WILMINGTON - As every athlete tries to do, Marc Savard is taking it one game at a time.
But Savard, his Bruins teammates, and coach Claude Julien acknowledge that these next nine games - all against Northeast opponents, the longest stretch of intradivision matchups for any of the five clubs this season - are as critical as they come, especially because Patrice Bergeron will most likely miss all of them after suffering a Grade 3 concussion last Saturday against the Flyers.
"There's no doubt there's a good chance we'll be looking back at this stretch at the end of the year, one way or another - whether it propelled us into the playoffs or whether it was a situation where it cost us," said Julien, whose team kicks off its extended test against Buffalo tonight at TD Banknorth Garden. "We really have to take it pretty seriously here and make sure we're ready for it."
Tonight will be Boston's first full game without Bergeron, an absence that has caused a significant ripple effect throughout the lineup. The Bruins will be missing a No. 2 center, big-time penalty killer, and power-play man, leaving players such as Savard to serve as go-to guys.
"He's a big part of our team," said Savard. "He kills a lot of penalties. Maybe I'll be put into some different roles and I can step up and do my best. There's a big gap and we're going to have to fill it by committee."
Savard (1-9 -10 in nine games) is averaging more than a point per game and is the club's leading scorer. But despite his scoring clip, Savard hasn't been the dominant playmaker he was for bursts last season.
Savard recorded half of his points in Boston's 8-6 win in Los Angeles Oct. 12. He's been held to 3 even-strength points. Like most of his teammates, Savard struggled in Boston's 6-1 loss to the Canadiens Oct. 22, losing two defensive-zone draws that led to Montreal goals.
"I think early on last year I got off to a slow start, too," said Savard. "I'd like to get going here a bit."
Perhaps the biggest point of concern has been Savard's inability to find consistency with his linemates. Last season, Savard recorded a career-high 74 assists, third in the NHL, as he served as Glen Murray's primary setup man. Two years ago, Savard also finished third in the league in assists (69) while dishing to Atlanta snipers Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa.
Savard, Murray, and Peter Schaefer projected to be on Boston's No. 1 scoring line this season. Savard and Schaefer clicked during the exhibition season, and the bosses figured the center would have no trouble finding Murray for scoring chances.
But Julien broke up that line after the season opener and didn't reunite it until last Thursday against Chicago. They skated together in the 2-1 loss to Philadelphia, but were broken up in practice the last two days, as P.J. Axelsson replaced Schaefer alongside Savard and Murray. Savard was held without a point against Chicago and had an assist on Marco Sturm's power-play goal against the Flyers.
"A lot of it is not just him," Julien said of Savard. "It's as a line. They need to produce as a line. I don't think it's a big secret that Muzz [Murray, one goal in 10 games] is trying to score a little more than he has. We know he's capable of doing it. We're working on getting that going in the right direction. There are a lot of times when Muzz scores a goal, somebody gave him the puck. It kind of goes hand-in-hand. I don't think I can tell Savvy necessarily that his point production isn't where it should be.
"One thing I can say about Savvy is that he's been very responsible at both ends of the ice. He's played hard on defense. That, to me, has been an improvement in his game. It's improved because of his commitment. I think he's a better player than he was when he probably had more points."
There were times last season - he had an eight-game scoring streak in February and two seven-game scoring strings - when Savard played at the peak of his game. He used his hands and vision to hold the puck, control it, and get rid of it quickly when necessary to Murray during even-strength situations or to Bergeron and Zdeno Chara on the power play.
Because of Savard's slipperiness, teams often matched their top shutdown forwards and defensive pairings against his line, leaving Bergeron with more operating room on following shifts.
But now with Bergeron out for possibly a month or more, opponents can concentrate on neutralizing Savard even more, forcing his teammates to raise their offensive games.
"You just get confident," Savard said of those in-the-zone moments. "You seem to roll with everything. Things go in for you. It's getting to the net, being hungry, and keeping it rolling. I have to be a little hungrier on this stretch here and hopefully get on one of those rolls."
This season, like he did last, Savard has scored 10 points in the team's first 10 games (he sat out against Anaheim because of a groin strain). Last season, in the team's 11th game, Savard exploded for a two-goal, three-assist performance in Boston's 6-5 win over Tampa Bay. Tonight will be the team's 11th game of 2007-08, and the Bruins could use a similar outburst from their No. 1 center.
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.