WILMINGTON - On Dec. 30, a day after the Bruins lost their sixth straight game, 5-0 to Atlanta, Claude Julien kept one of his coaching tools in reserve when he led a standard practice at Ristuccia Arena.
Yesterday, however, the first-year Bruins coach had no intentions of doing anything ordinary.
For the first time this season, Julien paced the Bruins through a puckless practice. For 30 minutes, the players endured a sprint-filled skate that turned some of their faces the same color as the crimson practice jerseys worn by the fourth-liners.
The last time the Bruins huffed and puffed their way through a "bag skate" was March 26, 2007, when coach Dave Lewis ordered a 45-minute session of sprints without pucks after a 5-0 humiliation against Pittsburgh. The Bruins scored a 3-2 road win over Ottawa the following night, but then lost the last six games of the season.
Yesterday started with laps around the ice, then push-ups mixed with sprints from the end line to the near blue line. With assistant coach Geoff Ward issuing the commands, the Bruins moved on to different drills while never seeing a puck hit the ice.
"The message has been sent," said captain Zdeno Chara. "We've just got to get better. We all know that [Tuesday] night's game probably wasn't our best - one of our poorest performances this season. We've just got to get better."
After the half-hour session, the Bruins repaired to the dressing room for an extended meeting with the coaching staff.
"That's the way you have good, productive meetings - everybody talks," said Andrew Ference. "It's not just the coach talking or the captains. Everybody's opinion counts. It's not a big complaint for us or a big panic. I've been on great teams that have the exact same meetings. It's good. It gives the young guys a chance to say what they think. The coach can be honest with guys."
The point of the day was to emphasize that the Bruins, during most of Tuesday's 1-0 loss to Carolina and the third period of their 4-3 win over New Jersey Saturday, had lost virtually all interest in executing the little things that a supposedly blue-collar club must perform to qualify for the postseason.
"It didn't matter today what we would have practiced," said Julien, referring to the drills commonplace of standard offdays. "That's not the issue."
Injuries to Patrice Bergeron (Grade 3 concussion and broken nose), Andrew Alberts (post-concussion syndrome symptoms), Glen Murray (hip flexor strain), Aaron Ward (broken left foot), and Bobby Allen (back spasms) - five of 18 skaters who dressed in the season opener - have sapped the Bruins of veteran talent and leadership. Ward skated yesterday but is not expected to be available tonight against Montreal. Murray practiced Monday but didn't skate yesterday. Bergeron and Alberts are not close to returning, and Allen is still day to day.
Because of the holes, Julien has preached that the remaining players must perform for 60 minutes, enter danger areas, finish checks, and compete for loose pucks if they want to remain among the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference.
During the third period against the Devils, when they were outshot, 20-1, the Bruins were dominated. On Tuesday, the Hurricanes claimed a 17-6 shot advantage over the Bruins in the second period, taking a 1-0 lead into the dressing room.
What has particularly irked Julien is that the recent shortcomings have come in situations that every player, regardless of talent, should be able to master. The Bruins' problems aren't necessarily with the execution of their box-plus-one defensive formation, their forecheck, or other technical aspects of their system.
Instead, it's been the team's lack of courage and mental toughness that have drawn the concern of management and the coaching staff.
"We've got to win battles," said Julien. "We've got to win races. We've got to be on the puck the whole time. We have to execute plays. You have to pay the price to make things happen. You've got to finish your checks. Those are parts of the game we should be able to do and be automatic with."
The midseason crisis has landed prior to a crucial game tonight against the Canadiens, who lead the Bruins by 4 points in the East. The Bruins have lost all four meetings this season against the Canadiens, who have used speed and skill up front and airtight goaltending to gain 8 points on their division rivals.
"It's become one of those teams we haven't beat yet this year," said Julien. "Knowing that they're in our division and 4 points ahead of us, it is a big game. It's probably a good time for our team to respond."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.