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Old reliable

Bergeron, just 25, is the irreplaceable centerpiece who keeps the Bruins clicking

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By John Powers
Globe Staff / June 1, 2011

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To appreciate all that Patrice Bergeron does you have to watch him — and only him — for an entire shift. Observe the constant motion, the abrupt changes of direction, the head swiveling like a hawk’s, tracking the puck and his teammates, the instinctive sense of time and space.

“He’s just everywhere,’’ marvels rookie winger Brad Marchand, his linemate. “He’s doing every little thing right. He does a lot of things that are underestimated. He plays so well defensively. He’s always the first guy back in the zone, always down low battling, getting the puck up to me and Recchs [Mark Recchi] so we can go on offense. He’s really leading our team right now, taking control of everything and showing the guys the way.’’

Bergeron may be only 25 but for the past eight years, minus the lockout season of 2004-05 and the 2007-08 campaign that was lost to a nasty concussion, he has been the mucilage that has held the Bruins’ fuselage together. “There’s not a night that this guy doesn’t show up,’’ says coach Claude Julien. “His solid play certainly gives not just the coaches but all of his teammates a lot of confidence. You have him out there on the ice, you know what you’re going to get.’’

So when Spoked-B adherents spotted Bergeron on his knees in the playoff finale with the Flyers, his head befogged after a collision with forward Claude Giroux, it was a major oh-no! moment. As in oh no, there goes the season.

Without their best centerman, the Bruins probably wouldn’t be in Vancouver tonight, taking on the Canucks in the Stanley Cup finals. “He plays in every situation,’’ says winger Milan Lucic. “When a guy like that goes down, you lose a key player on your team. We’re going to need him to keep playing big and keep doing what he does.’’

Leading by example What Bergeron does is irreplaceable. He logs among the most minutes of any Boston forward. He wins the most faceoffs. He’s the most reliable defender up front. He plays on special teams. And he’s a magician at putting the puck on his linemates’ sticks. “He sees plays before they even happen,’’ testifies Marchand, whose six postseason goals include five Bergeron assists. “I think that’s what makes him such a great player. He knows where guys are going to be and he’s able to put the puck in positions where they’re going to get it.’’

Bergeron’s fingerprints have been all over these playoffs. He was the chief reanimator in the Montreal series, contributing 5 points in the three victories that brought Boston back from an 0-2 deficit, then assisting on the first goal in the Garden finale. He added 5 more points in the sweep of Philadelphia, setting up three goals in the 7-3 road opener that got his mates up and winging. Then, in his second game back after sitting out the first two against Tampa Bay, Bergeron scored two goals, one shorthanded, to stake the Bruins to the 3-0 lead that they ultimately squandered.

“He’s a guy who’s leading by example, working extremely hard every shift, every game, playing against top lines,’’ says captain Zdeno Chara. “You can always rely on him to do the right thing. He’s been so solid for us, not just in the playoffs but throughout the whole regular season.’’

Bergeron is the linchpin of what may be the league’s most eclectic line, which features the 23-year-old Marchand on the left side and the 43-year-old Recchi on the right. “We clicked right away,’’ says Bergeron. “March brings a lot of speed, a lot of intensity and skills also and Recchs has the experience, all the little details.’’

What Bergeron brings is savvy, touch, vision, and relentlessness. Engaging in battle drills with him when both were coming off injuries was exhausting, recalls Andrew Ference. “Trying to cover him, trying to keep up with him and battle for loose pucks with him . . . ’’ the defenseman says. “He’s absolutely one of the most competitive and proud people I’ve played with or against. He’s just got a determination that’s so valuable to our team. He’s not the loudest guy on or off the ice, doing flashy things, but he just doesn’t stop.’’

Early success Bergeron has been a man in motion since the day he showed up in camp in 2003, an 18-year-old from Ancienne-Lorette, Quebec, who was Boston’s second-round draft pick (45th overall). Like Bobby Orr, Ray Bourque, Joe Thornton, and Lucic, he made the jump directly from juniors and ended up playing 71 games, scoring 16 goals and tallying 39 points as the league’s youngest player. “Patrice was mature at a very young age,’’ says goaltender Tim Thomas, the only teammate who predates him.

Being thrust into the fast lane wasn’t a problem — Bergeron immediately was tapped for Team Canada for the 2004 world championships and ended up with a gold medal. “When you’re thrown in the ocean you’ve got to find a way to swim if you want to survive,’’ he says. “That’s how I learned. I went out there and trusted myself and had confidence that I could do it. But, still, I had to if I wanted to come out on top and stay there. I had to find a way.’’

For role models Bergeron looked to veteran Martin Lapointe, a fellow Quebecois who invited the new kid to live with his family, and to Thornton, who’d been named captain the previous year. “He’d been there as an 18-year-old coming in and I was the 18-year-old coming in,’’ Bergeron says. “He was so successful. The fact that he had a 100-point season, I was trying to do what he was doing.’’

When the NHL owners locked out the players the following season, Bergeron went to Providence to play with the Wanna-B’s. Besides the chance to get another 68 games under his belt, Bergeron worked on his English and got to know the younger guys who’d soon be his teammates. The club was going to need a new crop of leaders when play resumed, since fewer than a dozen veterans returned.

Bergeron had led by example on the ice because he felt he was too young to do it verbally in the locker room. “Obviously I was still learning,’’ he says. “It was different for me to step up, having to talk and having to tell people way older than me what to do. I had to learn that. I feel my leadership skills have always been in me. I just had to develop the talking part of it with my English and all that.’’

Waylaid by concussions Bergeron’s game needed no translation. He led the Bruins in scoring in 2005-06 and was second to Marc Savard in 2006-07. Then, just 10 games into the 2007-08 campaign, Flyers defenseman Randy Jones slammed into Bergeron from behind, breaking his nose and giving him a Grade 3 concussion that ended his season. “I knew it was going to take awhile, but maybe not that long,’’ he says. “I really wanted to come back and I thought I could do it, that it was just a matter of time. I stayed positive. I did have some down time. I did have some setbacks. I had no clue how long it would take. I stayed with it, but it was hard.’’

Bergeron had played only 31 games the following season before he was clocked by future teammate Dennis Seidenberg in a Garden matchup with Carolina and missed more than a month with another concussion. What he learned was to savor each shift as if it would be his last.

“That’s what opened my eyes the most,’’ Bergeron says. “You’ve got to appreciate and say thank you to each and every day and every practice and game. It’s my passion, it’s my sport. I knew that before but [the concussions] got me to realize that it’s really what I want to do. So I try to do that in life as well.’’

Since Savard was sidelined for the season in February with his second head shot, Bergeron has texted him multiple times each week. And he has developed a close relationship with Matt Brown, the Norwood High hockey player who was paralyzed after breaking his neck in a game a year ago January.

“I’ve tried to stay in touch with him,’’ says Bergeron, who visited Brown at the rehab center two months later when the Bruins were in Atlanta. “I saw him just before the playoffs. He seems to be doing better, staying positive. Being patient is hard but it’s the main key with those types of injuries. In his case, he’s doing awesome. The way Matt carries himself for his age, the things he says, is amazing.’’

Both men have come to understand how quickly a physical game played in an unforgiving venue can turn life upside down. Though Bergeron’s third concussion was mild, it still was worrisome. But when he returned for the third game of the conference finals, Bergeron played his usual game. “He wasn’t cautious, he was confident,’’ said Julien. “He knew he felt good and he went out there and played like nothing happened.’’

It was a calculated risk but the reward is exceptional. Bergeron already has three of the planet’s most significant trophies on his résumé — both the world and world junior titles and the Olympic gold medal that he won in Vancouver last year. “It was amazing,’’ he says. “You could feel the whole country was behind us.’’ This time it’s merely a whole city, but every Bostonian would gladly swap all the gold at Olympus for Lord Stanley’s mug. And should the Bruins win it, Bergeron’s name should be engraved front and center.

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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