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Northeast: Despite injuries, Bruins are excelling on defense

by James Murphy /

The Bruins' Dennis Wideman takes out Mark Streit of the Montreal Canadiens. Wideman highlight
For the Bruins players who were in Boston for the 2006-07 season, Tuesday’s 8-2 loss to the Canadiens had to be a case of déjà vu. The eights goals allowed was the most by this current Boston squad and painfully reminiscent of most games last season, one in which the Bruins allowed 289 goals and sported an extremely flawed defensive game plan. This is one of many, if not the main, reasons that General Manager Peter Chiarelli decided a coaching change was necessary, and replaced Dave Lewis with Claude Julien just prior to the 2007 NHL Entry Draft last June.

When Julien was hired, he and Chiarelli promised their main focus for this season would be to minimize their goals-against, and for the majority of the season – with the exception of Tuesday and a few other bumps in the road – they have done just that, allowing only 132 goals, against 125 goals scored. While obviously they would like to light the red light more, the team is happy with its defensive game thus far, and hey, why not? Heading into Thursday’s game, the Bruins defense as a whole has missed 57 games due to injury.

“We’ve had a couple stinkers here and there, but overall I think we’ve definitely improved,” defenseman Dennis Wideman said recently.

“We came into this season with our main goal being to keep the puck out of our net and I think we’ve done a good job of that. We’ve had a lot of guys out for periods of time but we’ve stuck together and kept to a game plan.”

Wideman came to Boston from St. Louis in a much-maligned trade that saw the popular Brad Boyes dealt to the Blues. Known more for his offensive skills and often criticized in the past for taking too many risks, Wideman struggled after the trade and was a healthy scratch for the season opener in October. But he has played every game since, and ironically has flourished under Julien’s defense-first system. As he points out, sometimes the best offense can be the best defense.

“I think last season that yeah, maybe I took too many chances sometimes and I struggled at first, but I really tried to tighten things up heading into this season and make sure I took care of things in our end,” he acknowledged.

“Claude and the coaches have done a great job of getting the defense to play as a unit and we bought into his system from the beginning. We’re responsible in our own end and that gets the puck going the other way. It’s about making crisp passes out of your zone, and knowing when to pinch and take chances down the other end.”

Fellow blueliner Mark Stuart echoed Wideman’s observations and believes the key to the improvements on defense has been the group’s resilience and ability to maintain their specific roles despite key players like Andrew Alberts (15 games), Andrew Ference (16 games), and Aaron Ward (eight games) missing extended periods of time.

“Guys try to fill in when other guys are out, but we never forget what our own roles are and don’t stray from that,” Stuart said.

“We usually do a solid job of keeping things simple. We take care of our end and then try to read the plays well in the offensive zone.”

Stuart also credited the Boston coaching staff, but pointed out the solid job done by Providence Bruins coach Scott Gordon’s staff on the club’s AHL team. Stuart has emerged into a solid NHL defenseman this season, playing in all 48 games. He believes his consistency this season is the result of the continuity in team philosophy between Providence and Boston.

“You look at the way guys fit right in and understand the defensive system we play here, and that’s because they’re learning this in Providence, too,” Stuart pointed out.

“Look at the way players like (Matt) Lashoff and (Matt) Hunwick stepped in this season. They know their roles before they get here because they’re taught the same systems down there. It helps, and it’s helped me a lot this season.”

So while the loss to the Canadiens on Tuesday may have resembled the chaos that plagued the Bruins last season, the defense is confident they will not lose control of the season and revert to that.

“We’re in the playoff race and no one really picked us to be even close,” Stuart said.

“We believe in each other and in this system. We just have to keep going out there and staying with it.”

Shootout Summary

Alex Steen

Boston lost 3-2 in a shootout against Toronto on Jan. 17. Forwards Alex Steen and Mats Sundin scored shootout goals for the Leafs, while Vesa Toskala stopped both Bruins shooters. Steen sealed the deal in the shootout round, and also had a goal in regulation.

That same night, the Canadiens were victorious in a shootout with a 3-2 win in Atlanta. Andrei Kostitsyn and Saku Koivu scored in the shootout, and Cristobal Huet stopped both Atlanta shots.

The Bruins rebounded from the shootout loss to Toronto with a 4-3 shootout win over the Rangers on Saturday. Phil Kessel and Zdeno Chara lit the red light for Boston in the shootout, and Tim Thomas stopped both New York shooters. Thomas had 25 saves in regulation, while Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist stopped 36 shots.

Who’s hot?

After being named to the Eastern Conference All-Star team last week, Bruins center Marc Savard continued to show why he is viewed as one of the best playmakers in the game. Savard had seven assists in four games, including three two-assist games. Forward Chuck Kobasew snapped an eight-game scoring drought with two goals in the Bruins’ shootout win against the Rangers on Saturday and a shorthanded tally the following day in a 3-1 Bruins win at New York. Forward Marco Sturm also has three goals and an assist in his last four games. Thomas was 2-0 with a 2.91 goals-against average and .895 save percentage this past week.

After going winless for 10 games, the Sabres broke out of their slump and got back on track scoring-wise with a 10-1 win against the Thrashers on Friday night. Drew Stafford and Derek Roy had hat tricks in the win. Roy had three goals and an assist in the win over Atlanta, his first game back since missing four games with a shoulder injury. Stafford had a five-point night in that game, and has six points (four goals, two assists), in his last four games. Thomas Vanek (one goal, three assists), Ales Kotalik (one goal, three assists), Jochen Hecht (two goals, two assists), Daniel Paille (two goals, two assists), and Brian Campbell (four assists), all have four points in their last four games.

Senators forward Mike Fisher has four points (two goals, two assists), in his last four games.

Canadiens netminder Cristobal Huet was 2-1 with a 1.63 goals-against average and .938 save percentage this past week.

Toronto goaltender Vesa Toskala was 2-0 with a 1.92 goals-against average and .932 save percentage this past week.

Black and Blue

Patrice Bergeron

Boston – Center Patrice Bergeron took a one-week vacation in Aruba to revitalize from his efforts to recover from post-concussion syndrome. General Manager Peter Chiarelli acknowledged last week that Bergeron likely is out for the season, but on Wednesday the Boston Globe’s Kevin Paul Dupont reported the Bruins might give it one more whirl to see if the team’s alternate captain can resume any kind of comeback attempt.

“Again, I can't speak for the Boston Bruins, but I don't think they are quite there yet,” Bergeron’s agent, Kent Hughes, told Dupont. “Maybe they see about getting him back on a light program and find out if the rest served him well.”

The Bruins still are missing their other alternate captain, forward Glen Murray, who remains on injured reserve with a hip flexor. Murray practiced with the Bruins on Monday, but was unable to do so Tuesday as the hip acted up. Forward P.J. Axelsson is day-to-day with a foot injury.

Defenseman Andrew Alberts, who also is on injured reserve with post-concussion syndrome, doesn’t seem to be improving. Alberts still is suffering from headaches related to the injury. Fellow blueliner Bobby Allen is day-to-day with back spasms.

Buffalo – Forward Maxim Afinogenov remains on injured reserve with a groin injury. Forwards Tim Connolly (groin), and Michael Ryan (eye) are day-to-day.

Montreal – Defenseman Ryan O’Byrne is on injured reserve with a broken thumb.

Ottawa – Forward Dany Heatley is on injured reserve with a separated right shoulder. Forward Brian McGrattan is day-to-day with a shoulder injury.

Toronto – Forward Mark Bell is on injured reserve with a broken orbital bone and will be out eight weeks after successful surgery this past week. Defensemen Carlo Colaiacovo (knee contusion), and Bryan McCabe (broken left hand) also are on injured reserve.

Week Ahead

Alexander Ovechkin and the Capitals are at the Air Canada Centre tonight to take on the Maple Leafs in the first game of a home-and-home.

All Northeast teams will be in action Thursday as they play their last games prior to the All-Star break this weekend. The Islanders are in Boston; the Canadiens are at New Jersey; Toronto caps off the home-and-home at Washington; the Senators are at Tampa Bay and the Sabres are in Dallas.

When the league resumes action Tuesday, the entire division will be playing again. The Bruins host the Predators; Ottawa is on Long Island to play the Islanders; the Sabres are in Tampa; Toronto hosts St. Louis; and the Capitals are in Montreal to play the Habs.


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