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Lucic, B's trending down as playoffs loom

4/18/2013

WILMINGTON, Mass. -- If, as expected, Boston Bruins power forward Milan Lucic has not merely played his way down the lineup but out of it altogether, there could hardly be a more stark illustration of the concerns facing the team as it prepares for the postseason.

Although coach Claude Julien would not confirm that Lucic will be a healthy scratch Friday night when the Bruins play host to the scorching-hot Pittsburgh Penguins, his use of Lucic during practice Thursday at the team's suburban facility suggests Lucic will be the odd man out.

Even Lucic seemed resigned to the fact his poor play could see him in a suit and tie instead of suiting up for what many view as a possible Eastern Conference finals preview, something that would have been unthinkable the past two seasons as he scored a combined 56 goals and established himself as a player with a rare blend of snarl and skill.

A contrite Lucic talked about a confidence level that has sunk to levels he hasn't experienced in years and the need to stop looking in any direction other than within for answers.

"You can't just keep making excuses," said Lucic, who has one goal in his past 11 games and just six on the season.

With Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand back from injury (they played in Wednesday's shootout loss to the Buffalo Sabres) and with prospect Carl Soderberg looking to get his first taste of the NHL before the start of the playoffs, there simply might not be room for Lucic on the ice.

But give Lucic credit: He acknowledged that being scratched wouldn't be anyone's fault but his own.

"No, I wouldn't blame anyone but myself," he said. "I'm for what's best for the team."

That said, it's a troubling situation given how important a tough, skilled player is come playoff time.

"I've taken pride in being a big part of this team," Lucic said.

Both he and club management are hopeful he can be again. But there is no doubt he has not been the same player to whom the Bruins committed with a three-year contract extension before the lockout that will pay him an average of $6 million a season.

"He's had a disappointing season," GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com on Thursday.

Chiarelli wonders if a lack of training during the lockout contributed to Lucic's struggles.

"He's a big guy that maybe didn't train as hard as he should have, and it's catching up with him a little bit," the GM said.

Is there an issue with effort?

"His game is not where it should be and that's all I'll say on it," Chiarelli said.

Julien wouldn't confirm Lucic was going to sit Friday but did concede that the practice lines were what they were.

"We all know he's struggling," Julien said. "He obviously knows that. We've had our chats."

This isn't to suggest that the Bruins are in terrible shape or that all of their problems are rooted in Lucic's inability to get into a groove. But the fact remains there is concern that the Bruins are not trending the way they want with the playoffs less than two weeks away.

Boston is winless in three games, including giving away a point in Wednesday's shootout loss to Buffalo, a game the Bruins dominated for long stretches before allowing a tying goal in the final half-minute of regulation.

The power play remains a source of great concern, having delivered just three goals in the past 16 games.

"I'm not satisfied with where we're at," Chiarelli said.

The GM noted that a year ago the team was not particularly good down the stretch and was bounced in the first round by seventh-seeded Washington in seven games. And while the core of the team that won the Stanley Cup in 2011 remains in place, Chiarelli hopes the players understand that simply having been there is no guarantee that they can ramp up their play when the bell rings on the postseason.

The Bruins hold the top spot in the Northeast Division and the second seed in the Eastern Conference, but they are tied with the Montreal Canadiens and have not been able to create any cushion in terms of holding onto the division lead despite opportunities to do just that.

"I think we're getting better, but only one problem: We don't score many goals," Jaromir Jagr said.

"We get a lot of scoring chances, and it starts with me and other players also, we have to be able to score on our chances we're getting. We're getting a lot of scoring chances, but we just can't finish it. Maybe we have bad sticks, I guess," the five-time NHL scoring champ joked.

No joking matter, however, is playing poorly heading into the postseason.

"There's no way you can play easy before the playoffs and think you're just going to start," Jagr said, snapping his fingers for emphasis, "and play like that in the playoffs. It's a huge advantage for the teams that are fighting for the eighth spot, because they have to have the playoff mentality even before the playoffs start. So there are so many upsets in the first round because of that. That's why you have to make sure you play your best hockey before the playoffs start, otherwise you don't have a really good chance, or you might wake up and be down 2-0 in that first playoff series."

Still, with the addition of Jagr and high hopes for Soderberg, who will likely make his NHL debut Friday, the Bruins have the capability to ice three dangerous offensive units and a fourth line that can also chip in the odd goal.

"Like their team," national analyst and longtime NHLer Ed Olczyk told ESPN.com on Thursday. "Question: Can they finish enough, goal-wise? Will they be able to score enough come playoff hockey?"

The team's depth will be put to the test Friday in a game that brings with it a delicious back story, with former Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla having chosen at the last minute to agree to a trade to the Penguins after the Bruins believed they had acquired him.

The Pens, as if to provide a stark point-counterpoint to the Bruins' play of late, have won five in a row and their power play is cooking with six goals in the past three games. They are an astounding 20-2 in their past 22 games, and in recent days that record has been accomplished without captain Sidney Crosby, who continues to recover from a broken jaw. Also banged up are James Neal (recovering from a concussion), Evgeni Malkin (sore shoulder), Kris Letang (who recently returned from a toe injury) and Paul Martin (hand surgery; he isn't expected back until sometime in the first round).

Still, Pittsburgh has denied opponents a power-play goal in eight of its past 12 games.

"I think they're the cream of the East," Chiarelli said. "They can be beaten, but I think they're the class of the East right now."