You knew this was coming. It took three months to come back for seconds, but the injury bug is once again feasting on the Boston Bruins.
For three glorious months, the club was healthy, happy and hungry. They weren’t just winning games either, they were blowing opponents out of the building. Tremendous chemistry had developed as a result of the team icing the same lineup game after game, to the tune of a 27-7-4 record between November 29 (David Backes’ return from diverticulitis) and February 25 (the game in which Patrice Bergeron suffered a foot fracture).
As devastating as it is to lose a player of that caliber to injury, it’s even worse when doing so opens the floodgates.
In a domino effect for the ages, Bergeron’s injury has given way to long term (or at least “indefinite”) injuries to Charlie McAvoy, Zdeno Chara and Jake DeBrusk. Brad Marchand missed a game. Torey Krug and Tuukka Rask are banged-up.
For those keeping score at home, that’s a first-line center (and Hart Trophy candidate), both top pairing defensemen and a top six forward out indefinitely, among others.
Back in October and November, it was guys like Jordan Szwarz, Kenny Agostino and the now-departed Rob O’Gara who were thrust into an undermanned lineup. Today, it’s Paul Postma and Anton Blidh being summoned to fill the void.
This is the time of year when teams with the third-best record in the NHL should be recalling minor leaguers and prospects for a taste of action to better foster their development, not out of sheer necessity.
With the playoffs just around the corner, the Bruins are literally limping toward the postseason. In doing so, they’ve been forced to figuratively limp along as well, needing miraculous comebacks and an abundance of overtime victories to dispatch teams who will not be playing hockey beyond the first week of April.
Though their standing is secure, one hopes the various ailments don’t undermine a season with potential for big things.
Rest vs Rust
As my colleague Brandon Share Cohen has rightly pointed out, there is a silver lining to the injuries.
Zdeno Chara and Patrice Bergeron have out a lot of miles on their tires over the years; a combined 2,620 career regular season and playoff games, to be precise. Moreover, the soon-to-be 41-year-old Chara had somehow yet to miss one game this season prior to Thursday’s tilt versus Florida.
Getting the two a rest ahead of the arduous slog that are the playoffs isn’t the worst thing in the world. We’ve seen what both Chara and Bergeron are capable of playing through; it would be nice to give each the chance to avoid a redux.
But young guns like McAvoy, DeBrusk and even 26-year-old Torey Krug are in considerably less need of a respite, with all due respect to the rigors of an NHL season. They simply have significantly more tread on their tires at their respective young age than the aforementioned battle-hardened vets. Additionally, the trio are far less likely to slide back into the lineup seamlessly, rust-free, as all of New England certainly expects of Chara and Bergeron.
Think of the tumult and disarray throughout the Boston lineup as of this writing. The line combinations are pairings are all over the place! Boston’s tremendous third line which had played such a significant role during this season’s resurgence has been scattered to the wind, with Riley Nash currently on the first line and Danton Heinen now on the second. David Backes is now playing with Tommy Wingels and Brian Gionta, two guys who weren’t even on the team three weeks ago.
Nick Holden, another newcomer, and Kevan Miller currently comprise the team’s top pairing on defense.
This is all fine and good, considering Boston is hardly in danger of missing the playoffs. But one has to wonder exactly how much rust will have accumulated by the time the postseason begins. How significantly will the chemistry of each respective line and pairing have been hindered?
Worrying about injuries and how they will affect chemistry in the abstract is one thing. Worrying about them in conjunction with an extremely difficult slate of games ahead is another entirely.
Given that these Bruins have a knack for the miraculous and exude a “never-say-die” mentality with every fiber of their being, perhaps questioning their ability to withstand additional adversity is foolish on my part. They’ve certainly shown that they can never (and I mean never) be counted out.
Still, it’s important to note that 14 of Boston’s last 18 opponents are currently outside the playoff picture. As remarkable as their ability to mount a comeback is (especially considering the missing personnel of late), it at least bears mentioning the the vast majority of their victims of late will not be playing more than 82 games this season.
Conversely, eight of their next 10 opponents would be in the playoffs if the season ended today, with the league-leading (and potential playoff adversary) Tampa Bay Lightning appearing on the schedule a whopping three times in the next three weeks.
The Bruins will travel to Winnipeg to take on the Jets, owners of the fifth-best record in the league and a star-studded, lethal lineup. They will do so two nights after taking on the Minnesota Wild in Minneapolis, a team currently on pace to reach 100 points. Thrown into the mix for good measure will be road tilts against the Philadelphia Flyers and Dallas Stars, as well as a home matchup versus the Columbus Blue Jackets, winners of six straight.
Even the two games in the next 10 versus teams not currently in a playoff spot are against the red-hot Florida Panthers (who just pitched a shutout against the B’s) and the St Louis Blues, with both clubs barely outside the bubble.
The Bruins could lose every game for the rest of the season and are still all-but assured a playoff spot. In fact, it would take a collapse reminiscent of the pre-2004 Red Sox to push Boston out of the Atlantic’s top three spots.
What could be in jeopardy, however, is the team’s swagger.
Let’s say that, in the name of caution and rehabilitation, Boston holds its injured players out of the lineup for the majority of the remaining regular season contests. Given the tough slate ahead, it’s conceivable that a banged-up Bruins lineup has less success against the stiffer competition than against the likes of recent foes Carolina, Detroit, Montreal, et cetera.
It’s also conceivable that a losing streak (or at least a stretch of .500 hockey) puts a dent in the considerable swagger, mojo, juju, “je na sais quoi”…whatever you want to call it, that the Bruins have had in spades this season. Teams that are “feeling it,” so to speak, are a tough matchup for anyone. Teams attempting to rediscover their game at the onset of the playoffs are frequently one-and-done.
With their likely first-round matchup coming against a Toronto team that has won seven of the last eight meetings between the two teams, the Bruins simply cannot afford to limp into the playoffs figuratively, even if doing so literally is in the cards and beyond their control.