At times, Ondrej Kase’s return to the Bruins’ lineup felt like Boston’s biggest mystery since discovering Whitey Bulger’s whereabouts.
Late last season, general manager Don Sweeney acquired Kase from Anaheim hoping he’d provide scoring depth in the middle of the lineup. But Kase hardly had a chance to make any impression at all during his time in Boston.
Kase appeared in six games, tallying one assist before the COVID pause. Upon the league’s return, Kase nabbed three helpers in 11 playoff games skating on the second line with fellow Czech countryman David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk.
David Pastrnak’s recovery from off-season hip surgery provided ample opportunities for the forward core to step up in more significant roles to start the 2021 season. Kase only lasted two games — both in the season-opening series with the New Jersey Devils — before sustaining another concussion, this time via a Miles Wood hit on Jan. 16.
Kase faced a couple of setbacks during his recovery period. In one instance, the 25-year-old thought he was only a couple of days away from returning before succumbing to symptoms again.
But Kase doesn’t have to wait any longer. After a nearly four-month process, he’ll finally return to Boston’s lineup in a fourth-line role with Jake DeBrusk and Curtis Lazar for Monday’s tilt with the New York Islanders.
“I didn’t expect it to take this long, but I’m so excited to be back,” Kase said following the pregame skate. “[The recovery] was up and down a lot. I felt it was mostly up. A month ago I felt like, ‘hey I’m almost there,’ and a few days later I felt like I couldn’t do it. So there were a lot of ups and downs, but every week I felt a little bit better.”
As Kase’s health improved, so too did Boston’s depth.
Needing to address the defensive depth, bottom-six makeup and the lingering rotating door on the second-line, Sweeney swung for the fences acquiring Lazar, Taylor Hall and Mike Reilly at the trade deadline. Over time, the Bruins transitioned from a fringe playoff team to a potential Stanley Cup contender.
The Bruins can secure third place in the East Division and a first-round matchup with the Washington Capitals if they tally one point over their next two games. Otherwise, they’ll face the top-seeded Penguins in Round 1.
But the Bruins coaching staff merely sees playoff positioning as a secondary concern. Their main priorities consist of balancing the health of the club while evaluating certain scoring lines and defensive pairings to end the regular season.
With just two games left, evaluating Kase following a 52-game absence becomes tricky. The 2014 seventh-round selection will need a handful of shifts to merely shake off the proverbial rust from the long layoff. Even then, transitioning from the regular season to the playoffs becomes a tough ask for anyone, let alone a player with a significant injury history.
Perhaps Kase will exceed expectations over these next two games. But would it be enough to land a bottom-six role over Chris Wagner, Sean Kuraly, Trent Frederic or DeBrusk? It’s an uphill climb, but for now, Cassidy and the coaching staff will take the one-day-at-a-time approach with Kase.
“He hasn’t played in months,” Cassidy said of his message to Kase. “So he needs to go out there and shake the rust off as quickly as possible if we have any chance of using him next week or this weekend or whenever we start [the playoffs]. So the message is to keep your shifts short. Things are going to be happening fast around you, so keep your head up and try not to overdo it — just get back into playing hockey and guys flying around you. You don’t get that in practice the same as you do in a game, so that’s the message to him.”
When healthy, Kase’s speed and crafty playmaking skills provide the Bruins another element in the middle of the lineup. But they rarely, if at all, saw Kase’s creativity during his eight regular-season games and 11 postseason tilts since he came to Boston last February.
It will take Kase time to regain his footing, even if he makes the postseason roster. Yet, Kase has no qualms regarding his readiness for the postseason following the lengthy recovery period.
“I’m ready and I’m 100 percent,” Kase said. “I skated for about one and a half or two months, and I think my conditioning is pretty good. I hope I can help the team.”
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