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Christopher L. Gasper

Throwing a net around the Bruins’ problems

The Bruins started the season with a Stanley Cup hangover, and once again they’re playing like they’re under the influence. This time it looks like Ambien, not championship champagne.

The endearing, heady, hard-working hockey team we’ve come to know and love has been replaced by a bumbling bunch that literally can’t get out of its own way - if you saw the fifth Florida goal in Thursday night’s disheartening 6-2 loss to the Panthers you know what I mean - and whose goalies can’t get in the way of the puck.

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Losers of four straight and seven of 10, it appears the Spooked-Bs are having that alarm clock issue Tyler Seguin had earlier this season in Winnipeg. The Bruins have been late arriving to their own games. When the puck has been dropped, they’ve gone into hockey hibernation. The Bruins have allowed the first goal in seven straight games, and been outscored, 29-16, in the first two periods over their last 10 games.

What had been a months-long malaise - the team has posted a 16-17-2 record since Jan. 1 - you could ascribe to injuries and the tedium of the regular season has become a full-on daze that is disconcerting with a dozen games remaining. Coach Claude Julien acknowledged Friday that his team’s confidence is a “little rattled’’ at this point.

That rattled feeling has come from the cage. Under Julien’s tenure as coach, the Bruins have been synonymous with stingy play and stellar goaltending. But, like snowbirds who go to Florida in June, those qualities have headed south at the wrong time.

Julien has made a point of saying that the Bruins are bigger than one player and that no one player was responsible for them squiring the Stanley Cup around the ice in Vancouver last June. However, some were more responsible than others.

Tim Thomas provided netminding that ranked with the all-time best, repelling more rubber than any goalie in Stanley Cup playoff history and producing Game 7 shutouts in the conference final and Stanley Cup Final on his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy. After the Canucks spent the entire Final series trying to crawl inside Thomas’s head, he was inside theirs.

Few positions in sports endure the scrutiny that a hockey goaltender does. It’s like the quarterback in the NFL. When times are good, they get too much credit, and when times are bad, they get too much blame. But in the Bruins’ case they’ve constructed a team with an identity crafted on keeping the puck out of the net, and when the goalie fails to do so it undermines the entire exercise.

Whether it’s the groin injury to Tuukka Rask that has increased Thomas’s workload, mental fatigue from the fallout from his Facebook political musings, or just a cold spell, the soon-to-be 38-year-old has been out of sorts.

In nine games this month, he is 3-5 with a goals-against average (4.06) that is more befitting of the zero-to-60 time of a sports car than an elite goalie. Entering this month, Thomas allowed four or more goals in a game four times in 42 games this season. It’s happened four times in eight starts this month, including Thursday. Thomas has allowed three goals in two other starts this month.

The play in front of him hasn’t always been exemplary, but the beauty of having a two-time Vezina Trophy winner is that he can erase mistakes.

Instead, Thomas has been reduced to bemoaning bad bounces and shaking his fists at the Hockey Gods, hardly the stuff of legend.

Thomas isn’t just the backstop for the Black and Gold. He’s the backbone of what they do. Yes, the offense has been spotty since Rick Peverley joined Nathan Horton in the ranks of the injured, particularly the power play. But the Bruins have scored 225 goals this season. That’s one more than the Pittsburgh Penguins, and one fewer than the Flyers.

The issue is goaltending and defensive breakdowns. It’s hard to play with confidence if every defensive breakdown ends up in the back of the net.

Something is amiss with Thomas, and it’s infected the whole team. It just seems like some ingredient of their gestalt is missing.

It seems a little silly to talk about must-win games in mid-March, but Saturday’s clash with the Philadelphia Flyers at TD Garden feels that way. The Bruins find themselves in a real race with the Senators for the Northeast Division title. Ottawa’s comeback win in overtime over the Canadiens Friday night moved it past the Bruins into first place by a point.

This is how bizarre the Bruins’ swoon has become. It is the Flyers, a franchise that is perpetually searching for a suitable goaltender, who come to town with superior netminding. Philadelphia has been riding red-hot Russian goalie and amateur astronomer Ilya Bryzgalov.

The Flyers are winners of seven of eight, and Bryzgalov has won all seven, allowing just seven goals in that span. The eccentric goalie had authored three straight shutouts and set a franchise record with a 249-minute, 43-second scoreless streak before both were snapped Thursday in the third period of the Flyers’ 3-2 victory over the Islanders.

It was Thomas who broke the back of the Flyers in the playoffs last year with a 52-save pièce de résistance between the pipes in Game 2. That was the game that made it clear that the Bruins were legitimate Cup contenders.

Thomas and the Bruins have to rediscover the play that carried them to the Cup and quickly. Otherwise, the Bruins’ Stanley Cup champion reign will end right where it began - in front of the goal.

Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at cgasper@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.
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