Healthy challenge awaits
Hurting Bruins need booster shot
In search of focus and purpose the first two weeks of the new season, the Bruins yesterday took full possession of both. Turns out, focus and purpose found them.
Only some 72 hours after placing Milan Lucic on the long-term disabled list with a fractured finger, last year’s Eastern Conference regular-season champs announced that the convalescing Looch would have company in the broken-footed Marc Savard, who isn’t likely to reclaim his No. 1 pivot spot for up to six weeks.
Suddenly, a team that began to look like it might be going nowhere has been placed squarely in a race for one of the two or three final playoffs seeds in the Eastern Conference. That’s what bad starts do in the New NHL. Slow off the mark means tucked behind the pack, jockeying for weeks and months with a half-dozen or more clubs to pick off one of the remaining postseason berths.
Is it a disaster? No. Insurmountable? Not really. But if you see Sally Fields, you might want to direct the former Flying Nun to Causeway Street with a 55-gallon dispenser of bone-strengthening Boniva. A fracture now to the likes of, say, Zdeno Chara or Tim Thomas, will turn what remains of Boston’s 2009-10 season into organized pond hockey.
Up to this point, we’ve been trying to figure out just who inhabited those Black-and-Gold uniforms to start the season. It has not been the same team that piled the points high last season (116), then crushed Les Tomato Cans de Montreal in Round 1 of the playoffs. Except for a game or two, they spent the first seven games of 2009-10 without anything close to the jam, pop, and efficiency that made them the toughest team to beat in the conference last season.
Now we’ll still have trouble figuring out who is in those uniforms, but because they have names such as Paille, Marchand, Whitfield, and Sobotka printed on the back, above unfamiliar numbers. It would be wrong to say that those guys gave last night’s game against Nashville the air of rookie camp, because Marchand was the only one of the four who participated in Boston’s rookie camp.
Nonetheless, every team that has goaltending also has hope. The two greatest examples in recent years have been the Buffalo Sabres, when backed by Dominik Hasek, and the Florida Panthers, who had little more than Roberto Luongo in net. The Sabres, because of Hasek, made it all the way to the Cup final in 1999. The Panthers weren’t nearly as good, but Luongo kept them relevant, status they have not regained since shipping him to the Canucks.
Thomas and Tuukka Rask are good enough to keep the Bruins from disappearing to the back pages of the Hockey News over these next 4-6 weeks, the recovery timelines that doctors have projected for Lucic and Savard. Targeting Dec. 1 as their approximate return, that means Claude Julien’s game plan for the next 18 contests (nine home, nine away) will have to be even more trap-centered and conservative than usual. That won’t make for great entertainment, but it should make for something close to .500, with enough time left in the season for the team to stabilize, gain confidence, and try to get back to winning with some regularity.
That two-week Olympic break suddenly is Boston’s best friend. After a Feb. 13 game, the Bruins don’t play again until March 2. They play 22 of the 82 games on their schedule after the Olympics. At the rate they’re breaking bones, the entire roster might spend the Games sequestered in MGH’s orthopedic wing, sipping power shakes through straws, scratching their backs with rubber-tipped crutches, and dropping poker bets into the center of the table via traction pulleys. But they’ll have 15-17 days to recuperate, or at least not add to the LTIR list. We think.
As for the moment, the season does not rest in the hands of rookies, call-ups, and quick swaps. The likes of Marchand and Paille and Whitfield and Sobotka are needed. They can contribute, especially in the spunk department, where the Bruins have been all but spunkless. They may even win a game or two.
But the real juice left in the lineup is first in goal, then in defense - primarily in the 6-foot-9-inch frame of captain Chara - and then in the likes of Patrice Bergeron, Marco Sturm, Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler, and David Krejci up front.
Of the forwards, both Bergeron and Wheeler returned this year as quicker, faster, more efficient versions of themselves. Ryder has been slow to get it going, which means he is Ryder Redux. Sturm (knee) and Krejci (hip) are both returning from surgeries and might not be fully back on their games until the time Mssrs. Lucic and Savard are reporting for duty. All of which means Bergeron and Wheeler right now are positioned to be difference-makers. It will be their play, provided both goal and defense are covered sufficiently, that will determine how much above or below .500 the Bruins play these next 4-6 weeks.
Meanwhile, general manager Peter Chiarelli can consider recruiting temporary help to fill in the Lucic or Savard voids. But, like every season, the skilled help has been scooped up by Opening Night.
Mats Sundin would have been a candidate, but he has officially announced his retirement. Peter Forsberg remains in Sweden, still trying to coax his ankle into playing shape. Ex-Bruin Jason Allison didn’t win a job with Toronto (still winless) during his training camp tryout. Brendan Shanahan, cut by the Devils at the start of the month, could be worth a shot, especially if members of the Boston power play keep popping up on milk cartons and Post Office walls across the land.
Oliver Wahlstrom? He’s the Cumberland, Maine, dynamo who potted that sensational “Mini One-on-One’’ goal at the Garden earlier this month and became an Internet sensation last week. But he’s only 9 and cannot, at the moment, be signed to a professional tryout contract. Could Bruins Executive Son Charlie Jacobs petition the league for a rule change? Stay tuned.
The new NHL season opened only three weeks ago tonight. In those 21 days, the Bruins have been beaten on the scoreboard, busted up like kindling, slightly retooled by their general manager (Chuck Kobasew now a Wild man), and reassembled on the fly by the fine physicians at MGH. So far, a season short on results but lacking nothing in action.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.