BOSTON – So what is it going to take for the Bruins, clinging for dear life to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, to play a full game with the type of desperation and determination expected of a club with postseason aspirations that isn’t assured of a spot in the tournament.

If a showdown with the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, in their first home game after a two-week road trip and a chance to exact revenge on cheap-shot artist Matt Cooke didn’t do it, maybe nothing will.

The Bruins were flat for the final 40 minutes in their 3-0 loss to the Penguins, including the second period when they were outshot 15-5. Add in the ugly first periods in Montreal (where a Boston team should always be fired up) and New Jersey, and long stretches of disinterest during the game they pulled out against lowly Carolina, and you have to wonder if there’s any burning fire in the hearts of these Bruins.

Luckily, the mediocre East might not require more of the Bruins than some lackadaisical .500 play to get in the playoffs and get swept by the powerhouse Washington Capitals. Because they’ve now played 70 games and the Bruins are still looking for answers.

“It’s something that we all have to look in the mirror and really ask yourself if you did your best and put it out there and I mean, it’s not that we win as a team and we lose as individuals; you know, we lost as a team and we all have to be better,” captain Zdeno Chara said. “That’s the bottom line, you know. We have (12) games left, so these games we have to put behind us. I know it’s the same, you guys probably hear it a lot, but we have to look forward to the next game and obviously it’s huge to have two teams that are behind us trying to obviously make the playoffs like we do and so close to us. Those are going to be huge, huge games for us so for sure we have to get ready for those.”

To his credit, Chara tried to rally his troops during that dismal second period. Already nursing a dislocated pinky on his left hand and obviously battling other ailments that have slowed him down, Chara challenged and beat up Pittsburgh giant Mike Rupp out near center ice. Although teammate Shawn Thornton was on the ice, Chara made a point of doing the work himself – and before heading to the penalty box he barked toward his bench in an attempt to urge his teammates to play like their lives depended on it.

Well, if the game was a matter of life or death the Bruins would be in a pine box.

It’s pretty obvious nothing will pump life into the Bruins. There were three things proven against the Penguins. Thornton is the ultimate stand-up guy and would do anything to defend a teammate – as he displayed by not even giving Cooke four seconds of ice time before delivering a beating. Chara can be an emotional, physical captain when the chips are down. And the Bruins as an 18-man unit are as characterless as they showed in Pittsburgh when they didn’t immediately respond to Cooke’s hit on Savard.

Regardless of what happened tonight, nothing could erase what happened March 7 at The Igloo. The Bruins then revealed themselves as a team that doesn’t stick up for each other and can be pushed around. When you’re best offensive player gets knocked into tomorrow and all you can muster is a light push here or there during a post-whistle scrum, it might be time to accept that this isn’t your year.

Head coach Claude Julien, who said he didn’t want to make excuses, nonetheless referenced the flu bug that zapped his team since its return from Raleigh. You could see the players skating as though they were in quicksand, but in my book if you’re healthy enough to play, you’re healthy enough to give a 100-percent effort against the Cup champs. Otherwise, sit out and let someone else take a shot. Instead, we watched Marco Sturm depart the game after 14 (mostly invisible) shifts and the rest of the Bruins players play as though it was September.

Just the fact that Thornton, and then Chara, had to fight to lift the team’s energy level in front of a packed-house that was thirty for blood tells you there’s a lot more lacking in this Bruins team than a pure goal-scorer and a couple extra defensemen with the ability to make a first pass. Unfortunately, that missing ingredient is an intangible – heart – that’s difficult to measure. General manager Peter Chiarelli gauged it adequately last season and completely miscalculated it this season. It’s unlikely that the “heart” level of this team will magically grow between now and the 2010 playoffs. That means an early exit, if they qualify, from postseason. And a need to really re-assess which players can be built around and which need to be thrown out.