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Going backward on the blue line

Wideman, Bruins appear defenseless

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / January 26, 2010

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WILMINGTON - In the first period on Sunday, as David Krejci stickhandled deep in the corner and shook off Carolina’s Stephane Yelle, Dennis Wideman saw the play unfold. The Hurricanes are one of the few teams that play man-to-man defense, and with Eric Staal floating in the slot instead of serving as a backchecker, Wideman knew that if he jumped up, there would be nobody to defend him.

“Staal was supposed to be covering me, and he got kind of buried low in the slot, looking at the puck,’’ Wideman recalled. “So I knew I had the opportunity to go. It just worked out that David had just spun off his guy and saw me going. There was a big lane.’’

Krejci threaded a cross-crease pass to an open Wideman. The defenseman fired a shot that should have given the Bruins a 1-0 lead. But Cam Ward exploded from right to left and stepped in front of Wideman’s shot.

“That goes in, maybe it’s a different hockey game,’’ Wideman said.

Thirty seconds later, Wideman was plucking the puck out from his own net after Ray Whitney put the Bruins down by the first of five straight goals.

“It ended up working good,’’ Wideman said of his jump-up and Krejci’s feed. “Except for the part where I didn’t put it in the back of the net.’’

It’s been that kind of stretch for Wideman and the Bruins, who took a 5-1 wallop on the chin from one of the NHL’s worst clubs. Like a number of his teammates (Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic, Krejci), Wideman had a career year in 2008-09, when he scored 13 goals and had 37 assists while serving as a capable No. 2 defenseman.

This season, as the Bruins have swirled down the Eastern Conference standings, Wideman is following the path once blazed by Brad Stuart three seasons ago - a two-way defenseman whose game imploded amid ragged play, inconsistent effort, bad breaks, and a shattering of confidence.

On Sunday, Wideman was on the ice for every Carolina goal, including Staal’s power-play marker in the second period that became the winning score. All told, Wideman completed the game with three shots, three attempts blocked, two hits, one takeaway, and a minus-4 rating in 23:24 of ice time. He is now saddled with a minus-12 this season, fourth-worst among NHL defensemen averaging 23 or more minutes of ice time (only Carolina’s Joni Pitkanen, Anaheim’s Scott Niedermayer, and Los Angeles’s Jack Johnson have lower ratings).

Even before Sunday’s setback, Wideman was hearing boos at TD Garden and absorbing the barbs of coach Claude Julien. Wideman’s extended slump might force the Bruins to move him as an acknowledgment he may never reclaim his touch in Boston, as they did with Stuart.

“The deadline’s coming up, as well as things going the way they’ve been going,’’ Wideman said. “Around this time of year when you get to this point of the season, there’s always chances of changes. But that’s not something that you can think of as a player. If you’re thinking about stuff like that, it’s death.’’

Wideman and the Bruins were back at work yesterday at Ristuccia Arena, trying to turn around what has been a perfect storm of inadequacies in a 1-7-1 wobble. Injuries have hit hard. Goaltending has sprung leaks. Aside from Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi, go-to players have been anything but reliable. Management has been unable to shake out a trade - moves to dump Chuck Kobasew and import Daniel Paille took place more than three months ago - to upgrade the roster. Julien’s whip-cracking has produced withdrawal instead of urgency.

“I don’t expect and we don’t expect anybody to feel sorry for us,’’ Julien said. “It’s our own situation that we have to get ourselves out of. Simple as that. Our fans are disappointed, and rightfully so. We haven’t delivered. We have to accept what’s going on here. Once you accept that, hopefully you want to do something about it. Our fans deserve better than what they’re getting. Somehow we have to find that game of ours and give everybody what they want to see.’’

Yesterday’s practice kicked off a four-day lull between games that the Bruins intend to take advantage of in every way possible. Players such as Marc Savard (knee) and Byron Bitz (undisclosed), who have missed time because of injuries, can ease back into the lineup and perhaps be ready for Friday’s game against Buffalo. Marco Sturm (leg) and Steve Begin (undisclosed), according to Julien, could return to skating this week.

The downside of this pause is that by Friday, the Bruins could fall even deeper in the standings. However, based on their recent play, the Bruins seem to be incapable of recording any points (zero in their last four games), and any boost to their confidence would be a welcome addition.

“I think we’re going to get everybody back healthy for Friday, so we’ll see where we’re at,’’ said Derek Morris. “We’re starting from scratch. We’ll have everybody back healthy. We’re going to work hard this week and forget about what just went on. Obviously it’s been a long year for everybody. But this is going to be a fresh start.’’

Had the Bruins followed standard protocol, yesterday would have been an offday. But for an hour at Ristuccia, they focused on down-low, even-man situations. The message: effort and execution will be paramount for the Bruins to emerge from their slump.

Following the drills, the Bruins closed practice with sprints around the rink, with many players loitering on the ice for extra work.

“It definitely wasn’t a punishment skate,’’ said Matt Hunwick. “It was a skate where we had to work hard. We did a lot of drills with a lot of even-man, where we’re battling a little bit. We had to play in position and execute.’’

Rather than dwell on their situation, the Bruins were upbeat after practice. Savard, who participated in the full session (including battle drills), said his knee held up well, although he acknowledged fatigue after the grinding session. Bitz also said he felt good and was optimistic about returning against the Sabres. Even the star-crossed Wideman, who took a puck in the mouth Sunday, reported no significant damage.

When noted that he didn’t miss a shift after eating the puck, Wideman deadpanned, “Why would I go out? I had to be on the ice for another goal against.’’

If not their playoff hopes, the Bruins are at least keeping their humor (even if it’s of the black variety) alive.

After practice, Drew Larman was assigned to Providence. Larman, who did not have a point in four games, was one of two spare forwards yesterday. Trent Whitfield was the other . . . Shawn Thornton departed midway through practice and didn’t return. Thornton suffered a leg injury against Ottawa Saturday, but he played against Carolina Sunday.

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

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