BOSTON — If the holiday season is all about giving, then why must the hockey gods taketh away from the Boston Bruins?
With Grinch-like cruelty, injuries to first line center Patrice Bergeron (rib/sternoclavicular) and top-pairing defenseman Zdeno Chara (MCL on his left knee) will leave giant holes in the Bruins’ lineup for at least the next month.
They’ll be minus the player who was leading the team in scoring, its best shutdown blue liner, its top two penalty killers and the team’s two most respected players.
That sounds like a post-Thanksgiving recipe sure to make any fan of the Black-and-Gold nauseous.
So the question becomes: what happens to the Bruins between now and Christmas (or longer)?
Do they simply hope to hold their ground in the standings? Is it most realistic for them to remain entrenched at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff pack without losing ground to an increasing number of pursuers?
Is there a chance the Bruins could rally around these injuries, mesh together as only desperate squads can do, and make a December surge? Or are they more likely to find their stockings filled with hockey’s equivalent of coal: namely, points left on the table.
Their heart-and-soul player and their team captain haven’t been the only Bruins beset by injuries, of course. John Moore was back in the lineup against the Penguins after missing three games with a lower body injury. This was welcome news for the team’s defense, which in addition to Chara has also been minus Brandon Carlo (upper body injury), wunderkind (Charlie McAvoy) and rookie Urho Vaakanainen (concussion).
Kevan Miller’s return to the blue line from a hand injury earlier this week added another veteran piece back to the puzzle, but it still meant NHL newbies like Jeremy Lauzon (10 career games), Jakub Zboril (2 career games), Connor Clifton (4 career games) and spare part Steven Kampfer have had to fill regular shifts on D. Lauzon and Clifton were the third pairing Friday against Pittsburgh and had their ice time closely monitored by coach Bruce Cassidy.
Friday night was the first of 16 games for the Bruins between now and December 23rd, when the NHL takes a 3-day break for Christmas. Those contests are spread out evenly with eight home and away, and there are some that will undoubtedly test both the team’s mettle and resolve.
Montreal, which was tied with the Bruins going into Friday’s action, hosts them Saturday night at the Bell Centre. A road game at Toronto follows on Monday, and another road trip through Florida to face the Panthers (Dec. 4) and Lightning (Dec. 6) is upcoming. There’s also a visit to Pittsburgh (Dec. 14), another road game against the Canadiens (Dec. 17) and a home date with powerhouse Nashville (Dec. 22) before facing the Hurricanes in Carolina on Sunday, Dec. 23.
That’s 32 potential points. Pragmatically, how many points can the Bruins, as presently constituted, procure during that time?
It’s pretty clear they’ll be leaning heavily on goaltenders Jaroslav Halak and Tuukka Rask to help guide them through this turbulent stretch. Fair or not, they can’t afford for either goaltender to allow soft goals or fail to show up for a particular contest. In front of them, the team’s (healthy) defensemen need to make sure that the shots against Halak and Rask are kept down to a reasonable amount, something in the 25-30 per night range.
Who’ll steer the ship in the middle of the first line between wingers Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak? Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson, playing in his seventh NHL game, got the assignment Friday night; another option would be veteran Joakim Nordstrom (who played third line left wing vs. Pittsburgh). Neither will provide Bergeron’s offense or his intangibles, but they could help keep Marchand and Pastrnak engaged and putting up points.
This is certainly not a position the Bruins wanted to find themselves in a little less than two full months into the 2018-19 season. Not coming off of a 112-point season; not with visions of a deep playoff run next spring dancing in their heads.
But there are potholes along the road of every journey, and the Boston Bruins need to find a way to navigate through some crater-like absences over the holiday season before the Christmas tree is thrown out with the rest of the yuletide trash.
Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter at PhilStacey_SN