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Ouch -- that smarts

Posted by Danny Picard January 22, 2009 05:55 AM

It wasn’t an official “state of the team address,” but after Monday’s 5-4 shootout loss to the St. Louis Blues at the TD Bank-north Garden, Bruins coach Claude Julien refreshed his players’ memories about where the team stands at the midway mark of the season.

“The reality is that, right now, we can’t be the same team people have seen since the beginning of the year, not with that many injuries,” said Julien. “We just have to look at our lineup, and I think it’s important that people know that we’ve had to grind it out a little more, like we did last year, than what you’ve seen at the beginning of this year. And that’s just the reality of things. You face those situations, and that’s called adversity.”

Forty-seven games into the season at the All-Star break, standing alone atop the Eastern Conference, this year’s Bruins team has lived up to the hype, and then some. Put it into perspective: No team in franchise history had ever recorded 70 points at the 45-game mark in a full season. The 2008-09 Bruins reached the 70-point total with a win over the New York Islanders in their 44th game of the year, on Jan. 15. They have lost consecutive games in regulation only once.

These Bruins are now expected to win. When’s the last time you were able to say that?

With his “control the neutral zone and control the game” approach, Julien has created a hockey monster in just his second season with the team. The club has seen the addition of Michael Ryder, the emergence of Phil Kessel, David Krejci, and Blake Wheeler, and the return of Patrice Bergeron and goaltender Manny Fernandez. All have helped transform an eight seed in last year’s playoffs into one of the top teams in the NHL.

That’s not to take anything away from All-Stars Tim Thomas, Marc Savard, and Zdeno Chara — a combination of everything has made the first half a success.

But among all the wins and all the recognition stands an injury report that’s so deep, it’s amazing the Bruins are where they are today. Forwards Chuck Kobasew (leg), Marco Sturm (knee), Bergeron (concussion), and Milan Lucic (undisclosed) and defensemen Andrew Ference (leg) and Aaron Ward (leg) have all missed significant time. Most recently, mononucleosis has sidelined Kessel, the team’s leading goal scorer. Out of that group, only Kobasew is now healthy, but only Sturm is out for the season after knee surgery last week.

Even with big names out of action, the Bruins have fared well with youngsters brought up from the minors. Defensemen Matt Hunwick and Matt Lashoff and forwards Martin St. Pierre and Vladimir Sobotka have fit nicely in the system, a great credit to their AHL affiliate in Providence, which preaches the same style as the big club.

But at some point, even healthy players begin to show that they’re human, and those minor leaguers begin to show that they’re not All-Stars. Both are starting to catch up to the Bruins, so much so that Julien had to address it after Monday’s loss to the last-place team in the Western Conference.

“You can’t turn around and replace a Patrice Bergeron or a Marco Sturm, for his speed and his skill level,” said Julien. “He has it, and he’s playing on the top lines because he has that. You can’t just replace that, otherwise, we have a heck of a team; we have four lines that can produce.

“You’ve got guys moving up that are playing different roles,” he added. “We’ve got guys from Providence that are helping us out. They’re doing the best they can, and that’s what we have to deal with.”

Bergeron, Ference, Ward, and Lucic are back on skates, just not in games. With four days off for All-Star Weekend in Montreal, perhaps rest will be the best thing for them.

“In the players’ minds, they’ve been playing the same way almost the whole year, and now they want to continue playing that way,” said Julien. “Our transition game has been good, we got on the attack quickly, but now we don’t have the firepower.”

The Bruins will begin the second half of the season in the same place they are now, in first place. But if injuries continue to plague them, the result may not match the Black and Gold’s newfound expectations.

Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at dpicard@globe.com

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