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Teeming with defensive help

Forwards chip in to help blue liners

Bruins winger Milan Lucic raises his arms after his third-period goal, which held up as the winner. Bruins winger Milan Lucic raises his arms after his third-period goal, which held up as the winner. (Gerry Broome/Associated Press)
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / January 19, 2011

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RALEIGH, N.C. — There were hat tricks by Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron. The 7-spot the Bruins laid on the Eastern Conference-leading Flyers last Thursday. The four-goal third-period explosion against Pittsburgh Jan. 10.

Amid all the offensive fireworks, the Bruins have been playing stout defense as well.

Last night’s 3-2 win was mostly an example of game-saving goaltending by Tim Thomas. The All-Star goalie was at his acrobatic best in stopping 37 of 38 shots through 40 minutes.

But there have been other recent games in which the Bruins have leaned more on team defense than on their goalie.

In the last five games, Thomas had two easy shutouts against Carolina and Ottawa. The Bruins’ only blemish in that time was allowing five goals to Philadelphia on a night when they tucked seven pucks into the opposing net. They’ve done all this while injuries have kept the coaching staff from sending out a regular rotation.

“It’s been team defense,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “Our goaltenders have made some good saves. Team defense has been pretty good.

“We believe in having good sticks. Our forwards come down. There were some loose pucks in the slot [Monday] and our forwards were there to pick them up and bat them away. Our guys seem to be collapsing well in that slot area whenever it’s needed. I think that’s been a real help to our defensive game.

“Whenever it goes to the point, our guys are willing to go at them hard, go in the shooting lane, and take away that quality shot.’’

Last night, Mark Stuart played in his second straight game after missing 18 because of a broken right hand and a dislocated ring finger. It was the second game for Steven Kampfer since Chara’s stick busted his nose last Saturday. Adam McQuaid, perhaps the odd man out when Andrew Ference returns, made his fifth straight appearance since sitting out the 4-2 win over Pittsburgh Jan. 10 because of an undisclosed injury.

The injuries, jumbled pairings, and promotions (Matt Bartkowski was recalled twice on an emergency basis) haven’t done anything to upset the defense-first approach. The Bruins entered last night with a 2.13 goals-against average, stingiest in the NHL.

One reason for the club’s defensive success has been the forwards’ efficiency at managing pucks and keeping them away from their own cage.

“I think guys are getting pucks deep, and that allows us to move up and get a good gap,’’ said Dennis Seidenberg. “When you have a good gap, opposing teams don’t have a lot of speed coming through the neutral zone and getting easy entries.

“It all connects. If everybody works well in the defensive zone, has their position, and we do the little things right, it results in less goals against.’’

Yesterday, Ference was one of six Bruins (McQuaid, Stuart, Tuukka Rask, Gregory Campbell, Daniel Paille) to participate in an optional morning skate. Ference will most likely be available for tomorrow’s home game against Buffalo if he doesn’t suffer any setbacks.

A breakthrough At 2:04 of last night’s first period, Johnny Boychuk appeared to beat Cam Ward with one of his signature slap shots from the point. Later in the first, the goal was changed to Marc Savard, who had sliced through the slot in front of Ward when Boychuk’s puck arrived.

Then early in the second, the goal was credited to Boychuk once more. And there it stayed, giving Boychuk a chance to relax after the game.

After all, it was Boychuk’s first goal of the year.

“No, not at all,’’ Boychuk cracked when asked if he had been thinking about his drought. “Come on. I haven’t scored in, like, four months. Of course I was thinking about it. Just want to get that one out of the way and not have to be thinking about that.’’

Last year, his first full NHL season, Boychuk scored five goals while showcasing one of the team’s hardest slappers. This year, his shot hasn’t been getting through, nor has it been landing on target enough. Last night, while he manned the point on the power play, Boychuk stepped into the puck and launched it over Ward.

“You’re clenching your stick, you’re holding it tight, you hear it from everybody,’’ Boychuk said of his scoring struggles. “So it’s just nice to get that first one.’’

Take it easy The Bruins clobbered two teams in less than a week (7-0 over Carolina on Monday, 6-0 over Ottawa last Thursday). Perhaps the best benefit from such wins is that Julien can reduce Chara’s ice time. Against Ottawa, Chara played a season-low 16:12. On Monday, he logged only 20:45, which might have been lower had he not been gunning for his hat trick. “A good Bruins defense is a defense that helps knock off some of Z’s workload,’’ Ference said. “If we’re playing well, he doesn’t have to pull huge minutes night after night after night. That’s part of our job.’’ Last night, Chara logged 25:05 of ice time, limiting Eric Staal to one shot . . . Chara, Thomas, and Tyler Seguin will return to Carolina next week for the All-Star Game. The Bruins also play the Hurricanes Feb. 1 in the first game following the break. That’s three visits to Raleigh in two weeks.

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

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