THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Bruins notebook

Air has been cleared a bit

Defense letting goalies see shots

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / March 29, 2011

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WILMINGTON — On March 19 at the Air Canada Centre, Tuukka Rask made it very clear to Dennis Seidenberg that he cannot see through bodies. After Toronto’s Keith Aulie let a shot loose that sailed through a Seidenberg screen and hit the back of the net, Rask had some angry words for his defenseman.

“You always try not to be in the shooting lane, which hasn’t always been the case in my [situation],’’ Seidenberg said with a smile.

The last four games have proved that Seidenberg and the other defensemen aren’t blocking their goalies’ sightlines. During their 3-1-0 stretch, the Bruins have surrendered only three goals.

It is a sign not just that Rask and Tim Thomas are finding the sweet spots of their games. The fine goals-against average indicates that the defensemen have been near-perfect amid the adjustments implemented by the coaching staff.

“Defensively, we’ve started getting on guys a little quicker and giving them less time to make plays,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “At the same time, we’ve also been working with our D’s to try and box out a little bit better. It’s trying to find that comfort zone of knowing when to front shots, as a defenseman, and when to box out. It’s identifying those situations.

“There’s a lot of situations where you want to front pucks, but you’re probably screening your goaltender and hurting him more than you’re helping him. Other times, we’ve got guys boxed out and Timmy was able to see them. That’s the part that’s probably changed a little bit.’’

The way Thomas visualizes the defensive zone, he sees a rectangle-shaped box that stretches from just below the tops of the circles to the low slot. He figures any shot taken from outside that box is stoppable as long as he sees the puck leave the stick.

“Anything outside of that box, if I can see it, I’m pretty much going to save it,’’ Thomas said. “Inside that box, you’ve got to make sure you pressure that shot and make him get it off quick. Then if I see it and they don’t have time to delay it and fool me, then I’m going to save it.’’

Within that box, however, is the gray area.

The Bruins, like most teams these days, play a collapsing zone defense. The wingers sag off the points and pressure everything that, in hockey jargon, takes place at the house. Appropriately, there will often be a tangle of bodies in the net-front real estate.

So it’s up to the defensemen, primarily, to read plays and strike the right balance. They have to fill the shooting lanes and block shots. But they also have to bail out and give Thomas and Rask the sightlines they require instead of getting in their way.

Lately, the Bruins have been making the right decisions.

“You always want to help them out,’’ said Seidenberg, who leads the club with 153 blocked shots. “But there’s always a good balance. If there’s pressure, maybe you can step out and front shots. If they wind up, maybe you play the rebound. You’ve always got to look at the situation and pressure the guy as you should.’’

The same day Rask bellowed at Seidenberg, Thomas was pulled after giving up four goals. Since then, Thomas has won his last three starts, stopping 81 of 83 shots. In Sunday’s 2-1 win over Philadelphia, Thomas did what every goalie likes to do. When teammates didn’t have their legs early, he made timely saves.

For his 27-stop performance, teammates rewarded him with the Bruins jacket that has been making the rounds. The garment, which Andrew Ference acquired via eBay last month, appears to be from the 1970s. Like most things from that era, it is of questionable taste. After each win, the Bruins have presented it to the player they consider most deserving.

After the 7-0 win over Montreal, Zdeno Chara wore the jacket. Following last Tuesday’s 4-1 victory over New Jersey, it was given to Milan Lucic. In the third period, Lucic had scored his 30th goal.

“One of those things you’d wear around Flint, Mich., in the ’80s,’’ Thomas cracked.

Firing blanks For only the third time this season, Lucic will enter tonight’s game against the Blackhawks at TD Garden with zero shots in his last two outings. His no-shot performances the last two games have reflected a dip in his offensive presence.

“Their line hasn’t been quite as productive,’’ Julien said. “What I’ve seen lately is that they’re trying to force some plays at the blue line. I think they’re really trying to make some clean plays. Sometimes you’ve got to understand that those pucks have to get in deep. When you’ve got wingers like [Nathan] Horton and Lucic on both sides, most of the time they’re going to come up with the puck and they’re still going to have control of it.

“I think they’ve got to put some more grit in their mind as far as you can’t always be pretty. Sometimes you’ve got to work harder at it. That’s a small adjustment they can make easily. They’ve done it before. If they can get to that, they’re going to be a little more productive and get more into the style of play that’s given them success.’’

On Sunday, Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette matched his top pairing of Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen against the first line. The day before, the Rangers’ shutdown duo of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi took most of the shifts against Lucic, Horton, and David Krejci. They will be sure to draw similar matchups in the playoffs.

“It just feels like it hasn’t been there the last two games,’’ Lucic said. “This time of year, everything tightens up. Maybe I haven’t worked as hard to get those shots off the last two games.’’

Ryder on fourth line Yesterday at Ristuccia Arena, a day after being a healthy scratch, Michael Ryder practiced on the fourth line. Ryder had two goals and one assist in last year’s first round against Buffalo. The Bruins will need Ryder’s scoring touch in the postseason, so expect the winger to be given an opportunity to find his game in the stretch run . . . Shane Hnidy has yet to play this season. Steven Kampfer hasn’t suited up since March 17. But with a playoff spot clinched, Julien said he’ll find opportunities for both defensemen to get some action in the seven remaining regular-season games.

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

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