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Time after time

Posted by Danny Picard January 15, 2009 05:56 AM

If anything, time is on his side.

Twenty-three-year- old Patrice Bergeron was 31 games into the type of comeback most athletes would rather avoid altogether. Just over a year removed from a season-ending Grade 3 concussion, the Bruins center and face of the franchise was still trying to find his game. Not often in a city like Boston does a superstar-caliber player fly under the radar when it comes to lack of production, but Bergeron’s case was different.

With four goals and 14 assists through the first 30 games, Bergeron was a good player, but he wasn’t the Bergeron of old. People understood. It was going to take time for him to get back.

His Bruins, thriving with a two-goalie system, a rejuvenated Michael Ryder, and David Krejci challenging Bergeron as the unofficial second-line center, were winning. They had separated themselves from Montreal atop the Northeast Division and had established themselves as one of the best teams in the NHL. So the spotlight didn’t have to be on Bergeron. He could fine-tune his game without having to force production. He had time.

Before the game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Dec. 20 at the TD Banknorth Garden, Bruins management and coaches started to see that “jump,” as general manager Peter Chiarelli called it, come back to Bergeron’s game. That great feeling would shortly give way to far greater concern.

As Carolina defenseman Dennis Seidenberg rushed the puck out of his own zone halfway through the second period, Bergeron was playing his most impressive all-around game of the season.

But as quickly as his stick work in traffic and his touch around the net came to form, a collision at center ice silenced the Garden. Bergeron was left face-down and motionless after trying to force the red line on Seid-enberg, bringing everyone back to Randy Jones’ hit just 14 months prior.

How severe was it? Would he be done for the season again? How will these head injuries affect his future?

Three weeks after sustaining his second concussion in as many seasons, Bergeron answered those questions last week.

“To go down again with a concussion, it’s really frustrating,” said Bergeron. “But after a week, a week and a half, I realized that it wasn’t even close to last year, and I was going to feel a lot better, quicker.

“I’m very confident I will play this year,” he added. “It’s a matter of when. That’s why I don’t want to put a date behind it and get disappointed, like I was last year in the playoffs. I’ve learned from that, but yes, I do think I’ll be back.”

Five and a half months after last year’s concussion, Bergeron was cleared to participate in contact drills in the early stages of the Bruins’ first-round playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens. But the Bruins lost, and Bergeron never returned. If any good came out of last year’s head injury, it was that he now knows how to deal with the setback.

Doctors have informed Bergeron that the two injuries aren’t related; given the way his jaw hit Seidenberg’s shoulder pad, he would have had a concussion whether or not he had any type of prior head injury.

Bergeron is progressing much more quickly than he did last year. He suffered headaches, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue for only a week and a half after the latest concussion. Those symptoms are completely gone, and he’s lost only two pounds this time around, as opposed to 15 last season.

His efforts to get back have already started with 25-to-30-minute workouts on the stationary bike and elliptical machine. Bergeron even skated several times with injured teammates
Andrew Ference and Milan Lucic.

There’s no timetable for his return, but regardless of how he feels, the final decision will be the medical staff’s.

“I said it last year, and I’ll say it again, my first concern is the individual,” said coach Claude Julien. “Last year was making sure that this was not going to have any long-term effects. He recovered well from that, and this year it happened again, and the first thing to go through your mind is, ‘Is it the same thing?’

“Guys, this is a job. Even if it’s hockey and we’re all passionate about it, it’s still a job, and your health should always come first.”

Indeed it should. Because with half of the regular season remaining and enough depth in the organization to stay afloat, time is certainly on Bergeron’s side.

Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at dpicard@globe.com

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