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Preparing to shoulder the load

Posted by Danny Picard October 2, 2008 05:52 AM

It's been almost two full weeks of training camp for the Bruins, and so far, here's what we know: It's only the preseason.

Roster battles, line combinations, and injury returns have dominated the headlines for the Bruins since training camp began on Sept. 20. Coach Claude Julien's squad has already topped last year's preseason win total of one. But who's counting?

"You don't want to minimize the importance of preseason, but it is preseason," said goalie Tim Thomas.

Thomas allowed four goals on 21 shots in Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals at the TD Banknorth Garden. It marked Thomas' second game and second loss of the preseason.

But both of those games lacked something big, literally. Thomas, like every goalie on the Bruins' roster, had yet to be blessed with the presence of 6-foot-9, 250-pound defenseman Zdeno Chara, who began training camp on a day-to-day schedule, as far as games were concerned. His recovery from shoulder surgery is moving along well, but since it's only the preseason, everyone involved felt it was best not to rush anything.

"It's always frustrating when you're not with the guys," said Chara on being out of the lineup for the first week of games. "Yeah, you would like to play, but at the same time, I know it's not the most important time of the year. It's just the preseason, and the regular season is when the games start to count."

Chara tore his left labrum last March, and had successful surgery back in April. He's made the most progress so far in regaining his strength.

"I'm feeling better," said Chara after taking part in an optional skate before Saturday's game against Washington. "Every day is better. We're making progress, and it looks good right now. If I'm on this pace I am right now, it should look pretty good.

"You spend most of the time working on getting your range of motion back," he said. "Once you get that, then you have to make sure you're getting your strength back."

Chara knows he isn't the one making the final decisions, but said he would like to play in at least one game before the regular season begins on Oct. 9 in Colorado. Julien also said Saturday that there was a "good chance" Chara would play by the weekend.

Wheeler of Fortune
Another big man making headlines this preseason is rookie winger Blake Wheeler. The fifth overall selection (Phoenix) in the 2004 NHL entry draft scored his first goal with just under eight minutes left in the first period of Saturday's loss to the Capitals.

Wheeler displayed his Milan Lucic-esque physical style in front of the net and put away a loose puck, gathered after an unexpected Patrice Bergeron snap shot from the half boards got through to Washington goalie Jose Theodore.

"The tips and screens, getting the rebounds, and getting in those gritty areas, that has to be the way I'm scoring goals," said Wheeler after the game. "You're not going to see me go around two defenders and put it top shelf too often. That's got to be the way I'm going to score goals at this level. It was great to see the puck get to the net, and be able to block the guy off and get a good rebound."

Like Lucic last year, Wheeler has turned heads in the Bruins' organization from top to bottom. His audition has shown that he's dependable on both sides of the ice, he's strong on the puck, and at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, he certainly meets the Bruins' need of adding size to the organization.

"Wheeler has been one of those guys that's been very impressive, and seems to be getting better every game he plays," said Julien. "He's starting to realize he can take advantage of his size. He's protecting pucks along the boards, creating some things and winning battles because of that. If anything, I think he's learned to use his body more here than ever before."
The only thing that may be a factor in Wheeler making the final roster cut is his $2.8 million salary-cap number, which would put the Bruins over the league's $56.7 million limit. But it's not the coach's job to worry about that.

"Peter [Chiarelli] can crunch all the cap numbers he wants," said Julien. "And I'll fight for the player if I believe he should stay on the team. I know how to fight for the players I believe in, and if I think [Wheeler] is deserving, I'll put my 10 cents worth in."

More cuts
Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli announced Saturday that 13 more players had been released. Mike Egener, Ryan Stokes, and Johnny Boychuk were placed on waivers (if they clear, will be assigned to Providence). Andrew Bodnarchuk, Zach Hamill, Mikko Lehtonen, Brad Marchand, Matt Marquardt, Adam McQuaid, Kevin Regan, Byron Bitz, and Martins Karsums were all assigned to Providence. And unsigned draft pick Jordan Knackstedt was released from Boston's camp and will join Providence's camp . . . The Bruins entered the week with 31 players on the roster, and play their final two preseason games on Saturday at 4 p.m. against the New York Islanders at the Garden, and on Sunday at 5 p.m. in Washington.

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

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