boston.com Sports Sportsin partnership with NESN your connection to The Boston Globe

Bruins down, out; Lewis the fall guy?

Dave Lewis sat in his Causeway Street office late yesterday morning, the season down to its final days and hours, and put into perspective what happened Sunday afternoon in Pittsburgh.

"I think the guys knew they were done," said the 53-year-old coach, reflecting on his club's eyesore of a 5-0 loss to the Penguins. "Done, as far as fighting for a playoff spot."

And though they rallied some 48 hours later, looking far more alert and motivated in a 3-2 victory at Ottawa, the quit in the Bruins on Sunday -- a trait that decades ago might have triggered demotions to the minors -- may prove to be both the footnote to their failed 2006-07 season and to Lewis's run behind the Boston bench.

Less than one season after ownership reached out, Staples-like, and pushed the big red "EASY" button, the Bruins proved only to be far too easy to play against, leaving them with a lopsided differential of 211 goals and 271 allowed (minus-60 in 77 games) after last night's 4-2 loss to the Penguins at the Garden. Only Philadelphia (minus-82) and Phoenix (minus-65) have been more user-friendly for opponents this season.

Contrary to the stated vision of general manager Peter Chiarelli and Lewis -- that their team would play an aggressive, uptempo, puck-possession game opponents would fear -- the Bruins consistently became conservative to the point of passive with their attack, and rendered themselves easy pickings almost on a nightly basis. Their oft-lackadaisical, passionless, and inconsistent play left them officially disqualified from the playoffs for the second year in a row, and the fourth time in seven seasons.

For all the millions it cost him to push that franchise "EASY" reset button, club owner Jeremy Jacobs, who has grown accustomed to failed seasons since the early '90s, sounded reasonably composed when contacted earlier this week. Disappointed, and somewhat lost for answers, but composed.

"I had high hopes for the season," said Jacobs, speaking by phone from Delaware North's headquarters in Buffalo. "It turned out to be a lot less than I thought it was going to be. I thought we had put together a real team, to put us back in contention. But that hasn't materialized. It seems to me that the skill is there, and the talent is there, but it didn't jell this year."

What went wrong? How to fix it? Jacobs will leave those answers to Chiarelli, the former Ottawa assistant GM who was named to the top job here last June following the dismissal of Mike O'Connell. According to Jacobs, he wants the rookie GM to have the opportunity "to do better with a team that he's put together -- rather than one that was put together for him."

To that point, Chiarelli inherited a gutted, lackluster squad from the prior administration of team president Harry Sinden and O'Connell, but he also directed the acquisition of prime free agents Zdeno Chara and Marc Savard. It is very much the team that Chiarelli built -- and reshaped on the fly beginning in February -- just as it is the one Lewis has coached. To the latter point, Jacobs made it clear Lewis is under intense review and said Chiarelli will not be "second-guessed" if he opted to dismiss Lewis, who has three years left on a contact that some sources place between $800,000 and $1 million per year.

"As an individual, I like him, I really do," said Jacobs, reflecting on the affable Lewis, who was a scout for the Red Wings following his dismissal as Detroit's coach, when Chiarelli hired him. "He is personable and outgoing. But as we all know, that doesn't necessarily make for a winner. I think the GM has to look at that for himself. That's a question for the GM, and one he's challenged with, and ultimately he has to be convinced that the coach can get it where he wants to get it."

The topic, said Jacobs, is one he and Chiarelli have discussed frequently in daily telephone conversations. In the course of the interview, when it was presented to Jacobs, he made it sound as if the subject were frequent fodder of late, and said, with a slight chuckle, "Thank you for your observation."

"If [Chiarelli] feels he wants to make a change, he has the wherewithal to do it," said Jacobs. "He can fire him or keep him, that's up to him. He is not going to be second-guessed, in either case. Whatever the decision is, he's going to make it. More than once, I've told him, 'If you feel the best thing to do is make a change, then you have to make it.' He would not be second-guessed, by me, or anyone."

Grace period
Essentially, the owner is allowing Chiarelli a mulligan, albeit a pricey one, if the GM feels that is what it takes to get his team pointed in the right direction. If so, one possible scenario is promoting Marc Habscheid to bench boss, served by assistant Doug Houda and possibly Scott Gordon, head coach in Providence (AHL).

A lawyer by trade, Chiarelli, when apprised of his boss's remarks, wasn't as blunt. But he made clear his disappointment in the season and underscored that he and the coach must accept the burden of accountability.

"Absolutely, you have to look at [coaching]," said Chiarelli. "He has to be judged, the same as I am, on the team's performance, right? It's been a disappointing year for me. I knew going in that it would be difficult. Still, I felt we had a chance to battle for a final playoff spot. But the way we ended up is very disappointing and what [Jacobs] is saying, I think that applies all the time. It's my decision to make the right decisions, on a day-by-day basis."

How soon will he make the decision regarding Lewis?

"This is a daily issue I deal with," he said. "So I don't put a time frame on it. It's a daily issue, just as it is with player personnel."

For his part, Lewis said, "That's good -- I think that's good," when he was apprised of the owner's remarks. "He gives Peter full authority to do what he wants."

To worry about being fired, said Lewis, "is wasted emotion."

"I never worry about that," he added, separating that type of anxiety from the brand he has spoken of before, sleepless nights that have left him to conjure new drills and on-ice combinations to try to get his squad on the right track. "That's the coach's world, whether you're an NHL coach, or with a major league ball club. It's the greatest job in the world. It's where I want to be. Why would you be worried about the job of your dreams? And critics, that's OK, too. It doesn't worry me, and I don't let it get to me."

Breaking point
It is that kind of reserve and calm that has permeated Lewis's team for most of the season. After stumbling around for the first month, going a tepid 4-7-2 through Nov. 9, the Bruins put on an impressive 14-6 charge into the late-December holiday break that seemingly had them pointed to a playoff berth.

"Then we just crapped out," said the chagrined Chiarelli. "Columbus [a 5-4 loss in OT] . . . Nashville [a 5-0 loss] . . . just awful games."

And on it went. For far too long.

After hitting the holiday break at a revitalized 18-13-2, the club fell asleep for five weeks, a disastrous 4-11-2 collapse through Feb. 1. Lewis couldn't shake his players from their funk, or help them summon, in his word, their "mojo." Chiarelli, though in search of a deal, stood pat on his sputtering lineup.

With approximately two months to go in the regular season, they were in need of playing somewhere around .666 hockey the rest of the way to land a playoff berth. But they have played at a .519 clip (13-12-2), and are destined to finish the season 10-14 points out of the postseason mix. Something closer to that .666 winning percentage, collecting, say, 35 of 52 points, would have had them standing only 3 points out of the No. 8 seed.

When Chiarelli finally began to make moves, it was too late. The effectiveness of those moves also has been minimal. Key blue line acquisitions Andrew Ference, Aaron Ward, and Dennis Wideman haven't done much to stem the flow of goals into the net. To wit: In their last seven games, the Bruins have been shut out three times, and outscored, 27-9. Collectively, the three defensemen have 8 points, and stand at minus-2.

"I think our defense has improved, believe it or not," said Chiarelli. "Wideman's a young player, and he'll only get better. I think to judge him, or any of these deals, in a short time is unfair."

Forward thinking
Up front, new forward Brandon Bochenski showed some pop upon arrival, but had only one goal in nine games before scoring last night. Chuck Kobasew, acquired with Ference in a swap that sent Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau to Calgary, picked up only 2 points in 10 games, and is sidelined after taking a stiff Evgeni Malkin shoulder to the head in Pittsburgh Sunday.

Meanwhile, many of the exiting players have shown considerable upticks. Defenseman Milan Jurcina, flipped to Washington for a fourth-round pick, averaged but 10 minutes 42 seconds in ice time under Lewis and was minus-5 in 40 games. In Washington, he has turned into a minutes monster, averaging 23:08 and a plus-5. Brad Boyes has 4 goals and 11 points in 14 games with the Blues. Stuart, his game painfully disintegrating by the hour in Boston, was a minus-22 in Black and Gold this season. He is plus-10 with Calgary. Paul Mara, a minus-22 in 59 games with his hometown Bruins, stood a plus-5 in 14 games with the Rangers.

According to Lewis, the defense is set. The six to eight defensemen here now are the ones he wants back for 2007-08. All the guys who are gone, he said, wouldn't be elsewhere if they fit the type of player he and Chiarelli felt necessary to move the club to the next level. What the club needs now, said Lewis, is an upgrade among the forwards.

"We need some more grit," he said. "We need more guys who can play on the forecheck, battle better along the boards, get pucks out . . . all the simple things that happen to win games."

Meanwhile, Jacobs continues to scrutinize the team that once printed tickets to the playoffs before the season began, and printed cash along with the wins. The coach could go. He isn't overly concerned about the players who were traded. He is sticking with Chiarelli.

"I think we have the right management in place," Jacobs said. "We support them rather than write them off, at this point."

All the money spent. All the parts changed. Still no Cup, and right now, not one within easy grasp. All that said, might Jacobs consider selling?

"I have no interest in selling," he said. "Heck, who'd talk to me . . . other than the media? Even my kids don't talk to me. No, not interested. It's a product I enjoy owning. I look at it as a long-range picture. I'm proud to have it, and feel good about it, and we will continue to invest in it."

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES