Boucher notices difference in team

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Penguins defenseman Philippe Boucher has spent a lot of time watching hockey in the past seven weeks or so.

A lot more than he cared to, actually.

But whether Boucher, who hasn't played in nearly two months because of foot surgery, was looking on from the locker-room runway at Mellon Arena or keeping track via TV, he has been struck by how his team has changed since Jan. 30, when he previously appeared in a game.

Or, more to the point, since mid-February, when Dan Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as coach.

"I've noticed the difference, how much better we play," Boucher said. "You can feel it in the locker room, how much more fun the guys are having, and the energy on the ice. You can really feel that guys are playing with confidence.

"When you go out and watch the game, you can tell. You can tell in practice, you can tell by the demeanor in the locker room. The guys are confident. They know we can win, whether we're up or down, we know what we can do."

Boucher got medical clearance late last week to resume playing, but Bylsma hasn't said when he expects to get Boucher back in the lineup. The next opportunity will be when Calgary visits Mellon Arena at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow.

"I've put in the time in the gym and some time on the ice now," Boucher said. "I'm looking forward to getting a chance."

Bylsma acknowledged a few days ago that Boucher was physically able to play, if needed, and Boucher believes he's ready to return.

"I've been practicing and it's been going well," he said. "We'll see how things are going [this] week."

Boucher, acquired Nov. 16 from Dallas for Darryl Sydor, has appeared in just 23 games with the Penguins, while sitting out 32.

He has missed the past 24 while recovering from the foot surgery, and previously had been knocked out of the lineup by a concussion.

"I feel like I've been pretty much hurt ever since I got here, with the concussion and then breaking my foot a couple of games after that," he said.

"It's been very frustrating. I'm looking forward to being able to help as soon as I get in there. Obviously, it's been awhile, but I've done it before and I know what to expect."

Boucher is a right-handed shot; Kris Letang is the only other Penguins defenseman who isn't a left-hander. When he was acquired, the Penguins hoped he could be a significant contributor on the No. 2 power-play unit, but Boucher hasn't had much of an offensive impact, picking up just two goals and two assists.

It isn't known if Bylsma plans to give him power-play time, but Boucher said he will embrace whatever duties he is assigned. He is averaging a little more than 20 minutes of ice time for the season, including about two minutes per game on the power play and two more killing penalties.

"I'll do whatever you need me to do," he said. "I haven't gotten to talk to Dan, but in the past I've played in a lots of situations, so hopefully I'm a guy who can be counted on for whatever they need."

Boucher, 35, will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Whether the Penguins will make a serious effort to retain him remains to be seen, but a strong showing in the closing weeks of the regular season and some good work in the playoffs probably could get him on the radar of clubs that will be shopping for a veteran defenseman.

And it certainly would got a long way toward purging some of the frustration caused by spending so much of this season in street clothes.

"It's been a frustrating year," Boucher said. "I have three weeks to make most out of it. And obviously, playoffs. That's what we're all looking forward to."

NOTES -- Penguins center Evgeni Malkin, the NHL's leading scorer, was named the league's No. 2 star for the week that ended Sunday. He had three goals and five assists in three games, with five of those points coming in a 6-2 victory last Tuesday against the Atlanta Thrashers. Carolina goalie Cam Ward was the No. 1 star of the week, and Phoenix winger Shane Doan was No. 3. ... Bylsma gave the Penguins off yesterday.


Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com .


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