Bruins are desperate for Ference's return/By S. Bradley

Welcome to the Bruins’ new parlor game: “Waiting for Hnidy.”

Or is it “Waiting for Ference”?

Well, I guess whichever veteran defenseman is ready to come back first is the one the Bruins are waiting for most, while they’re really begging to get both healthy and available.

With the way their back end has been moving the puck the last four games, the Bruins might need both Ference and Hnidy to ride in and save the day.

On a downward spiral since the Pittsburgh game a week ago, the Bruins’ breakout game hit rock bottom tonight during the team’s dreadful 4-2 loss on Long Island, where they blew a 2-0 lead to the Islanders and could’ve lost by a whole lot more.

Tim Thomas wound up facing 41 shots against a New York team that averages less than 30 per night. It’s enough to make you wonder if the return of Ference and/or Hnidy will be enough to bolster this crew that was supposedly fine-tuned with the addition of Tomas Kaberle.

We saw tonight and last that Kaberle’s magical passing abilities aren’t always as wonderful in the defensive end as they are on the attack. The other four defensemen are all having similar troubles making crisp plays to escape the zone. They can be somewhat forgiven because of the minutes their logging now that the Bruins basically dressing just five defensemen.

Tonight rookie Matt Bartkowski clinched the “not-ready” tag for himself with a lackluster performance that kept him pinned to the bench for the entire second half of the game. When he wasn’t giving the puck away, he was taking an unforgivable penalty all the way out at the far hash mark.

The blueliners as a corps aren’t solely to blame. Obviously much of the Bruins’ game plan is built around not having to worry as much about aggressive forechecks because Boston’s supposed to be forechecking its rear ends off and playing most of the game in the offensive zone. However, that’s not going to happen every night and it seems that any team with a forecheck with any level of speed above standing still and determination greater than a sloth can turn the Bruins’ breakout into a game of “Hot Potato.”

This is all a product of the risk general manager Peter Chiarelli took when he opted to just throw the Hail Mary pass to acquire Kaberle but not add one more able-bodied veteran to cover his club should the injury bug bite. Kaberle wasn’t going to show up and turn the Bruins into the ultimate forecheck-busters any more than he was going to make their power play reminiscent of the early ‘70s Bruins.

Sure, Hnidy’s a nice a signing for down the road. But once injuries hit in a hurry and in multiples, as they often do, the Bruins had to scramble. With Ference and Steven Kampfer both down, suddenly Boston had to force Bartkowski into action and put extra burden on the likes of Dennis Seidenberg and Johnny Boychuk. Lately, it looks like rookie Adam McQuaid is the leader in poise and decision-making as much as he’s on top in plus/minus. Based on experience and pay grade, that just can’t happen. And even “Darth Quaider” has had his share of problems behind Boston’s blue line.

Luckily, there’s still a few weeks left in the regular season. If we were nearer to the playoffs, the Bruins would find themselves in the same trouble they were in during the ’09 playoffs when Ference and Matt Hunwick went down, and suddenly the Bruins were featuring Steve Montador in crucial situations.

It sounds like Ference is pretty close to returning. Hnidy has been progressing well, according to the team, and could be available with the next week and a half or so. There’s no telling how things will go with Kampfer, as we all know how unpredictable head injuries are.

Of course, the best way for the Bruins to overcome the fact that they’re both struggling and shorthanded on defense is to play better. During most of their undefeated six-game road trip, Boston’s veteran blueliners were making sound decisions and doing so with confidence. For whatever reason — and obviously the adjustments made by the forecheckers has something to do with this — the Bruins’ defense corps seems collectively deflated and off its game.

Right now they’re making the Bruins’ worst nightmares come true and Chiarelli has to be wondering if he miscalculated this group’s ability to cleanly clear the zone and prevent the goaltenders from facing a shooting gallery.

Ference and Hnidy might ride in to save the day some game soon. Until then, the Bruins’ defensemen need to play their own parlor game called “tape-to-tape first pass out of the zone.” It’s a mouthful to say, but can be a hoot when played correctly.