through and really worked on that type of game, where you’re strong with the puck, I played with good linemates there who cycled the puck and I’ve been fortunate at Providence and here to play with guys who like doing that as well — playing that puck possession game.”
Bitz said that he hasn’t had any issues matching opposing players’ strength in the NHL. But the savvy guys show in their attempts to get open and get to pucks has taken some getting used to. It helps to have a future Hall-of-Famer like Mark Recchi around to set an example and pass on the tricks of the trade.
“Watching (Recchi) in front of the net, especially the way he screens the goalie, he makes a living doing that. He gets a stick on everything; it’s unbelievable. To watch a guy like that you pick up some tricks, that’s for sure,” said Bitz.
There’s no telling if the Bruins’ playoff run is going to go longer than one more game. Despite the up-and-down nature of the experience, Bitz has still enjoyed his first taste of the NHL playoffs.
“It’s unbelievable the intensity of game,” Bitz said. “You’re going out there, 20 guys are going to battle. It’s a lot of fun.”
It’ll be even more fun if the Bruins can win Game 7.