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Injuries begin to take their toll in loss

Boston Bruins [1] coach Claude Julien [2] isn’t an excuse-maker and has never been much of one. The B’s bench boss calls it like it is, and has no problem saying so if energy, effort or enthusiasm are a problem for his hockey club — but there wasn’t any of that kind of tough talk following Monday afternoon’s 5-4 shootout loss at the TD Banknorth Garden [3].

The post-game chatter wasn’t about P.J. Axelsson and Blake Wheeler [4] flip-flopping on the top two lines or any lingering issues that the Bruins may have in shoot-outs this season (Axelsson one of the top three shooters…really?), but Julien instead zeroed in on the injuries and the toll they’ve taken on the Black and Gold’s play.

Julien said that this Bruins team is missing at least “30 percent” of their regular lineup and evidence of that has begun to crop up in recent games. A one-goal stinker of a win over the Islanders, a hard-fought-but-no-cigar 2-1 loss to the Washington Capitals [5] and the rollar coaster ride against the Blues are all unlike the dominant Bruins pattern that emerged throughout the first half of the season.

“The reality is right now we can’€™t be the same team that people have seen since the beginning of the year ‘€“ not with that many injuries.  We just have to look at our lineup, and I think it’€™s important that people know that we’€™ve got to grind it out a little more like we did last year…that’€™s just the reality,” said Julien. “You face those situations, and that’€™s called adversity.  You have to do that, and it’€™s frustrating for everybody; it’€™s frustrating for the players, frustrating for the fans and people that have seen our team in better situations before.”

The current team simply isn’t resembling the squad that the Bruins had through the first 40 games of the season, and after the game Julien actually sounded like a coach hoping for some level of reinforcements supplied by his general manager. Tampa Bay center Vinny Lecavalier is obviously the most prominent name mentioned in trade rumors with the Bruins, but other names like Toronto defenseman Tomas Kaberle [6], Atlanta defenseman Matthieu Schneider, Edmonton Oilers [7] Erik Cole [8] and Blues winger Keith Tkachuk have all been mentioned as potential healthy bodies that could help fill up the ranks.

With Phil Kessel [9] and Milan Lucic [10] both out of the lineup, Marc Savard [11] hasn’t had enough willing and able offensive partners skating with him in recent weeks — a development that was allowing defenses to simply key on shutting down the David Krejci [12]/Blake Wheeler/Michael Ryder [13] B’s bonanza line.

So Julien put Wheeler up on the first line with Savard and Kobasew and inserted his favorite Swede into the electric second line with Krejci and Ryder. The move evened out the lines against a St. Louis team that’s been a Western Conference doormat all season long, but it didn’t exactly ignite the B’s offense either. The Bruins finally scored on a pair of power play strikes in the waning minutes of the third period to take the lead, and the B’s reasonably thought they had a nice, tight one-goal win wrapped up.

Unfortunately for the B’s, Blues forward David Backes scored a goal with .8 seconds left that pushed the game into overtime and ultimately led to the slipped-through-their-fingers shoot-out loss. The goal was briefly reviewed for being a high-sticking call, but the home offices in Toronto reviewed the goal and found insufficient evidence to overturn the call. The defeat pushed Julien to make a series of pointed comments about the current injured state of the B’s, and the difficulty in replacing players the caliber of Patrice Bergeron [14] and Marco Sturm [15]. Perhaps he’s looking for a little help, just as many trade-proposing members of Bruins Nation are as well.

“When you’€™re missing four of your top six players, in your top two lines, four of them [Kessel, Sturm, Bergeron, Lucic], right now, with the two D’€™s that are normally top four [Ference, Ward], we’€™ve got six players that are in the upper echelon of our lineup that aren’€™t there right now,” said Julien. “That’€™s one-third of your team missing.  It’€™s impossible to think you have the same team.

“You can’€™t turn around and replace a Patrice Bergeron or a Marco Sturm for his speed and his skill level.  He has it, and he’€™s playing on top lines because he has it, and you can’€™t just replace that,” added Julien. “Otherwise you’€™d have a heck of a team; we’€™d have four lines that could produce.  We’€™ve got guys moving up that are playing different roles, and we’€™ve guys that are from Providence that are helping us out the best that they can, and that’€™s what we have to deal with.”

Taking the loss hard

Blake Wheeler was still at his locker dressed in full uniform and looking distraught following the 5-4 shootout loss, and the young winger seemed to be replaying a series of unresolved moments from the second half of the game in his head. Wheeler didn’t get his stick on the rebound of a Marc Savard shot in the third period that could have pushed the Bruins out to a 4-2 lead, but that slight miss was soon forgotten when seconds later Zdeno Chara [16] blasted home a booming slapper from the right point that supplied Boston with a thought-to-be insurance goal.

Things got worse for Wheeler when — with the Blues goalie pulled in the closing seconds of the third period — the rookie winger missed a bid at the wide open net from the neutral zone that would have iced the game for the Black and Gold. That slight miss seemed to be hurting the Big 18 Wheeler the most, but insult was added to injury when he clanged the post in his shootout attempt after completely faking out Chris Mason with a great deke.

“I lost the game for us,” said a despondent Wheeler following the loss.

Was it the unforgiving post or the missed emtpy net that would be keeping Wheeler up all night after the game?

“The open net because they came down and scored the goal that tied the game about ten seconds later,” admitted Wheeler. “It’€™s about a hockey player’€™s worst nightmare come true.”

While it was admirable for such a young guy to be taking sole responsibility after a game that was so close to victory, there were plenty of defensive breakdowns and missed opportunities that led up to the eventual loss at the hands of the Blues. Wheeler needn’t place all the blame on his 22-year-old shoulders in a game that had so many twists and turns, and ended with the B’s taking him another point prior to the All-Star break.

A goal put a smile on his face

It made Blues forward Brad Boyes laugh when he heard the chorus of boos coming down from the pro-Bruins crowd at the Garden before he lined up for his shootout attempt. The former Bruin, traded for Dennis Wideman [17] and still one of Patrice Bergeron’s closest friends in the NHL [18], deftly beat Tim Thomas [19] with a shot attempt that clinched the shootout victory for the Blues.

Game, set, and match for a classy kid from Ontario that was part of an incredibly effective Bergeron/Sturm/Boyes line when he was skating for Mike Sullivan’s Bruins in the post-Thornton Era. Things went bad for Boyes when Dave Lewis began his reign of ineptitude, and he was eventually shipped out for the puck-moving blueliner.

“It was good. We got a win, and we’€™re happy with that,” said Boyes. “We got a win last year [4-1 Blues win on 12/22/07], which was big.  Maybe we should come back here a little more often.  It’€™s always good.  It’€™s a hockey town, and it’€™s good to see they’€™re rallying around the team.”