Tough times hit Bruins defensemen

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- Things continue to crumble for the Boston Bruins.

Injuries have become the team's Mount Vesuvius, so it'll be interesting to see how the Bruins can rise from the early-season ashes and keep themselves in contention.

Already the Bruins are without defensemen Zdeno Chara (out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury), Kevan Miller (out indefinitely with a dislocated right shoulder) and now Torey Krug (out 2-3 weeks with a broken finger).

Prior to the team's practice Wednesday at Ristuccia Arena as it prepares to face the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday night at First Niagara Center in Buffalo, New York, Bruins coach Claude Julien discussed with his players the importance of staying within the structure, no matter how many injuries there are, or how many lineup changes are made.

"We're still a team looking for its identity as a group, because every time you think you stabilize yourself, now we have more injuries," Julien said. "We go back to where we were at the beginning when we had guys in different places, and unfortunately it's all in the same position. It represents a bit of a challenge, but it doesn't mean that it's a crutch. It's an opportunity for others and when you rely on your structure and you believe in it, which our guys seem to believe in it and they have for years, you've just got to go out there and compete hard."

Regardless of how the next month turns out, Julien won't make any excuses due to the rash of key injuries. Instead, the coach wants to see what this team is made of without Chara, Miller and Krug in the lineup. Julien believes Boston's lineup is strong enough to overcome any adversity.

At the start of each season, the Bruins set a goal to be atop the divisional standings by Dec. 1. If Boston is able to accomplish that, it makes the rest of the season more manageable if injuries or other setbacks occur. With so much already not going in the Bruins' favor, reaching that Dec. 1 goal this season will be more challenging.

"Right now there are two things we can control and that is respecting our structure and our compete level," Julien said. "If we take care of those two things, we can survive this."

Boston's compete level, like its defense, has been spotty in the early part of this season. It was dreadful during Tuesday's 4-3 loss to the Minnesota Wild, especially since the Bruins held a two-goal lead entering the third period.

"We just need to understand that no matter who's in the lineup it doesn't matter," Julien said. "If you play together as a team and respect your structure and you compete hard you're giving yourself a chance. We've just got to understand that and move forward."

It hasn't helped Boston's chances that defenseman Matt Bartkowski has struggled in the five games he's played, while being a healthy scratch for the other six.

"He's struggling right now, and everybody knows that," Julien said. "Somehow he's got to find his game and he's got to find his confidence. Those are things players have to go through sometimes. [Coaches] can't play for them, so it's important for them to find their game."

When asked if he's comfortable with Bartkowski in the lineup, Julien said: "We'll see."

On Wednesday, the Bruins recalled defensemen Joe Morrow and David Warsofsky from Providence of the AHL, and it's possible both could be in the lineup against the Sabres on Thursday night. If that's the case, it would mean Bartkowski will be watching from press level.

After Wednesday's practice, Bartkowski admitted he's fed up with his play this season.

"It's at a point where I'm frustrated, but if I play frustrated and try to do too much it's only going to make things worse," he said. "All it is is putting a few shifts together, to a period, to a game and building on it, and playing with confidence and knowing you can play and make the right play and doing the simple things."

When anyone is playing as poorly as Bartkowski has been, that mindset can be hard to maintain.

"It's pretty difficult," he said. "The hardest way to play is the way I'm playing right now, which is playing not to make mistakes. Once I figure out and put a shift out there where I just go out and play, and play with confidence, it's just going to be -- bam -- right back in it."

Bartkowski, 26, has 89 games of NHL experience, but it's not showing. His mistakes are beginning to cost him ice time. He played less than two minutes in the third period of Tuesday's loss after Julien benched him when Minnesota tied the game at 3-3.

"It's painful," Bartkowski said. "You want to be a part of the effort. You want to play a role. With the guys we have out I should be playing a bigger role and my game isn't warranting it, so [Julien] shortens the bench and that's about it. Sitting on the sidelines and watching is painful. It's the worst thing you can do."

For all the talk about Boston's defensive depth, it's being tested. With Warsofsky in the mix, he'll have an opportunity to regain some traction in the organization after struggling a bit during training camp.

"I just think David put a lot of pressure on himself at training camp, because he was not the player we'd seen before, or had seen play in Providence, so hopefully he's a little bit more relaxed and comes in here and just plays the way we know he can," Julien said.

With only 11 games in the books, the Bruins are 5-6-0 and face a massive challenge without Chara, Miller and Krug in the lineup. Defensemen Dougie Hamilton, Dennis Seidenberg, Adam McQuaid and whoever else is in there need to play above and beyond in order to keep the Bruins afloat for the next month and a half.

"It doesn't matter who we have in the lineup," Julien said. "I'm going to be honest and tell you that my first year here [2007-2008] our team was way weaker than this team right now, and we made the playoffs. That, in a nutshell, should explain a lot."

We'll revisit that nutshell on Dec. 1.