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ON HOCKEY

Problem comes up when defensemen don't

Nearly two months into the season, which is about when every rink in North America turned into quicksand for them last year, the Bruins are in pretty good shape. They've left a few too many points on the table of late, and that's a legitimate concern, but they're still breakin' bread and rubbin' elbows with the best in the East and, most important, their goaltending is reliable. Unless some geneticist chimes in from a backroom lab at MIT with DNA evidence to the contrary, there appears to be no fatal flaw in their game.

You hear the "but" coming, don't you? Well, here it is: as evidenced again in last night's 3-3 tie with the Coyotes, the Bruins need more from their defensemen in the most difficult place of all -- the offensive end.

This is not a a shock, because they were hoping to address that very concern when they offered Bryan Berard that two-year, $3.5 million deal over the summer, ultimately to lose him as a free agent to Chicago. Had they offered him a tick better than $2 million for one year, his signing price a month into the season, he would have remained here, and no doubt would have had a far better time than he's having right now with the hapless Hawks, who now have gone 11 straight games without a victory.

Berard got what he asked for, moneywise, but no doubt a whole lot less in terms of satisfaction.

Meanwhile, there is no one in the back-end mix for the Bruins who seems prepared to grasp in full the need to step boldly into the offensive fray. Hal Gill picked up an assist last night, which means in the last six games the Bruins' defensemen have collected a modest two goals and five assists.

Overall, that's not bad here in the dead puck era. But it's not enough for the offensive attack, once it cracks the blue line, to be anything more than a three-man threat. If the forwards don't score, then no one's going to score, and there are 29 barking-dog defenses in the NHL that know that. Absent Ray Bourque walking down from playing handshake host in the luxury suites, it's not going to change any time soon.

The latest case in point was the Bruins' failed five-on-three power play in the second period vs. the Desert Dogs. Working with a 2-1 lead, they were handed the two-man advantage when Sergei Samsonov drew a pair of fouls -- first a slash from Tyson Nash, then a trip from Mike Sillinger -- at 12:44. Had they scored once, the lead would have doubled. Had they scored twice, the lead would have moved to 4-1 and all anyone would have cared about was how loud to play U2 on the dressing room boombox after the win.

Fact is, they didn't score. Fact is, that's where they left the point on the table.

"When you have a five-on-three, the puck has to end up in the net -- that's the bottom line," said a frustrated head coach, Mike Sullivan.

How telling that a Boston blue liner never touched the ice for the full two minutes of that five-on-three. For the most part, Sullivan kept the same five forwards on the attack, a front line of Samsonov-Joe Thornton-Glen Murray, backed by point men Patrice Bergeron and Brian Rolston. Mike Knuble jumped in for a few seconds late in the advantage to give Samsonov a breather. The biggest surprise was that Bergeron, the 18-year-old rookie, took up residence at the point, ahead of the likes of defensemen Nick Boynton, Jeff Jillson, or Dan McGillis.

"We think he's a pretty smart player with a lot of poise," said Sullivan, explaining his choice of Bergeron. "It's a situation we've worked on in practice, and we have a certain comfort level with him there. We wanted to see how it goes."

It didn't go, at least it didn't go well enough, and it sure didn't go in the net.

What we're witnessing here is a team without the necessary big shooter/quarterback on the power play it will need to be a true force in the playoffs. Quite frankly, Berard wasn't that either. Jonathan Girard wasn't that either. In June 2000, the Bruins selected Lars Jonsson No. 7 overall in the draft in hopes that the Swedish defenseman could develop that kind of presence on Causeway Street. For now, Jonsson remains in Europe, and there's no telling when, or even if, he'll ever lace 'em up here in the Hub of Hockey.

Meanwhile, speculation began perking last week that former Boston University backliner Tom Poti could be on his way back to Boston. Poti is smooth and offensively gifted, but his lack of grit often negates his abundance of skate-and-pass skill.

Here's one to dream on: the Penguins found a pretty good point man in Dick Tarnstrom, a forgotten piece on the Islanders, last year. The season already looks like toast in Pittsburgh. Perhaps if the Penguins keep offloading salary, they'd be willing to give him up for a decent draft pick.

Who knows, if it gets worse in Chicago, and it likely will, the Hawks might consider wheeling Berard. He had few suitors as a free agent, and Boston could be one of the few clubs willing to take him on, again, if the asking price were low enough. That might sound convoluted, or circuitous, or downright crazy. But we've learned never to say impossible. Now 23 games gone by in the new season, the foible has been found, or better said, rediscovered. It's the same hole that was created when Bourque left for Colorado. No one takes the place of a legend, but for anyone who'd like to try, the line forms in that gaping space between the dozen Boston forwards.

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