Once thought of as Zdeno Chara and The Pips, the Boston Bruins defense corps’ members have managed to make a name for themselves since head coach Claude Julien’s system sunk in about midway through last season.

It’s rare that the Bruins have an off night in their own end, as evidenced by their league-leading average of just 2.17 goals allowed per game. Sure the goaltending has been All-Star caliber, but both Bruins puck-stoppers would be quick to tell you how much easier their lives have been made by the solid blueliners, who stick to the system and support each other up and down the ice. The backline crew also gets a lot of credit for the Bruins’ penalty kill’s improvement and climb from the bottom of the league to 10th.

Without further ado, here is my player-by-player report card for the Bruins’ defensemen:

Dennis Wideman: A-minus
The rewards have increasingly outnumbered the risks with Wideman, the Bruins’ most offensively gifted defenseman. And although he can still make a boneheaded play trying to break out of the Bruins’ zone now and then, the system allows his teammates to easily bail him out. And those mistakes have become scarcer this year than last. Offensively, he’s pumped in eight goals and totaled 27 points while quarterbacking the second power-play unit before Patrice Bergeron’s injury and aiding Chara on the top unit now. His offensive numbers and plus-24 rating should’ve landed him on the All-Star team. He’s also tops on the team with 55 blocked shots.

Zdeno Chara: A
No one will forget the captain’s smackdown of Atlanta giant Boris Valabik when the Thrashers tough guy was trying to have his way with Phil Kessel. That act of leadership epitomized what Chara has meant to the Bruins this season. To possess a plus-19 rating while going against the other teams’ top lines every night, and still have enough energy to quarterback the power play and post 7-15-22 totals is just an amazing testament to the play who has become one of the league’s top three defensemen.

Matt Hunwick: B
The rookie from the University of Michigan returned to Boston early in the seasons after being the last blueliner cut and played well enough to earn a permanent spot in the Bruins’ top four. He’s shown his offensive upside with 3-12-15 totals and a spot on the second power play with Andrew Ference out injured. But sometimes he, like most young players, still has a tendency to try to do too much on the breakout and turns the puck over. And his offensive numbers have cooled off since a six-point-in-six-games stretch in early December.

Shane Hnidy: B
The best thing to say about Hnidy is that unless he’s taking a puck to his face and walking around with the scariest swollen eye the city of Boston might’ve ever seen, you hardly notice him on the ice. The perfect fit for the Bruins’ third pair, Hnidy has kept it simple in the defensive zone and shown flashes of an offensive instinct — enough to earn some minutes on the second power play.

Andrew Ference: Incomplete
The diminutive backliner was headed toward an A until he broke his foot in mid-November. He’s played in less than half the Bruins’ games, so it’s not fair to judge.

Mark Stuart: B
The Bruins have actually gotten three goals out of the young defensive defenseman in his second full NHL season. Stuart has held his own with Hnidy on the third pair and occassionaly with Chara on the first pair. He could probably stand to use his shot even more and maybe up his physical game (he has averaged just one hit per game).

Aaron Ward: B
We’ll never know the value Ward has in the locker room, where his sage advice after winning three Cups is probably a boon for the Bruins. But we can see that out on the ice he’s always playing at full speed — hence his injury problems. But when healthy, he makes life easier for the goaltenders with his ability to hound puck-carriers and block shots (48 in 30 games). In the second half, the Bruins will need him to chip in a little more offensively (he’s scored just one goal this season).

Matt Lashoff: Incomplete
A dozen games are hardly enough to judge the former first-round pick, but Lashoff has struggled at both ends of the rink in limited minutes. If he’s called upon to play more in the second half he’s going to have to gain some confidence and start making crisper plays.