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Bruins can't afford to drop ball on 2d-half kickoff

Email|Print| Text size + By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / January 29, 2008

WILMINGTON - Before Zdeno Chara and Phil Kessel took off for last season's All-Star Game in Dallas, their Bruins had a 22-20-1-3 record.

But upon resuming play after the break, the Bruins lost their next four games, including three against division opponents, by a 19-4 aggregate.

"I try to forget about it as much as possible," said P.J. Axelsson.

Yesterday, the 2007-08 Bruins kicked off the unofficial second half of the season with an afternoon practice at Ristuccia Arena, aiming to ensure that a similar fate doesn't plague them this year.

"There's no room for that," said Axelsson. "We have to go right back at it."

After the Bruins stumbled last season, general manager Peter Chiarelli took steps to retool the roster. On Feb. 10, he dealt free agent-to-be Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau to Calgary for Andrew Ference and Chuck Kobasew. On Feb. 27, the Bruins acquired Dennis Wideman from St. Louis for Brad Boyes.

Soon after that, the season was over.

Prospects look brighter this time around, as the Bruins (25-19-2-3) will face off against Nashville tonight in ownership of seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Their All-Star representatives are coming off a strong showing in Atlanta, where Marc Savard scored the game-clinching goal, Tim Thomas was the winning goalie, Chara defended his crown as the hardest All-Star shooter, and Milan Lucic showed that he might someday join the big boys if he continues his development.

But the All-Star Game was far from the Bruins' minds as they charged through practice yesterday without Savard, Thomas, Chara, and Lucic, who were given the day off.

"Every game - and I know it's a cliché - means so much more when you look at the number of games we have left," said coach Claude Julien.

When they reflect upon the first half of the season, the Bruins can be pleased that Chara returned to his old self, Thomas established himself as a top-10 NHL netminder, Savard improved his two-way game, and players such as Wideman and Kobasew exceeded expectations.

But the Bruins also know that another post-break letdown - two of their next three games are against conference leaders Ottawa and Detroit - could drop them out of the top eight; they are only a point ahead of the ninth-place Rangers.

"I don't think you have to put too much emphasis here," said Julien of his coaching role. "I think everybody knows. I'm sure guys have been around for a while, so they know what it's all about."

Perhaps the most eye-opening aspect about the Bruins' play is that they've recorded 55 points while losing 201 man-games to injury. Consider the six Bruins currently on the shelf: Axelsson, Glen Murray, Patrice Bergeron, Andrew Alberts, Bobby Allen, and Manny Fernandez - a six-player lineup that Julien would have no problems sending out against any opposing unit.

Last season, Anaheim won its first two games after the All-Star break. But the Stanley Cup champions were aided by the return of goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere (groin), Chris Pronger (foot), and Francois Beauchemin (spleen), who came back from their injuries for the first game following the break. Prior to that victory on Jan. 28, 2007, Anaheim had lost its previous four games.

"That helped," recalled ex-Duck Shawn Thornton. "Getting guys back. We had a lot of leadership. Guys got through it. There was no panic."

The Bruins might be getting at least one player back in the coming weeks. Axelsson, who hasn't played since Jan. 10 because of a bruised right foot, skated on his own yesterday. While he didn't do much starting and stopping and is still wearing a boot off the ice, Axelsson said his foot felt good and that he was satisfied with his conditioning. Axelsson didn't project, however, when he could return to action.

The Bruins have gone 4-1-0-1 in the six games without Axelsson, but the left wing has been a valuable contributor and the team's best penalty-killer, according to Julien.

Not as close are Murray and Alberts. Murray (hip flexor strain) had an off-ice workout yesterday and is scheduled to skate this morning. He will miss his 16th game tonight, and Julien repeated that the Bruins will proceed cautiously with the winger, who suffered his most recent setback Jan. 21 after practicing with his teammates. Julien said Alberts's headaches are improving, but the defenseman has not been cleared for off-ice workouts.

This could also be a significant time for Bergeron, who has rejoined the team after returning from Aruba last week. Bergeron is expected to resume stretching and light bike workouts shortly in perhaps his final attempt at returning this season.

"Right now, there's not much news I can give on him," Julien said. "He'll try a little bit, take a step back, and he'll try it again. Every time he feels good, he'll try something and try and see if he can improve his workouts. If something happens, he'll take a step back. That's the only way we can tell right now."

Petteri Nokelainen was given a personal day yesterday but should be available tonight against the Predators . . . With Thomas given the day off, goaltending coach Bob Essensa manned the net opposite Alex Auld . . . Pascal Pelletier had originally planned to compete in the AHL All-Star Game yesterday in Binghamton, N.Y., but was more than happy to be practicing with the big club instead . . . Even before Anaheim announced the signing of Teemu Selanne yesterday, Thornton was convinced his ex-teammate would lace up the skates again . . . Of the 16 Bruins who practiced yesterday, only two (Marco Sturm and Kessel) were with the team at this time last year.

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

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