PHILADELPHIA – There’s a power forward in there somewhere.
You watch Blake Wheeler lug the puck around the ice, protecting it with his 6-foot-5, 208-pound frame and you want him to mow people down. You see him on the power play, or even 5-on-5, and you want him to plant himself in front of the opposing goaltender and do a Tomas Holmstrom impersonation so that even the arena light can’t get through to the crease.
Those skills are in there. Wheeler shows it in flashes. Two seasons into this NHL career, he just hasn’t found the level of consistency where he can do it every night. He knows, however, that that’s what he can be.
“That’s where I can be the most effective, for sure,” said Wheeler, after a solid display of power-forward prowess with a goal on a tip and a second goal created for Mark Recchi in front of the Philadelphia net in the Bruins’ 4-1 win over the Flyers in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series tonight at Wachovia Center.
“Especially in the offensive zone, just strictly by taking up space. Whenever you’re standing there, it’s never fun to have a big guy just stand there. I realize there’s areas of my game that can improve, but I felt like winning battles in the corner, standing in front of the net, are areas of my game that have really gotten better this year.”
That he recognizes his shortcomings and is striving to be a fearsome force that comes up big – figuratively and literally – is a positive sign for Wheeler. Sometimes you watch him and he seems disengaged and overmatched. Head coach Claude Julien must see that. Why else would he have picked Wheeler to drop to the Bruins’ crash line with Steve Begin and Shawn Thornton to start this series when Marc Savard returned to reclaim a spot in the top nine?
Remember, Wheeler endured a benching in the second half of last spring’s playoff series with Carolina. He was off and on the power play all year long, as he tried and failed to match his rookie-year total of 21 goals and settled for 18. A one-goal-in-23-game stretch before tonight did little to change anyone’s opinion of him as an underachiever. Yet Julien bumped Wheeler back up to a line with Michael Ryder and Marc Savard tonight. Despite being credited with just one shot on goal through two games against Philly, it was obvious to everyone with eyes the winger had been creating the type of offensive chances Boston needs in its post-Marco Sturm period of the playoffs.
Luckily, Wheeler never stops working hard to take time to sulk regardless of where Julien puts him in the lineup.
“I can’t lie that say that it wasn’t maybe a little bit hard. But you realize that there’s things way bigger than you. It’s way bigger than just what line I’m playing on or who I’m playing with,” said Wheeler about his recent demotion. “You’ve got to bear down and you realize that playing with Thornty and Beige is probably a blessing in disguise – keep the game simple, work hard and from the puck drop of [Monday’s] game, playing with those two guys, we did a great job of getting the puck in deep and created some scoring chances. And the confidence begins to build. It takes four lines this time of year, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing with.”
His size, his maturity after three years of college, his thoughtfulness with his answers to even the toughest questions and his willingness to face the music no matter how bad it might sound – remember Wheeler answering questions about a missed empty net last winter against St. Louis, while still wearing his full uniform – make it easy to forget that he’s just 23. In a world that demands instant gratification, playing in front of a fan base that demands all it players fit the bill as another Cam Neely, it’s easy to forget that Wheeler still has room to grow, both physically and mentally. He can still perfect the art of positioning like Mark Recchi, he can continue to bulk up and he can add a mean streak (although it’s hard to imagine the ‘golly gee’ kid from Minnesota getting too mad about anything).
That he’s now reversed his movement on the depth chart from a position one step from the press box to a near slot in the top six, is a testament to Wheeler’s continued improvement and a boon to the Bruins’ chances of getting deeper in the postseason despite the loss of Sturm and possible absence of David Krejci.
You know there’s a power forward in there, and it’s peaking out more and more. There’s a solid chance it’ll become a possible fixture on the outside of Wheeler and inside the Bruins’ lineup.