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Loose change for Bruins

CLAUDE JULIENVote of confidence CLAUDE JULIENVote of confidence
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / March 21, 2009
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WILMINGTON - After watching his team spin a 2-0 third-period lead into a 3-2 overtime loss to Los Angeles Thursday, Bruins coach Claude Julien returned to his suburban home, watched the replay, pondered his next move, and tried to get some rest.

"I'm not going to say I slept like a baby," Julien said yesterday with a smile. "People who sleep like babies usually cry, right? I didn't lose a ton of sleep over this. It's more about going home [Thursday] night, thinking about the situation, watching the game, coming back this morning, and regrouping with your coaches. It's called brainstorming. It's really looking at the situation and saying, 'OK, what is the best approach for our team?' "

The natural conclusion: The once-mighty Bruins, formerly bursting with confidence but reduced to mentally fragile nonbelievers, have been far too grim to achieve any kind of productive work.

So with the hard-charging Devils on deck (3 p.m. tomorrow at TD Banknorth Garden), Julien and his assistants decided to loosen their choke hold yesterday and give the players some breathing room. Instead of pacing the Bruins through a standard drill-filled session (Julien said he gave some thought to a hard practice), the coaches split the team into two squads and let them scrimmage for most of the session.

After the scrimmage, the teams participated in a breakaway competition on Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez. A second before Phil Kessel scored on Fernandez, Matt Hunwick beat Thomas, giving Team White the victory (first to six goals) and sending Team Black on a three-lap losing sprint.

"After looking it over, thinking, and regrouping as a coaching staff, we really felt that our guys were wound up pretty tight," Julien said. "I guess the goal of today was to loosen them up a little bit and help them get that energy back. I thought our scrimmage today was better than our game. We moved the puck a lot better. That tells me a lot. Hopefully this is something that is going to help us. If not, we'll have to find other solutions. Certainly those guys, looking at them this morning, they're feeling the pressure from everybody and everything around them. They're obviously putting a lot of pressure on themselves to perform. They have expectations as well. It's not from a lack of caring or a lack of wanting to do well."

The ease and calmness with which the Bruins executed yesterday has been a hard-to-find element during their 6-9-3-1 slump. When they were at their best, the Bruins dominated time of puck possession by transitioning swiftly, employing a straight-line attack, and using their speed and skill to cycle deep in opposing zones.

Recently, general manager Peter Chiarelli has seen his passive players regrouping with the puck far too often, indicating that they're not confident enough to turn up ice and fly into the teeth of other teams' defenses.

"Now your forwards have to come back and everything has to move this way instead of that way," Chiarelli said, pointing to the defensive side of the ice. "I'm not blaming the defensemen. I'm not blaming the forwards. I'm not blaming anybody. It's something where the confidence isn't there."

It's an affliction that is not unique to the 2008-09 Bruins. Chiarelli, the ex-assistant GM of a formerly powerful Ottawa organization, recalled two instances during his time with the Senators when his former club, ahead in the standings, dipped late in the season. San Jose, running neck-and-neck with Detroit for the top seed in the Western Conference, held a 90-minute meeting earlier this week that included players, coaches, and executives to address a 3-5-1-0 skid.

For the Bruins, just about every measure has been attempted. They've held team meetings. They've shuffled their lines and defensive pairings. The coaches have cracked their whips and eased off the gas. And yet the Bruins have been unable to turn in 60-minute efforts and play like they did earlier this season.

So while Julien prefers the regular drills that promote races and puck battles, for one day, he thought some five-on-five competition would be a better fit.

"To outwork other teams, you have to have fun," Julien said. "You have to be relaxed. If you have that, you have the energy to do that. Right now, we're wound up so tight that I think it drains a lot of energy."

Because there have been seven firings this season and because Julien was dismissed from the New Jersey job two years ago, Chiarelli was asked whether replacing his coach was an option. "That's not possible," Chiarelli said. "That's 100 percent not possible." . . . The Bruins are 1-1-1-0 this season against the Devils . . . Mark Recchi was given a maintenance day yesterday.

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

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