|ANDREW ALBERTS A 3 1/2-month absence|
WILMINGTON - His head clear, his strength and conditioning tuned tight, defenseman Andrew Alberts will play his first game in 3 1/2 months tonight when the Bruins continue their pursuit of a playoff berth by taking on the Devils in Newark.
"He's been cleared to go," said a smiling coach Claude Julien after the club's one-hour workout yesterday at Ristuccia Arena.
For much of the season, smiles have been few when assessing the Bruins' ever-lengthening injury list. But with Alberts back, perhaps ready to log his requisite 20 minutes plus per night, the roster is beginning to look a little bit more like everyone envisioned back in September.
"Yeah, Albie's back," noted veteran blue liner Aaron Ward, who has had his share of niggling injuries this season, "and not to put pressure on the guy, but wow, Bergy [Patrice Bergeron] looks outstanding out there.
"We've got three goalies, eight defensemen, and a ton of forwards. We still can't seem to shake the coaches, though - we've got four of them out there in the way, you know?"
Bergeron, for the record, will not be seen in any of the final three regular-season games, vs. the Devils, Senators (Friday in Ottawa), or Sabres (at the Garden Saturday night). But Ward's assessment was spot-on: Bergeron is showing some of his trademark jump, more than five months removed from the Grade 3 concussion he sustained Oct. 27 when drilled by Flyer defenseman Randy Jones. He skated in drills here on a makeshift four-man line with Peter Schaefer, Vladimir Sobotka, and Phil Kessel.
Bergeron, in fact, increased his off-ice workouts yesterday, adding heavier weights and more repetitions. He has not been cleared for contact - one of the biggest remaining hurdles - but said he could receive that go-ahead after meeting with doctors Monday.
"But I don't know," said an encouraged Bergeron, "maybe I'll try to get an appointment earlier."
Meanwhile, there has been no sign of top center Marc Savard in some 10 days, and he will miss his fifth straight game tonight. Savard has a back injury, possibly including a cracked bone, and all the club will say is that he could be skating soon. For now, David Krejci (3-5 -8 in four games) will continue to pivot the top line between Marco Sturm and Glen Murray.
According to Julien, he will work Alberts slowly into tonight's game, hoping the 26-year-old will respond well and be able to increase his workload as the game progresses.
Alberts, rocked by a Scott Hartnell cheap shot Nov. 26, played 10 more games after getting driven into the boards by the Flyers forward. However, head and neck woes began to creep up on Alberts over the course of two weeks, and he finally had to pull out of the lineup Dec. 15. Alberts remains uncertain what exactly kept him shelved so long.
"I really can't tell you what it was," said the former Boston College defenseman. "I had concussion symptoms, post-concussion symptoms, and a neck problem. I took a dramatic hit, and obviously, that huge impact caused that mangled vertebra."
Among the keys to Alberts getting back: twice-a-week manipulation of his neck the last month by Wellesley-based physical therapist Dan Dyrek. It took some three months for Alberts's headaches to dissipate, and he just last week logged a handful of practices with limited contact. All symptoms cleared, he finally received the go-ahead from the medical staff Monday to return to action.
Alberts, for the most part, has been tempered in his comments about the hit by Hartnell, which came while the big defenseman was on his knees, sliding out of control, and not near a puck that he had seconds before dishing it up ice.
"The fact that he had time to stop," said Alberts, when asked the worst part of the hit. "I mean, the puck is gone for two seconds, it's the fact that, 1, I'm on my knees and, 2, he could have stopped."
Ultimately, Hartnell was suspended for two games and the Flyers were warned by NHL headquarters to dial down the violence and recklessness.
Blue-line shuffleThe return of Alberts, who practiced as one of eight blue liners, forced the return to the minors of Matt Lashoff, who was recently brought up from Providence as an "emergency recall" to fill in for the wounded Andrew Ference (wrenched knee). As for Ference, he skated the full workout but will not be ready for action until Friday at the earliest . . . The Bruins also sent Jeff Hoggan back to the Wanna-B's. Hoggan played Sunday, filling in for Jeremy Reich, who took a blow to the head in Saturday's 4-0 win over Ottawa. Reich was back at right wing at practice, skating on the "Nokie and the Nockouts" line with Shawn Thornton and Petteri Nokelainen . . . Savard did not make the trip last night to Newark. "We predict he will skate soon," said Julien. Date? Possibly Friday, maybe not until the weekend . . . Alberts on taking body checks for the first time in nearly four months: "As long as I can see the guy coming, I can brace myself."
Close your eyeReich said he felt fortunate to escape the blind-side hit from Chris Neil with only a cut eyelid, though he was temporarily stunned by the big winger's elbow shot. "He rung my bell a little bit," said Reich, who required 3-4 stitches to close a cut to his right eyelid. "My main problem was blood was going in my eye, and I couldn't figure out where it was coming from." . . . Rookie Milan Lucic took a shot off his foot late in practice, but was walking without any issue later in the dressing room . . . An unusual number of TV reporters, accompanied by videographers, showed up for the workout, leading Ward to tease the electronic media for their scarce presence throughout the season.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org