The pieces were in place, and that's what counts most, even if the fit was a bit awkward, out of synch. Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, and Andrew Ference all suited up for the Bruins last night, the first time all three were in the same lineup in more than two months, which in itself was a measure of victory for Team Banged 'n' Bruised.
"Yeah, not a fantastic game," said Ference following the 3-2 overtime win over the Capitals, the club that is shaping up as the Bruins' toughest opponent in the Eastern Conference. "But a win is a win. Just not the best, sharpest game we could have put forward."
Bergeron, back from a concussion he suffered Dec. 20, shifted from center to right wing on a line with Blake Wheeler and David Krejci, and though he was literally out of position and place, he flashed some of the high-end skills that make him one of the game's most coveted young forwards. He set up Marc Savard's tying (2-2) goal on a power play with 5:48 left in the second, diving to gain possession of the puck ahead of Alexander Semin, then sliding a perfect cross-slot relay to Savard for a quick forehand pot.
"I felt all right," said Bergeron, noting he hadn't played wing since his rookie season (2003-04). "Sometimes I was off with some plays, but I expected that after being off nearly a month and a half. I know I've got to go through an adjustment."
Ditto, too, for Lucic, the hulking, punishing left winger, who landed three shots on net and registered four hits. He might have had three or four more body slams, but either the Cap de choix he lined up was able to avoid the hit, or he simply failed to make the connection and rattled hard into the boards.
"Timing takes time, I guess you'd say," said Lucic. "When you've been out, it takes time to get back into the rhythm of the game. I think the key for the three of us is that we didn't complicate things. We got through it, we won, and I think things are only going to get better."
Bergeron ultimately will end up back at center, setting up wingers with his soft dishes instead of looking over his left shoulder for the puck to be sent his way. Ference, who played with a variety of partners, will settle in with a regular blue-line buddy. Lucic? Wind him up and put him with anyone. Most of his shifts were with Savard and Chuck Kobasew, and when his game is back to 100 percent, he probably will see a great amount of time on Savard's left side, perhaps with Phil Kessel (recovering from mononucleosis) filling right wing on that line.
"It has been a while, and I thought they all handled it well," said coach Claude Julien. "Bergeron, being out that long . . . I thought he handled it well. Looch had some good hits. Ference, he's such a smart player, and he handled the puck well."
The issue, not surprisingly, is integration and timing. Despite the influx of returning bodies, the Bruins rarely, if ever, controlled the flow of the game. Some of that, of course, was because the other side had Alex Ovechkin racing up and down the wing. A.O. remains the game's No. 1 show. Consider: Ovechkin landed a game-high nine shots on net and attempted seven more, only to have them blocked or miss the net. He also delivered a game-high seven hits. He might have had a couple of more shots if he hadn't crashed heavily into the corner with 5:35 left in the second, which left him in the dressing room for the rest of the period, waiting for the nagging stinger in his neck to calm down.
"It felt kind of weird to be at ice level again," said Lucic, who had missed three weeks with a shoulder injury. "Just to look at the game from there felt different, instead of looking at it on TV or up in the press box."
The Bruins still await the return of co-No. 1 goalie, Manny Fernandez, who again is battling "general soreness" in his back, a recurrence of the disk ailment he suffered last season. Kessel, the exciting third-year forward, is back skating, but will need time before he engages again in contact drills. He likely will be out one more week, perhaps longer, depending on when he feels most of his energy has returned and doctors don't consider it a risk for him to take belts to the gut (and an already aggravated spleen).
"I'm confident," said Bergeron, figuring he felt far better making this return that he did in October, when he came back after missing nearly a year with the Grade 3 concussion he suffered Oct. 27, 2007, when he was drilled into the boards by Philadelphia defenseman Randy Jones. "We all know we are going to go through some tough times and we have to show some character. Going through adversity builds a good team."
Marco Sturm (knee surgery) isn't coming back this season. It's a good bet general manager Peter Chiarelli will try to patch that hole in the lineup by acquiring another forward prior to the March 4 trade deadline. And in fairly shorter order, Fernandez and Kessel could be back, and the team that somehow has managed to remain at the top of the conference - and set a franchise-record pace while doing so - looks as if it can hold the top seed right into the playoffs in April.
"A good feeling, I guess," said Bergeron, musing over his return. "It's fun just to be on the bench and step on the ice."