Bruins solid from A to Zee

DON BRENNAN, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:05 AM ET

The return of Milan Lucic to the 32nd playoff series between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens means his coach is faced with one of those good problems coaches like to have.

At whose expense does Claude Julien make it happen?

"I'll tell you one thing right now," Julien said yesterday from the perch of a tall, 3-0 series lead. "There's somebody that's going to be sitting out, that doesn't deserve to be sitting out. That much I can tell you."

This much you should know by now about the machine that is the Bruins -- its parts were purchased by GM Peter Chiarelli at a decent price.

There is the incomparable defenceman Zdeno Chara who, at a $7.5-million (all terms US) salary for two more seasons, looks like a bargain-basement buy. There's Tim Thomas, the good goalie -- not great, but good -- who this season made a paltry $1.1 million. And there's the fact the B's are one of only eight NHL teams who didn't fork out more than $5 million to a forward.

Ottawa, on the other hand, gave two wingers and two centres (Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza, Mike Fisher) greater stipends than Marc Savard received from Boston.

Yet it is the likes of Savard, Patrice Bergeron and Michael Ryder -- who again next season should be the top paid B's forwards at $5M, $5M, and $4M -- that are among the fortunate who are currently playing for free.

Savard, who has produced five points in three playoff games, was not terrific in Monday's 4-2 throat clenching of the Habs. He was one of only two Bruins who had worse than an even rating, at minus-1. He was charged with a team-high five giveaways. And he was brutal in the faceoff circles, winning just two of 11. But his teammates picked him up.

"All year guys have stepped up and that was the situation again," Savard said after yesterday's practice at Bell Centre. "I've got nothing to feel bad about. I've just got to be ready (tonight).

'IT'S A TEAM EFFORT'

"I just think it's a team effort," the 31-year-old added. "We've got such balance and depth. First night, some guys probably weren't at their best, and guys stepped up and did a job. Second night, we had some other guys step up and do another job. Then (Monday) night, same thing. Thornton scores a huge goal for us. We've got that depth, and we're excited about having it."

Which leads us back to the return of Lucic. When the bruising winger was suspended for taking a shot at Maxim Lapierre in Game 2, the Bruins had rookie Byron Bitz take his spot in the lineup. The juggling saw Blake Wheeler, second in NHL plus-minus ratings this season, go from the fourth to the second line. Bitz skated on the fourth, alongside Stephane Yelle and Shawn Thorton. They produced the Bruins' second goal when Bitz, in his first NHL playoff game, finished off some fine board work by setting up Thornton. They also ate up valuable minutes.

Of all Bruins forwards, Bitz saw the least amount of ice time at 13:02, just three seconds less than Ryder, who scored the game-winning goal. Savard played the most at 17:51. That's balance and depth.

Thornton was on a club with similar attributes two seasons ago when he played for the Cup-winning Anaheim Ducks.

"We're a different team, but we definitely have a lot of big bodies that like to play physical," he said when asked about comparisons. "We have a good mix here. I think in Anaheim we had a habit of taking too many penalties. I think we might be a little more disciplined in this dressing room."

That tone is being set by Chara, the captain and leader who has not taken a single penalty in three games. Montreal's Georges Laraque tried his best to draw Chara into some time in the box Monday, but was unsuccessful.

"I respect everything Zee does, and I follow in behind his lead," said Thornton, the team tough guy who has not been penalized yet either. "When he shows that certain discipline, it's a good thing. He's a big, big, big part of this team. It's good that he stays discipline and you can't get him off his game."

Such discipline has the Bruins not looking past Montreal, despite any temptations.

"We're a focused group," said Savard. "The coaching staff has done a great job of keeping us focused all season. We know the next game is our biggest game, and that's the way we've taken every game this series."

The Bruins shouldn't be doing too much changing in the off-season.

They have to take care of Phil Kessel and David Krejci, who make $850,000 and $825,000 respectively and will be restricted free agents, as is Bitz ($675,000)

Their unrestricted free agents are Yelle, P.J. Axelsson, Mark Recchi, Shane Hnidy, Steve Montador and goalie Manny Fernandez.

Back will be Marco Sturm, their best left winger until he suffered a season-ending knee injury 19 games in.

Despite his absence, Sturm has had input in these playoffs. He distributed shirts made up with the words "Stay Hungry" to all his teammates.

They've all done just that, including Lucic, who is chomping at the bit to return.


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