(Originally posted on 4SportBoston.com )
When this column started formulating in my mind, it was shaping up to be an introductory piece on the Bruins to all you Patriots fans out there who pay no attention to anything except Tom Brady’s injuries and Wes Welker’s shifty moves for 17-plus weeks of the season. However, then I realized that even I, loyal follower of the Black and Gold, have very little idea who these guys are. Injuries, free agent signings, and trades have resulted in higher program sales at the Garden of late as the B’s have rolled out fresh face after fresh face all season long.
This recent stretch has been extremely difficult for the Bruins, with Marc Savard and Patrice Bergeron sustaining injuries in back-to-back games. Bergeron will not be out as long as Savard, but losing your two best centers simultaneously is not the best way to start the second half of the season. David Krejci sat out last night’s gutty 2-1 win in San Jose with an undisclosed injury, leaving the team without their top-three centers. On defense, Andrew Ferrence and Mark Stuart are both out as well, leaving the B’s with only three defensemen from last year on the active roster.
So, I thought it would be fun to look at the lineup the Bruins used at this time last season and compare it with the one used last night in San Jose.
Then, another funny thing happened. The lineup the Bruins used on Jan. 13, 2009 in a 3-1 win against Montreal was perhaps even more atrocious than the one rolled out in San Jose last night. At this same time of the season last year, the Bs were without four of their top six forwards. Still, much like last evening in California, the Bruins rallied for a big win.
Of course, the circumstances of last season and this are different. The game against Montreal came with the Bruins ahead by 11 points in the conference, well on their way to the top seed in the playoffs. At the moment, the Bruins are treading water in fifth place, 10 points out of the division lead and only four points in front of ninth-place Philadelphia.
While last year all the Bruins were hoping to do while wearing a path to Mass General was to keep their big lead as much as possible, this year the Bruins have to keep fighting for every point. Getting two points last night in San Jose was huge, and the Bruins were a few bad bounces in the third period in Anaheim away from at least 3-of-4 so far on this road trip. You can’t argue with the effort put forth so far in this troubling time by the Bruins. It is just unfortunate that it may have taken some bad injuries to wake up a sleeping team this late in the season.
Anyways, people who pay casual attention to the Bruins are probably wondering why a team that was so dominant in 2008-09 has had so much trouble in 2009-10. The simple answer is that this is not the same team.
Back to the point about comparing the lineups. There are eight players who played for the Bruins on Jan. 13, 2009 that dressed for last night’s game. Another three who skated a year ago are out injured and another three were on IR last year at this time. The only area with complete similarity between the two seasons is goaltending.
However, unlike this season where injuries have hit the Bruins early and often, the rag-tag lineup from 1/13/09 was an abberation. The team was able to stay at the top of the standings and stretch its lead because besides Patrice Bergeron’s concussion, no one was out for an extended period of time.
This season, the injury gods are getting their retribution with long-term injuries to Savard, Milan Lucic, and Mark Stuart as well as smaller injuries to Tim Thomas and Bergeron. It is a safe bet that however Claude Julien envisioned his lineup looking for the season, it only has been out there for a few games early in the season. While the replacements have filled in admirably, they aren’t better than the real thing. As evidence, I submit to you a comparison between last night’s lineup and the one Claude Julien hoped to have for the season.
Opening Night: Marco Sturm-Marc Savard-Milan Lucic
Last Night: Marco Sturm-Mark Recchi-Miroslav Satan
Diagnosis: Every team goes as far as its top line takes it. This year, the Bruins have not had a solid and consistent first line. Only Marco Sturm remains as Savard is in the middle of his second extended injury and Milan Lucic missed extended time with two injuries of his own.
Sturm showed signs of life with Savard in December, and hopefully the two can recapture it when Savard returns in February. Recchi is stepping up for the team at the moment and doing what he can because he is a smart player, but he belongs on the right wing, not pivoting the first group. Satan has played a handful of games after waiting until January to sign with a team. He was not expected to carry such a burden so soon, but has probably exceeded expectations. Still, he should not be on the first line or the first power play, which is where he finds himself.
Opening Night: Blake Wheeler-David Krejci-Michael Ryder
Last Night: Blake Wheeler-Vladimir Sobotka-Michael Ryder
Diagnosis: The wings remain the same, but the switch of Krejci to Sobotka exemplifies the issues the Bruins have. Krejci is a skilled play-maker who can control a shift anytime he is on the ice. Sobotka is a classic NHL “tweener” who struggles to bring his offensive capabilities from the minor league to the NHL. He is better suited for a crash and bang game in the big leagues, but is expected to work the offense when riding with two snipers like Wheeler and Ryder. The two wingers have been capable players all season, each already in double figures in scoring while escaping the injury bug.
Opening Night: Chuck Kobasew-Patrice Bergeron-Mark Recchi
Last Night: Milan Lucic-Steve Begin-Byron Bitz
Diagnosis: Opening Night featured one of the best third lines in the league. That group was just as good at shutting down the opposition’s best line as it was at scoring goals. That was a third line that Stanley Cup caliber teams have on it.
Now, the Bruins have a third line with two players better suited for the fourth line and one trying to find his legs after missing almost all of the season. Not the worst group in the NHL and they will give you 100 percent effort every night, but not the ideal situation. You want players like Begin and Bitz simply playing their roles, not trying to fill in for players higher up the food chain.
Opening Night: Shawn Thornton-Steve Begin-Byron Bitz
Last Night: Daniel Paille-Trent Whitfield-Shawn Thornton
Diagnosis: Much like the Opening Night third line, the fourth unit rolled over the boards in early October was an ideal one. All three play with tremendous grit and were willing to play in the dirty areas. Bitz and Thornton were big bodies willing to fight and protect teammates. Begin could kill penalties and aggravate opposing players. Last night, this group was a solid unit. Paille scored the only goal in regulation, set up by Thornton and started by good work from Whitfield. No complaints about this line in its current incarnation.
Opening Night: Zdeno Chara-Derek Morris/ Dennis Wideman-Mark Stuart/ Andrew Ferrence-Matt Hunwick
Last Night: Chara-Wideman/ Hunwick-Morris/ Adam McQuaid-Johnny Boychuk
Diagnosis: Some mixing and matching with defensive pairs is always expected, so the fact that Chara and Morris have been split up isn’t a big deal. Morris is the closest thing the Bs have to a puck-moving defenseman, so moving him away from Chara who plays a shutdown game was a good idea. And the big man can cover for Wideman’s miscues when needed.
Matt Hunwick responded to a mid-season benching with solid play of late. He is starting to jump in the play more and the confidence he has now has resulted in an elevated level of play.
The bottom pair features Johnny Boychuk, who has been a revelation after watching most of the season from the press box as the healthy scratch. He has taken advantage of injuries to show what he can do and will be tough to sit when everyone is healthy. Adam McQuad has not looked out of place in limited duty since being called up. He plays a simple game and is a tough guy to play against.
Stuart appears close to returning from a broken sternum and hopefully can solidify this group. He is a hard-nosed defender who doesn’t seem to care too much for scoring, only hurting people. The Bruins need a player like that on the back end. Ferrence had played well before going down with the torn groin. He even had me off his back.
Opening Night: Tim Thomas/Tuukka Rask
Last Night: Tim Thomas/Tuukka Rask
Diagnosis: The only constant on the team all year has been the goaltending. Thomas had a minor injury that caused him to miss six games, but Rask played great over that stretch as the Bs made up ground. In fact, Rask played so well that people were starting to question who should be the number one keeper.
I don’t think there is a goalie controversy here, as Thomas continues to come up with games where he is the best player on the ice and he keeps answering any questions with standout play. He made 41 saves on the road last night against one of the NHL’s best offenses. It was his play which gave the Bs two points. He is not going to lose his starting spot. The good news, however, is that Rask is a healthy and more than capable backup. His ability to step in allows the Bruins to keep both goalies fresh and healthy.
The prognosis for the Bruins should be cautiously optimistic. Bergeron is skating and will be able to return as soon as the splint comes off his thumb – which could be within a week. Savard should return right after the Olympic break and Lucic is regaining his timing and sharpness after two tough injuries.
If the Bs can survive the next 14 games before the break for the Olympic Games (and .500 play will count as surviving) they will have a month and a half with a full lineup to ready themselves for the playoffs. Don’t rule out a trade or two, but that shouldn’t be expected until management sees how the team it hoped to field all season can play when finally on the ice together.
Finally, a quick note on last night’s win. That was the type of character win a team in the situation that the Bruins are in needs. After a tough loss the night before, the Bs fought back against a much better team to grab a win. Everyone came to play and the leaders of the team (Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara) made sure the win came to fruition. The performance in San Jose shows that the players are not going to roll over and fade into oblivion without some of their best players. That is a positive sign for the state of the Bruins heading into this key stretch.