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Forward and back

Posted by Danny Picard February 12, 2009 05:57 AM

It wasn’t long ago that Michael Ryder was in the doghouse. Not with the Bruins, of course, but with the Montreal Canadiens. Scratched in Games 4, 6, and 7 of last year’s seven-game playoff series against the Bruins, Ryder didn’t enter free agency last summer displaying the difference-making ability he possessed in the two seasons prior, when he recorded consecutive 30-goal campaigns.

In other words, Ryder wasn’t the most attractive free agent on the market after a 14-goal, 17-assist performance in 2007-08. But the Bruins were more than willing to take a chance that Ryder’s falling-out with Montreal coach Guy Carbonneau wouldn’t carry over to his reunion with Boston coach Claude Julien, formerly the Canadiens’ head coach. The Bruins needed to add a goal scorer, and though he lacked the pizzazz and the high price tag of fellow free agent Marian Hossa, Ryder was their man.

So far, his drop-off in production with Montreal has led to the biggest steal of the off-season. Ryder’s every-day scoring threat has proven to be the biggest difference for a Bruins team that catapulted from 24th in the league in goal scoring last season to second in the NHL in goals scored today. The winger’s 19 goals, including his seven game-winners, have all been big.

But for the next few weeks, the Bruins must find a way to replace Ryder’s rejuvenated quick-release snap shot from the high slot. He has been out since being hit with a high stick in the third period of Feb. 5’s 4-3 shoot-out win over Ottawa. He suffered three facial fractures, which were surgically repaired Monday, and will miss two to three weeks.

“It’s tough because Michael’s a huge part of, not only our line, but our team’s success,” said rookie winger Blake Wheeler. “It’s just a freak accident. We’re all feeling for him.”

Early on in training camp, Ryder was originally expected to be Marc Savard’s right-hand man on the top line, but the chemistry and production of Wheeler, David Krejci, and Ryder have been enough to establish them as Julien’s most permanent and consistent trio of the season.

Savard instead centers the top line with Milan Lucic and Phil Kessel, but even they’ve been moved around at times this year. When Wheeler, Krejci, and Ryder are all healthy, they are worthy of battling Savard’s line for the rights to be the team’s go-to shift in a big spot.

Sure, Wheeler’s been one of the league’s top rookies, and Krejci was good enough to hear his name in the All-Star reserves discussion, but Ryder’s presence on the Bruins has transformed a team that desperately lacked a sniper last season.

“It takes away a dimension of our team when you don’t have that big shot there,” said Wheeler. “But all year long we’ve had guys step up and step into roles. While Michael’s recovering, I’m sure somebody will step up for him and do a great job.”

The Bruins have been adjusting to injuries all season long. Ryder is the next big name on the “out indefinitely” list, following Marco Sturm, Chuck Kobasew, Andrew Ference, Patrice Bergeron, and Kessel, just to name a few. But asking someone to match Ryder’s production would be unfair, especially since he’s done a whole lot more than just score goals this season.

“He’s been criticized in the past for not playing an all-around game,” said Julien. “I see him throwing his body around. I see him battling for pucks. I see him doing a pretty good job in our own end. He’s a big plus player, so he must be doing something right besides scoring goals.”

Ryder will certainly be missed. Once again, an injury will test the depth and mindset of the first-place Bruins. They’ve yet to stumble because of it, but losing Ryder this late in the season may be the toughest setback yet.

“It’s always a big loss when you lose players that are scoring goals for you, or are an offensive threat,” said Julien. “We’ve always tried to eliminate the excuses. We’ve had guys that have stepped in since the beginning of the year and have done the job, so I don’t see why that can’t continue to happen.”

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

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