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ON HOCKEY

There’s a toughness missing from this Bruins team that used to be part of their fabric

Too often this season, the Bruins have found themselves absorbing the hits, as Matt Poitras did here against the Islanders.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The Bruins awoke Sunday morning, fresh off their 5-3 win over Arizona, tied with the LA Kings atop the NHL standings with a .750 points percentage.

If the Bruins and Kings keep up the pace, they’ll each finish with 123 points. That would trigger the rarest of NHL tiebreakers, the two clubs meeting midway, in a rink just outside Omaha, for a 60-minute shootout that will decide who’ll be awarded the President’s Trophy.

If only that were as farfetched as it first sounds. NHL insiders say billionaire Warren Buffett, the Oracle of Omaha, has been placed on high alert.

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No matter a club’s place in the standings, there is always room for improvement, a worry spot. The Bruins added yet another of those Saturday when No. 1 pivot Pavel Zacha was injured and exited after the first period. An update on Zacha is not expected until Monday’s late-morning workout in Brighton.

One period later, coach Jim Montgomery had seen enough of rookie pivot Matt Poitras and kept the 19-year-old nailed to the bench for the remaining 20 minutes of the matinee.

Matt Poitras found himself benched in the third period of a win against the Coyotes.Tanner Pearson for the Boston Globe

In times of crisis, coaches generally batten the hatches, shorten their bench. Nonetheless, it was a curious move to thin the center stock even more, Montgomery opting to pull Trent Frederic and Morgan Geekie off their wing assignments to cover the middle. It worked. Two more points, and they’re on to Newark on Wednesday to face the Devils with all centers listed as TBA.

Of perhaps greater concern — again, that worry list, folks — is how mild-mannered the Bruins have become with their hitting game, especially among the defensemen.

OK, first the disclaimers:

  • Milan Lucic, mired in his domestic violence issue, is nowhere to be seen, and possibly won’t play for the Bruins ever again. His next court date is scheduled for Jan. 19. He was brought back over the summer as the lineup’s designated hitter. The spot remains wide open.
  • Derek Forbort, their biggest volume hitter on the backline before injury forced his recent exit for LTIR, won’t suit up again until Dec. 31 at the earliest.
  • Charlie McAvoy, their boldest pound-for-pound hitter among the blueliners, was suspended four games at the end of October for his hit on Oliver Ekman-Larsson, then returned with his hitting game dialed to decaf. Wise on his part, because McAvoy knows his next big hit could ring him up for a five- or six-game hiatus. Of course, the Bruins’ nightly opponents are well aware of that, too.

Which brings us to the last couple of games for the Boston blueliners, sponsored by Mass. Pike EZ Pass.

On Thursday, in a flatlined 3-1 loss to the Sabres on Garden ice, all Bruins defensemen recorded one hit, by Hampus Lindholm. That was it. Lindholm had one, and all else had none. Breeze brothers Mason Lohrei, Brandon Carlo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Matt Grzelcyk, and McAvoy all went 0-for-Buffalo in their collective 93 minutes. McAvoy clocked 15:53 before he exited with injury.

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On Saturday, with McAvoy joining Forbort on the sidelines, things improved a smidge. Carlo and Grzelcyk each recorded a pair of smacks. Replacement Ian Mitchell had one. Lohrei, Shattenkirk, and Lindholm all zeroed out.

The Bruins need Ian Mitchell's ability to lay a hit. Bruce Bennett/Getty

On average this season, Bruins defensemen have landed about five hits a night, roughly one for every 12 minutes of play. So Saturday was pretty much who they are, and Thursday was, well, a pleading for Coke Zero to become the official sponsor of the Bruins backline six-pack.

In 2010-11, the lone season since 1972 that the Bruins won the Cup, the backline pounded away with a big, beefy wrecking crew of Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, and Adam McQuaid. Those four averaged 75 games and totaled 533 hits, a tick better than seven hits per game.

There was a fear factor when going up against Big Z & Co. Not so today. That lingering element disappeared when Connor Clifton scooted out as an UFA to Buffalo over the summer. McAvoy can be that big rattlesnake back there, but his greater value is lugging the puck, leading transition and delivering points, which was true well before he had to dial back his hitting after l’affaire OE-L.

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By the way, headed into Saturday’s action, no fewer than six ex-Bruins (both forwards and defensemen) led their current team in hitting this season, including Clifton in Buffalo.

Connor Clifton took his hard-hitting style to Buffalo as a free agent.Kevin Hoffman/Getty

The other chart-toppers included: A.J. Greer (Calgary), Sean Kuraly (Columbus), Jeremy Lauzon (Nashville), Garnet Hathaway (Philadelphia), and Noel Acciari (Pittsburgh). In Anaheim, Frank Vatrano ranked second to Radko Gudas. In Carolina, Dmitry Orlov was second to Seth Jarvis.

Clearly, they all carried that Boston hitting spirit with them, forgetting to leave any behind on Causeway Street. How ungrateful.

Frederic, summoned to center duty, landed four hits on Saturday, as did rookie pivot Johnny Beecher. They are currently the lead hit dogs with 44 and 42, respectively. Forbort and Carlo each lead on the back end with 29. Neither one will come close to the 161 Seidenberg registered in 2010-11 as the top hitter on the Boston backline, only a half dozen behind Lucic’s team high.

Hitting alone doesn’t define success. For proof, we need look no further than the Bruins’ mark of 18-5-3 and that .750 point percentage. They often can win without it, and some nights here in the regular season seem committed to proving it.

Then comes a night like Thursday, with the Sabres in town, with the Bruins back end humming “The Skaters Waltz” each time Sabres forwards broke over the offensive blue line. What a sad tune that.

Overall, it’s an obvious departure from the tough-to-play-against and up-in-your-grill brand the Bruins have cultivated for decades. It’s also not an approach that promises success when the playoffs begin.

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Right now, months away from the postseason, it remains a roster in need of more hitting, more ol’ tyme truculence, especially among the all-too-mild-mannered defensemen.

Boston Globe Today: Sports | December 8, 2023
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Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com.