December 14, 2009

B's defense getting offensive

Mark Stuart (photo: Getty)

BOSTON – There’s a reason the word defenseman begins the way it does.

And after a bit of a rough start in October, the Bruins defensemen have gotten that part of their job description own pat this season. The Bruins defense has been rock solid, with the club ranking sixth in the NHL in goals against, allowing just 2.36 a game.

That’s nothing new for a Claude Julien coached team. Last year the Bruins led the entire league, allowing just 2.32 goals a game. But last year’s Bruins were also second in goals scored with 270 goals. Fifty of those came from defensemen, led by Norris Trophy winner Zdeno Chara’s career-high 19 and Dennis Wideman’s 13.

This year, the Bruins have struggled to produce offense from their blue line, with just 14 goals from defensemen through 31 games. That’s a pace for just under 37 for the full season, and part of why Boston has slipped to 23rd in the league this year in goals for, at 2.53 a game.

There is some good news though. The Bruins blueliners appear to be finally coming out of their offensive hibernation. In their two-game sweep of the Leafs last week, four of the 12 goals they scored came from defensemen, with Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Mark Stuart and Derek Morris each scoring. Wideman scored his first goal in 21 games the previous week against Ottawa.

“It is important because you need some production from the back end nowadays,” said Julien. “We’ve got our D’s supporting the attack, but also from the back end we need to shoot and get the pucks through. I think the last couple of games we have done a pretty good job getting our pucks through. That is important. It takes a lot of pressure off of the front end of always having to score goals and carry the load that way.”

The Bruins didn’t get a goal from the defense in Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders, but Andrew Ference, who is still in search of his first goal this year, did pick up an assist. Still, the game was a step back for Boston’s defense, which combined for just seven shots with Wideman and Stuart both putting up goose eggs in the shot category.

The Bruins defense had 20 shots in the two games against Toronto, led by Chara’s six and four each from Stuart and Morris.

“I think our forwards are doing a good job with getting the puck back to us and then it’s our job to get it on net,” said Stuart. “You have to find a way, teams collapse so much now that you have to find a way to get them through and the guys have been doing great at that, Z (Chara) and Mo (Morris) especially.”

Chara’s goal last Saturday was just his second of the season, well shy of the 19-goal pace of a year ago. That’s despite the fact that with 86 shots through 31 games he’s on pace for 227, which would top last year’s total of 216. Morris (56 shots), Wideman (49 shots) and Ference (41 shots) have done a decent job of getting shots on net as well, albeit without too much success at getting them in the net. Boychuk, with 10 shots in just six games, has also provided a boost since he was inserted back into the lineup for the first Toronto game.

Matt Hunwick (20 shots) and Stuart (27 shots) haven’t had has many chances with lesser ice-time, though Hunwick does lead the club’s defensemen with four goals and Stuart ended a 22-game goal-less drought with his second goal on Thursday.

“I try to concentrate on defense first and playing well in my own end but you know everyone wants to chip in offensively, everyone wants to contribute in that way,” said Stuart. “It had been a while so it definitely creeps into your mind.”

The Bruins have lost some firepower up front this season with the trade of Phil Kessel to Toronto and Milan Lucic’s extended absences with a broken finger and now a high ankle sprain. They need to create offense from throughout the lineup to compensate, and that includes more production from the defense.

With Chara, Wideman and Morris each having double-digit goal seasons on their resumes and Hunwick and Boychuk – last year’s Eddie Shore Award winner as the AHL’s top defenseman following a 20-goal campaign in Providence – also possessing offensive skills, the goals should eventually come. Last week might have been the breakthrough to finally open the floodgates.

“It’s important, especially against a team like Toronto that collapses,” said veteran forward Mark Recchi of getting offensive production from the defense. “They leave the points wide open, so we have to take advantage of it. And we have guys that shoot the puck very well. If they’re going to give our point men shot opportunities, they’re going to make the right plays. They’re smart. They look for holes. They look for tips. … It’s important when you can get goals like that, especially when teams like to collapse that much. It makes a big difference because maybe then they have to respect the D a little more.”

Douglas Flynn can be reached at dflynn@hockeyjournal.com.