Things just seem to keep getting worse for the Bruins.
On the heels of a disappointing 3-4 start and a broken index finger that will keep Milan Lucic out of the lineup for the next 4-6 weeks, the B’s made the surprise announcement Wednesday morning that prolific center Marc Savard also would be sidelined 4-6 weeks with a broken left foot.
The 32-year-old Savard had amazingly been playing with the injury since preseason, but still managed to fill a role as Boston’s leading scorer while quarterbacking the power play and contributing mightily to the B’s toothless penalty kill.
Savard surely will be missed, and both fans and management will get a chance to see just how valuable the unrestricted free agent is as the B's best player in seemingly every on-ice situation.
The Bruins, in the meantime, said all the right things about the monumental team-wide effort needed to absorb the loss of Savard both offensively and defensively, but truthfully there are very few players on the roster that can help pencil in the production that Boston will be missing over the next two months.
At first blush, David Krejci appeared to be the natural choice to slide into Savard’s No. 1 line and power-play role — and simply start watching the points and breathtaking dishes come rolling in. After all, it was at the tail end of Krejci’s rookie season back in 2007-08 when he stepped in for the injured Savard and effectively replaced the playmaking pivot until Savard had properly healed up from a broken bone in his back. The broken back that came courtesy of a Steve Begin cross-check, of course.
But the 23-year-old puck magician has started slowly out of the gate, with three assists in his first eight games, and still doesn’t appear to be completely in command of the skill set that allowed him to lead the NHL in plus/minus last season as a breakout offensive player.
Krejci was chosen to center a line between Marco Sturm and Mark Recchi that was considered Boston’s top line, but it was instead center Patrice Bergeron who stepped up on Wednesday night and demonstrated the kind of depth that Boston boasts at the center position.
“I think everyone needs to step up,” said Bergeron, referencing the injuries to Lucic and Savard. “We're not having the start that we wanted. Everybody's got to step up their game, work hard, and bring some emotion on the ice. I thought the first [period] was OK. The second was a lot better. We had more emotion. We were battling more and skating better. It worked.”
It worked in large part because the multifaceted Bergeron was given a chance to step up his game in more of an offensive role, and he did so. Big time.
It probably should have been a reasonable solution that Bergeron would step up his offensive game with Savard placed on the shelf, but many had written off the two-way player as a lesser offensive light after his horrific collision against Randy Jones and the Flyers two seasons ago.
B's coach Claude Julien said it’s about time to draw Bergeron — who some forget is only a year older than Krejci and still in the relative infancy of his NHL career — back into the conversation for some big expectations for this season and beyond. Bergeron has morphed from forgotten man two seasons ago to a ghost of himself for much of last season and now back to exactly where he was during his best days of hockey. He's making plays with his mix of strong puck possession, beyond-his-years hockey instincts and simple, strong, smart plays. It's a mixture that will always make him a player that coaches want on the ice in all situations.
“Patrice has been our best and most consistent forward since the beginning of the year,” Julien said without even a hint of hyperbole. “Every game he has been a pretty good player, even those games that we didn’t play well. At the end of the night you can say he was one guy who was there for us.
“He has a couple of guys on his line right now that can produce. That little bit of youth in [Brad] Marchand gave him a boost. I find that [Michael] Ryder has been skating much better in the past three games. He has picked up his skating. That was a pretty good line. I liked that line tonight.”
Prior to his debilitating Grade 3 concussion, Bergeron was one of the brightest young lights in the NHL and had enjoyed back-to-back 70-plus-point seasons while also potting 30 goals in his second pro season. Back then, Bergeron was an offensive centerpiece around which the Bruins were being built, but he had slowly evolved into an outstanding checking-line center matching up against the other team’s top line in Julien’s system while providing occasional offense. The addition of Savard and Krejci over the years pushed Bergeron down to the third line while he slowly recovered his uncanny touch and offensive feel around the net.
The two-way pivot suffered a minor concussion again last season and attempted to shake the rust off after a year-long absence from competitive hockey, and that manifested itself in some greatly reduced production numbers last season.
But that transition year is over for Bergeron, and the two-way center was instead the forgotten man expected to be a glorified checking-line center again this season. Now with Savard gone, the needs from Bergeron have been heightened dramatically. The hard-nosed pivot shook off any potential question marks on Wednesday night, embraced the responsibility and scored the tying goal in Boston’s 3-2 win over the Predators at TD Banknorth Garden.
It was a performance that seemed to be a direct flashback to the 2006-07 version of Bergeron filled with promise and potential beyond his years, and illustrated just how much he can fill in the blanks created by Savard’s injury. Bergeron played with the puck on his stick with both poise and confidence, and countless times pulled things back and waited to create a scoring opportunity. All the while he was shielding the puck away from any and all defenders with his unexpected strength.
It was vintage Bergeron from a bygone Bruins era.
The 24-year-old is tied with Ryder for second on the team in points (6) while on an early pace for a 60-plus-point season. There’s also a reason Bergeron is second behind Savard among forwards in ice time and is averaging 17:38 through the team’s first eight games — a number that’s sure to go up with all hands on deck while the B's two-time All-Star center is wearing a bulky boot on his fractured left foot.
“He’s a terrific hockey player, and his role since I’ve been here has been to check the other team’s top lines, but now he might get the harness taken off him a little bit and get some freedom to do a few things [offensively],” Recchi said. “Tonight he got rewarded for some hard work, and he does that every night. He’s a tremendous player and a hard-worker and he plays the game the right way.
“I said this before the start of the year, I think he’s going to be one of the top three guys for the Selke [for the league’s best defensive forward] and I still believe that. He’s off to a great start. His skill is tremendous. There are nights when it’s not going to be there, but he’s got great skill, tremendous work ethic and he’s a very smart hockey player.”
He helped create multiple scoring chances with his ability to carry the puck through traffic around the net, and he showed his nose for goals when he kept swinging away at a loose puck around the Nashville net until the popped the puck free. The combination of breathtaking skills and courageous tenacity were tentative if they were present at all last season for Bergeron — and understandably so — but they’ve come back in a big way for the B’s assistant captain this fall.
Provided Bergeron continues playing at the level he showed in Wednesday’s win over the Predators, the Bruins might just have found a way to offset Savard’s missing statistics with a full, healthy campaign from the best two-way forward on the roster.
With a resurgent Bergeron appearing ready to pick up the slack, here are three things we learned in Boston’s slim 3-2 victory over the Predators.
WHITHER THE BRUINS POWER PLAY? AND WHITHER MARK RECCHI WITHIN THE BRUINS POWER PLAY?
While the Bruins did just enough to eke past a lowly Predators team on Wednesday night and pick up a needed two points — particularly with tough road tilts against the Flyers and Senators coming in the next three days — the struggle on the power play continues for a team that needs to tighten up its special teams play.
Boston finished 0-for-2 on the PP with very few legitimate Grade A opportunities against the Preds and still appears in need of a little fine-tuning and a whole lot of confidence. The toothless Bruins power play squad actually didn't even register a single shot during their four minutes of ineptitude on Wednesday night against a lesser Preds squad. On the season, the B’s are in the bottom half of the NHL in terms of total power-play chances. with 34 chances in eight games, and the B's are tied with the Devils for 23rd in the NHL with a 14.7 success rate.
Even worse, the Bruins are dead last in the NHL with only three power-play opportunities drawn in their two road games, and the Boston skaters must do a better job of putting in the requisite work to draw penalties on the road. Then they’ve got cash in on them.
Recchi finished with 1:41 of ice time on the power play Wednesday night and is eighth on the B’s with an average of 2:55 of power-play ice time per game, but the 41-year-old needs to get back his effective game from last season. The veteran, who has totaled at least 20 power-play points in each of the last six seasons, needs to keep working those grimy areas around the cage and wait for the defensemen to somehow snake shots through that he can tip or hammer home a rebound on.
The defensemen are still battling from the points to get pucks in through traffic and forwards still aren’t quite breathing down hard on the necks of collective goaltenders.
On the other end of the special teams spectrum, the B’s penalty kill unit looked a little revamped and added Daniel Paille to its ranks for Wednesday night’s game — and enjoyed a little bit of immediate success.
A Predators power play that scored on less than 5 percent going into the game ended up going 0-for-3 on the night but did cash in on two goals immediately following the completion of the kill. That speaks to a greater amount of concentration needed by the B’s after they successfully grind and scrap their way to successful kills.
THE KIDS ARE DEFINITELY ALL RIGHT
Brad Marchand isn’t likely to forget his first NHL game anytime soon. The 21-year-old rookie was called up on Sunday night and immediately made an impact skating on the left wing with Bergeron and Ryder in Wednesday’s win.
The trio was easily Boston’s best line of the night and — once each of the newly reconfigured lines had reached the same page after a disjointed first period — Marchand used that youthful energy and spark to jump-start the Boston attack in the opening seconds of the second period. The 5-foot-9, 183-pounder won a puck battle along the boards and helped create a 2-on-1 opportunity with Ryder before he was able to one-hand a tip pass to Ryder streaking toward the net. All alone, the skilled Ryder simply popped a backhanded bid under the crossbar past Nashville goalie Dan Ellis, and the B’s effectively changed their momentum.
The energy and momentum-shifting oomph that Marchand can provide — whether it’s through making a play offensively, drawing a penalty or simply dropping the gloves — is a big reason why he’s been summoned to a struggling Bruins team. The youngster knows his role and was happy to fulfill it on his first night’s work.
“I just want to do what I can to bring a little offense to the table. But the same thing the coaches have been talking about for the past three or four days now is just competing and bringing as much energy to the table as you can,” Marchand said. “I just wanted to work hard and bring as much energy as I possibly could.”
Marchand said he had the puck from that first career assist following the game and he was able to collect it in front of a bevy of family and friends from his native Nova Scotia dotted through the crowd. The little rookie — who in some ways carries some of the same annoyingly endearing skills as a young Ken Linseman — said that he wasn’t nearly as nervous as he might have been, and attributed that to his refusal to peer up the crowd or directly into the eyes of the opposition before the game started. One throw-away glance up into the crowd of 16,715 and it might have been all over for a kid more used to a half-filled AHL house than a hungry Bruins Nation.
“I just kept my head down and looked down at the ice as much as possible during the pregame and really just saying things to myself in my head to keep me from getting nervous,” Marchand said. “It actually worked pretty well.”
Given Marchand’s impact in 14:42 of ice time, it was pretty obvious that things worked to perfection for a scrappy kid with a bright hockey future.
THOMAS IS GETTING BACK ON HIS GAME
After a fairly strong shutout performance against the Dallas Stars last weekend, Tim Thomas was perhaps even more impressive in Wednesday night’s 3-2 must-win over the Preds. Thomas was at the mercy of the requisite weird bounces and freak events during the first two periods, but the reigning Vezina Trophy winner was at his athletic best in the third period while ringing up 13 saves for the Bruins.
Dennis Wideman, who blocked a key shot attempt in the waning seconds of the third period with the Nashville goalie pulled for an extra skater, described it as a “melee” in front of the Boston cage, and the B’s just happen to have the best street-fighting goaltender in the NHL right now.
One mistake could have potentially cost the B's at least a point on a night they simply had to have two, and his big save on Shea Weber through traffic in the final second of the game was a thing of beauty. The B's goalie was a stone wall turning away Patriq Hornqvist on a point-blank bid from the slot in the waning second before Weber's final big blast. Thomas was simply able to fight through the flailing sticks and crashing bodies surrounding him and simply do what he’s always done: focus on the puck and keep it out the net.
Boston's netminder made 28 saves on the night and finally evened his record at 3-3 on the season headed into a certain alley brawl against the Flyers on Thursday.
“He made the big save at the end there. Obviously, you saw him fight the puck a little bit, but there are some things that are going on with Timmy and we’re working with him,” Julien said. “Certainly, he’s a battler and he’s a guy we know is going to be there for us. He won the game and made some big saves when he needed to, and that was the important thing for him tonight.”