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Bruins trying to shape up

WILMINGTON -- Bruins practice yesterday at the Ristuccia Arena had the distinct feel of training camp. There were double-session workouts, there was a businesslike atmosphere, there was huffing and puffing after extended wind sprints.

All of it was designed to improve the players' conditioning and refocus them on the task at hand. It was a wakeup call for the team's woeful performances of late.

Team president Harry Sinden, in attendance the last two days as coach Mike Sullivan put his club through its paces, said Sullivan and general manager Mike O'Connell (who was absent for the second consecutive day) are attempting to put a stop to the team's disturbing pattern of blowing games in the late going.

Sinden said it's important to react but not overreact. He believes once defenseman Brian Leetch returns from a strained knee and Alexei Zhamnov, just getting back from a shoulder injury, gets his feet under him, things will improve. Because of the revolving door the Bruins have had as a result of injuries, it's tough to evaluate the roster.

''It's absolutely necessary for these young defensemen to have these top players in the lineup like Leetch and Zhamnov and Joe Thornton playing well," said Sinden. ''Almost all the free agents we signed have been hurt. Zhamnov, [Dave] Scatchard, Leetch, [Brad] Isbister. They were the ones Mike O'Connell wanted to add to give that veteran presence and experience to the team. We do need them in the lineup, not only for their sake because they're so good, but for the young players.

''I think it will turn around. They're addressing as much as they can, the problem of what appears to be a falling off of team play as the game wears on. I know Mike Sullivan is very concerned about it and he's trying to address it here in these days off. Maybe it's an endurance thing."

At the start of the season, the Bruins looked solid on paper. Sinden said he hasn't moved off that position.

''I'm not particularly worried because I feel the personnel is pretty darn good," he said. ''If we can somehow get in enough games to get these three young defensemen experience and confidence, I think we'll be fine. We knew we were going to have some trials and tribulations at the beginning with them. I'm not putting it all on them, but it's difficult. They're adjusting to not only the NHL but to an absolutely foreign game."

One of the issues Sullivan has had to deal with is the players' varying degrees of conditioning. Those who have missed time with injuries have needed time to get up to speed. Others are dealing with nagging physical ailments that limit their practice time.

''Zhamnov, I mean, he's a great player who looked out of place in his opening game because of his conditioning," said Sinden. ''That has been a problem for them. But we've had some days off here and they should make up some ground there. Every time [Sullivan's] wanted to put them through a pretty tough couple of days of workouts, he's had to nurse along a couple of players who have been hurt."

If Sinden is very concerned about anything, it's keeping the fan base through these struggles. Ultimately, it comes down to winning.

''The bottom line with these sports teams is W's and L's," he said. ''All the rest of the hype will be totally lost if you can't win your share of games. You cannot con these people or anybody into coming and watching a team that loses too many games.

''You watch the Patriots over the years and it wasn't until they won that there was such a demand. The Red Sox have always had a good team, they've always basically been a winner. With our team and the Celtics, we have to win."

Even if the Bruins wanted to make changes, Sinden said ''it's murder" because of the new economic system, which operates with a salary cap.

As much as he's tried to remain objective, Sinden said he reacts emotionally when the Bruins lose.

''It's very tough to watch the team, like that game against Philadelphia," he said, referring to the Nov. 8 contest when Boston turned a two-goal lead in the final four minutes of regulation into a 4-3 overtime loss. ''I couldn't go to bed after I watched that on TV."

Scatchard, who has been in and out of the lineup because of a groin strain, missed practice because of a sore ankle. Sullivan said it was just precautionary and he expects the veteran center to be fine.

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