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Neely thinks scoring punch will return soon

CAM NEELY Encouragement from the top CAM NEELY
Encouragement from the top
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / January 29, 2010

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WILMINGTON - On Jan. 14, from the visitors’ suite above the HP Pavilion ice, Cam Neely and the Bruins hockey operations staff - every executive and scout was present for pro scouting meetings - watched a team missing its top three centers (Patrice Bergeron, Marc Savard, David Krejci) and two dependable defensemen (Andrew Ference, Mark Stuart) scrap out a 2-1 shootout win over the San Jose Sharks, one of the NHL’s premier clubs.

Just over two weeks later, Neely and assistant general manager Jim Benning were flanking general manager Peter Chiarelli in the Ristuccia Arena stands, watching what they had projected to be a Cup-worthy club fight to regain its identity.

“It’s no secret that we’re having a tough go,’’ said Neely, a Bruins vice president. “We’re obviously having trouble scoring. We control the play a little bit, but then when we don’t score, we fall behind. Then we see that the confidence is not there to say, ‘OK, we can overcome this.’ ’’

For Neely, the personification of all things Black and Gold, the tumble has been especially painful. The front office assembled a roster modeled on the Hall of Famer, whose No. 8 hangs from the TD Garden ceiling.

Tough. Feared. Skilled. Hard to play against. No-quit character.

For most of this very indifferent season, the Bruins have been none of those things.

“We have to get back to our identity as a team,’’ said Neely. “It’s something that’s been talked about for a few years - the identity of the Boston Bruins. I think that’s been kind of missing. Maybe we’re thinking too much about what we’re not doing instead of thinking about what we have to do.’’

Yesterday, after their fourth straight practice day, the Bruins traveled to Buffalo for tonight’s game at HSBC Arena. It is a game that does not favor the Bruins, losers of four straight and winners of only one of their last nine outings. The Sabres, backstopped by the league’s best goalie in Ryan Miller (28-11-5, 2.06 goals-against average, .934 save percentage), are 15 points ahead of the Bruins in the Northeast Division.

But Neely and the Bruins have an air of optimism that belies their slump. Savard, who missed all but 28 seconds of the 1-7-1 freefall because of a partial MCL tear in his right knee, will return tonight. Byron Bitz, missing for five games (the Bruins went 0-4-1 without the wing) because of an undisclosed injury, is also due back tonight. Steve Begin, who hasn’t dressed since suffering a lower-body injury Jan. 16, made it through yesterday’s practice without limitations and could be available either tonight or tomorrow against Los Angeles at the Garden. Marco Sturm (leg), unavailable the last five games, made it through his first full practice yesterday since being shelved, although the wing isn’t expected to play until next week.

Even Andrew Ference, projected to miss six weeks because of a groin tear, skated on his own yesterday, and could practice with the team next week.

“A lot of it has to do with the various players coming in and out of the lineup,’’ Neely said. “We didn’t have that last year. There was more of a consistent group. This year, it’s been a number of different line combinations with a number of different players being in and out of the lineup. I think that’s why that consistency hasn’t been there this year.’’

Because of injuries to Savard (foot, knee) and Milan Lucic (finger, ankle), Neely has been busier than usual as a mentor to the wounded. There are few executives more qualified than Neely to speak about crippling injuries and how they affect careers. In 1993-94, with his injured knee barking in protest and rendering him unable to play every night, Neely scored 50 goals in 44 games. Neely retired for good in 1998 because of his injured hip.

With the instant credibility that a Hall of Fame ring can bring, Neely has been a calming voice in the Garden press box on game nights. When injured players in suits want nothing more than to be on the ice, Neely has been there to clap his cast-iron pan of a hand on their backs and keep them from experiencing the mental depths of being out.

“He went through a nightmare to end his career when it came to injuries,’’ said Lucic. “We’ve talked about staying positive. I think the biggest thing he’d always say is that you can’t let yourself get down. You can’t be miserable. You can’t start thinking negative.

“That was the main thing that I got from him when I was out. I think if there’s one guy you want to talk to about the mental standpoint of going through all this, he’s the guy you really want to talk to.

“He showed that he can do it even though he couldn’t play some nights. He still showed he could score 50 goals in the short amount of time he played.

“He’s serious, but he also likes to keep it loose. He likes to joke around. That’s another great thing about him.’’

Tonight, coach Claude Julien will go back to some combinations that clicked in 2008-09. Krejci, Blake Wheeler, and Michael Ryder, the potent third line that ripped apart bottom-six forwards and depth defensive pairings last season, will be reunited. Lucic and Savard, who skated with Phil Kessel on the No. 1 line, will be back together and joined by Miroslav Satan.

“He and I had some chemistry last year,’’ Savard said of Lucic. “Now we’ve got another 81 on the other side. Hopefully that’s a good thing.’’

It will be the first opportunity for the Bruins, who did their best to rebuild themselves through practice and off-ice work this week, to bust the slump that has dropped them from fifth to 10th in the East. They have emphasized the power play and down-low offensive situations in practice, all in hopes of boosting their offense (dead-last in the NHL) and improving their confidence.

“It’s been a good week for us to practice and try to get our game back together here,’’ Julien said. “At the same time, we’re itching to get back to playing here and hopefully seeing the results from our work this week.’’

The Bruins’ first aim for this stretch (four straight home games after tonight) is to regain their top-eight standing. But the second priority is for management to evaluate a lineup that is as healthy as it’s been in a while. The front office’s belief is that with good health and more competitive fire, the 2009-10 club can be good enough to make some noise in the playoffs.

Continued struggles, however, will prompt Neely and the management team to make changes prior to the March 3 deadline.

“We’ve been waiting for that,’’ Neely said of good health. “It’s been much longer than we expected it to be. Hopefully this next stretch of games will really give us an indication of this team and get some lines together that we envisioned being together. We’ll see how they perform.

“But ultimately the goal is to win, right? It’s our job, as a management group, to evaluate our team. Not just its strengths, but its weaknesses.’’

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

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