Bruins rookie Patrice Bergeron, out for nearly a month with a slightly separated left shoulder, didn't take it easy on himself yesterday at the FleetCenter.
During breaks in practice, he tested his shoulder by hitting it against the glass. Then he encouraged defenseman Dan McGillis to rough him up a little. By the time he got back to the dressing room, Bergeron was satisfied that his shoulder had survived both tests and that he could suit up for tonight's game against the Ottawa Senators. The 18-year-old forward, who is sixth in team scoring with 16 goals and 20 assists, also felt that his off-ice conditioning program has him primed for a return.
"I feel good," said Bergeron, the youngest player in the National Hockey League. "Dan asked me if I was all right, and I just said, `Don't even ask me. Just go ahead and beat hard on me.' "
McGillis obliged, and Bergeron, who has been out for 11 games since getting hurt Feb. 24 against the Islanders, was encouraged.
"I'm right on schedule," he said. "This was my week to come back."
Coach Mike Sullivan said he'll wait until this morning's skate before approving Bergeron's return.
"It's a possibility," said Sullivan, who was noncommital about which linemates Bergeron will join. "We're not sure yet. With the depth that we have now, it gives us a number of different possible opportunities and we'll see where he fits in."
Fitting players in is becoming a habit for Sullivan, with the addition of defenseman Sergei Gonchar and center Michael Nylander and the return two games ago of winger Sergei Samsonov from the injured list.
"We think when we're completely healthy we have a lot of depth and the ability to score from every line," said Sullivan. "Whether that happens or not, time will tell. Most recently, we've been getting contributions from virtually every line and that's the type of team we're trying to build. I think it's difficult to win when you rely on one or two guys every night to carry the load."
This is, according to veteran Ted Donato, one of the deepest Bruins teams, with the best goaltending tandem, that he's played on.
"When I first got here, we had a team that just snuck into the playoffs and made the conference finals," said Donato. "A few years later we had a team that finished first overall and went out in the first round.
"So it's a new season for everybody in the playoffs. Talentwise, we can win this whole thing. Now, having said that, there are a lot of intangibles -- injuries, timely goals, lucky or unlucky bounces. Everybody has to have a role, and if we're going to accomplish anything, everybody's got to do all the little things."
As the jockeying continues for playoff seeding in the Eastern Conference, every game against a conference rival already has that playoff feel. In addition to the fifth-place Senators, the Bruins also host fourth-place Toronto Thursday and the streaking Montreal Canadiens, who are tied with New Jersey for sixth, Saturday.
Of recent concern is the Bruins' penchant for falling behind. They did so against Minnesota last Thursday and never recovered, losing, 2-0. They were in danger of being blown onto Causeway Street last Saturday when Tampa Bay took a 3-0 lead. But in what may turn out to be their most important comeback in the race for first place, the Bruins eventually prevailed, 5-4.
"This team has been a resilient group all year long," said Sullivan. "That might be one of our biggest assets. We're pleased, but the reality is that two days later there's another tough challenge ahead of us. Obviously we're thrilled to come back from a three-goal deficit and get a win against one of the top teams in the league, but right now, our sights are set on Ottawa.
Sullivan said the Bruins have all the elements to be successful -- but that doesn't guarantee success.
"It takes a lot," he said, "and I think our guys have it in perspective right now. As excited as they are about the opportunity to compete in the playoffs, that is on the back burner because we've got some important games coming up and we've got to make sure we take care of business."