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NHL Playoffs

Deep in thought

Julien has options for team's lineup tonight

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By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009
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MONTREAL - It has come to this: Perhaps the most challenging decision Claude Julien pondered yesterday was how to squeeze a fourth-line role player into the Bruins lineup for Game 4 against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre tonight.

"I'll tell you one thing right now," the Boston coach said. "Somebody is going to be sitting out that doesn't deserve to be sitting out."

Byron Bitz, elevated from healthy scratch to No. 4 right wing in Game 3 Monday when Milan Lucic was required to serve a one-game sitdown, did everything his coach asked him to do in his playoff debut. Bitz chipped pucks out in his own zone. He played physical. He protected the puck. He set up Shawn Thornton for the team's second goal. And the Bruins beat Montreal, 4-2, to take a commanding 3-0 lead in their best-of-seven first-round series.

"Byron Bitz, for a guy playing in his first playoff game, he didn't look nervous at all," Julien said. "Very composed. Strong along the walls. Everything we've talked about, he did. What a play he made on that goal from Thornton."

For all his Game 3 merits, Bitz may be the odd man out tonight. Lucic projects to be back on the third line with David Krejci and Michael Ryder. Blake Wheeler, who skated on the No. 3 line in Lucic's absence, most likely will slide down to the fourth line with Thornton and Stephane Yelle and kill penalties with Krejci.

Which leaves Bitz out and underscores perhaps the most significant asset of the 2008-09 Bruins: a deep roster.

"It's nice to have depth," Julien said. "That's what we have. As a coach, you certainly appreciate that."

This roster, started by former general manager Mike O'Connell and completed by Peter Chiarelli, has shown few stress points during the Bruins' run to first place in the Eastern Conference and domination thus far of the Canadiens. In this series, the Bruins have been without go-to left wing Marco Sturm and solid puck-moving defenseman Andrew Ference. They lost Matt Hunwick after only one game. In Game 3, Lucic was out of the lineup.

In Game 2, Shane Hnidy, a healthy scratch for the series opener, stepped in for Hunwick and scored a goal. With Lucic out in Game 3, Bitz emerged. On Monday, every Bruin played at least 13 minutes. Each line scored a goal.

But none of this is surprising to the Bruins. Wheeler was expected to start the season in Providence, but he made the team out of training camp. Patrice Bergeron reclaimed his game and has been the team's best two-way forward lately. Krejci has given the team three offensive-minded centers.

As the March 4 trade deadline approached, the organization's depth put Chiarelli in a position where he could deal youngsters for playoff help.

Petteri Nokelainen, pushed by the development of Bitz, went to Anaheim for Steve Montador. Montador has helped the Bruins withstand the injuries to Ference and Hunwick.

Matt Lashoff, passed by Hunwick on the depth chart, went with Martins Karsums (also surpassed by Bitz) to Tampa Bay for Mark Recchi.

The veteran left wing has been a fixture on the No. 2 line and top power-play unit, which has relieved P.J. Axelsson of man-advantage duties.

Compare the Bruins' situation to that of the black-and-blue Canadiens, and it's not surprising to see the Habs trailing, 3-0. They entered the series without No. 1 defenseman Andrei Markov and No. 2 center Robert Lang. Depth defenseman Francis Bouillon has skated only four shifts in the first round. In Game 3, top-line left wing Alex Tanguay and power-play specialist Mathieu Schneider were late scratches because of upper-body injuries.

Montreal's lack of depth has compounded its injuries. While 20-year-old defenseman Yannick Weber recorded a goal and an assist in Game 3, general manager/coach Bob Gainey doesn't have the reinforcements required to plug holes. Forward Gregory Stewart, who spent most of the season in the AHL, was on the ice for two Boston goals Monday. Forward Matt D'Agostini (zero big-league games this season) was also on the ice for a pair. Defenseman Ryan O'Byrne played only 11:09 in his first appearance of the series.

Not a shock, then, that the Canadiens have yet to record a victory.

"We're going to have to prove we can stay alive by winning a game," Gainey said. "If we win a game, then we play a game on Saturday, where we can look to Tuesday.

"It's by small increments. Without the first one, it's hard to move to the second one or third one, which has been the case since the beginning of the series.

"Right now we're sitting at the fourth, still waiting to get out of the gate as far as putting a win on our side. I think if we do that, our players will gain a little bit.

"There's always optimism. There's always some hope. Until that's gone, that's what you play with."

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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