Five Minute Major: Boston Bruins' Fate May Be in Patrice Bergeron's Hand

4 Sport BostonCorrespondent IJanuary 5, 2010

BOSTON - DECEMBER 30:  Patrice Bergeron #37 of the Boston Bruins celebrates his goal in the second period against the Atlanta Thrashers on December 30, 2009 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

(Originally posted on 4SportBoston.com )

There is a saying that New York is the “City That Never Sleeps” and after last night’s 3-2 loss to the Rangers in the Big Apple, it is safe to say that the Bruins fans — and especially those who wear the Black and Gold — had trouble getting rest.

The B’s, fresh off an emotional high thanks to a comeback walkoff win at Fenway Park on New Year’s Day, had no carryover in the beginning of the game against the Blueshirts. Boston fell behind 1-0, thanks to four penalties in the first 9:58 of the game.

Trailing by two late in the game, the Bruins put together one of their patented last-ditch comebacks, scoring twice in 1:26 to knot the game at 2-2. However, the shine wore off pretty quick as the Rangers scored with 1:29 to play for the 3-2 win.

The Bruins in no way deserved to win the game, let alone steal a point. Claude Julien said as much after the game, but more on that later. Rather, the biggest development in the game came in the second period when Patrice Bergeron was hit on the hand by a Dennis Wideman shot and did not return.

Bergeron was seen wincing on the bench and holding ice to the hand before leaving the ice area. Versus reported that he was seen heading into the Madison Square Garden x-ray room and, worst of all, he didn’t travel with the team to Ottawa for tonight’s game. Instead, he went back to Boston where he will see the team doctors today for further examination.

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Now, it is possible that the bruise (or contusion if you want to use the fancy medical term) was so bad that there was no way he would play tonight so they sent him home. More likely, there is fear of a fracture. The timetable on that is five to six weeks. That, which is the worst-case scenario, would be a terrible blow to the Bruins and a really bad stroke of luck for Bergeron.

Bergeron leads the Bruins in points with 31 and to this point was one of just six forwards to play in every game this year. He is the team’s best faceoff guy and ranks near the top of the NHL in wins. He can bring shutdown defense, quarterback a power play and kill penalties.

He really has done it all this season for the Bruins, with Julien going so far as to call him the team’s MVP so far. There are certain players on a team who are invaluable, whose absence from the lineup is harder to overcome than others. For the Bruins, Bergeron is one of those players.

The other interesting development from last night’s demoralizing defeat was Claude Julien’s little rant after the game. For most of the season, Julien has backed his team after tough losses, complimenting them for competing and saying that things are coming around. For a while in October and November, injuries played a big part in a lack of scoring, so he had to cover for his troops a bit.

Last night was the 41st game of the season for the Bruins. They are exactly halfway through the season and are officially on the stretch for home. Peter Chiarelli showed that he is ready to start making changes to the lineup with the signing of Miroslav Satan this weekend. Last night, Julien let it be known publicly that he is holding everyone accountable and if players are not producing, they better be ready to suffer the consequences.

“We can’t think we are going to win hockey games playing the way we are,” he said after the loss. “We are just showing up for a period, half a period, whatever, and get ourselves back in the game, get excited. We didn’t deserve a point tonight. We didn’t get it.”

He followed by singling out players without mentioning any by name.

“We talk about a 60-minute effort, and we’re not getting it out of this dressing room so far and some guys have to pick up their game. We’re leaning a lot on guys who come in and grind it out and they are the ones who win battles and make things happen. So, it’s the same old story.”

To translate from coachspeak to English, he is pleased with the effort being put forth by Shawn Thornton, Steve Begin, Byron Bitz, Daniel Paille, and the other grinders every night. It is the play of high-priced “goal scorers” like Michael Ryder, Blake Wheeler, and Marc Savard that he is worried about.

Julien isn’t just trying to light a fire under his team. He is correct in his statements. There have been many games this year where the best thing you can say about the Bruins’ offense is that they cycled well and worked hard on the forecheck.

That is all well and good, and good energy shifts from the fourth line are important to a team, but the way a team wins is when the snipers feed off that energy and start lighting lamps.

With the return of Milan Lucic imminent (as early as Thursday against the Blackhawks) and the impending arrival of Satan, Julien has the all-important carrot to dangle in ice time. As I talked about yesterday, Julien now has two top-nine forwards coming back and can afford to give a struggling or non-existent winger a view from the press box for a night or two if needed.

Who could get benched? Who replaces Bergeron? All that and more in this week’s “Five Minute Major.”

1. It’s hard to find fault with a guy who is third on the team in goals, but Michael Ryder has to be the top candidate to ride the pine if Julien is really looking to shake things up for a bit. Yes, his 10 goals have him as just one of three Bruins in double digits, but his streakiness needs to find a way of evening out.

He had three goals in seven games in October and then three in three games in mid-November followed by two in back-to-back games sandwiched around Christmas. More troubling is his lack of production on the power play.

He has been on the PP all season, and has come up with just four man-up tallies. While that speaks to the Bruins’ larger issue on the power play, he just isn’t getting it done. Julien knows how to push Ryder’s buttons, and a game or two on the scratch list could jump start him. Or it could rattle him so bad he is lost for the season.

Could go either way.

2. Another likely member in the DNP Brigade is Blake Wheeler. Now, my point on him was better made before he had a goal and an assist last night, but I am still going to judge on the entire body of work.

Before his goal against the Rangers, he had gone 15 games without scoring. That was a third of the season. He did have six assists over those 15 games, so he was somewhat active, but it was clear he was struggling. It appears he may have realized that his spot was tenuous as he responded with a solid game last night and was ready to talk in the dressing room after the game.

Sophomore slumps are expected and it is possible that Wheeler was mired in one for a bit. If the arrival of Satan and Lucic have already lit the fire under his ass, then he is less likely to sit just yet. At the same time, one game does not make a season, so he needs to bring it on a much more consistent basis.

3. The third candidate to see a decreased role is Vladimir Sobotka. As the lone forward who can be sent to the minors without clearing waivers, he is a certainty to head back at some point. However, his stay with the big club may hinder on how serious Bergeron’s injury is.

If Bergeron is out for a month or so, Sobotka becomes one of four centers on the roster and is more likely to stay unless the B’s bring up someone with a different skill set from Providence or make a trade of some sort. Bergeron’s injury aside, Sobotka has had games where he has been a factor, adding seven points from the fourth line.

However, he is still prone to mistakes.

Last night, he took a pair of penalties in the first period. The first was a lazy holding penalty in his offensive zone 180-feet away from his own goal. The second was a hooking penalty while shorthanded that didn’t even work. The player he was hooking broke free and made a pass to Ales Kotalik who scored. So Sobotka went to the box anyways and the B’s were shorthanded immediately after giving up a power play goal.

To cap it off, he turned the puck over in the neutral zone which led to New York’s game-winner when he fumbled a pass instead of tipping it into the attack zone. A game like that would surely get you sent to Level 7, but with a lack of pivots on the roster for tonight, he may have a chance to atone.

4. If the worst fears are realized and Bergeron has a broken hand, what does that mean? Well, for Bergeron, it is literally a tough break.

He had been playing his best hockey since the 2006-07 season as he was finally healthy. He had just been named to the Canadian Olympic team after not even receiving an invitation to their camp last summer. He could still play at the Olympics in Vancouver if the injury heals in time, but Team Canada could also opt to replace him with someone at full strength and speed. That would be devastating for Bergeron.

Focusing on the Bruins, losing him puts holes all over the lineup. He was gold because he did things that other teams need four players to do. He centered the shutdown line against an opponent’s best group. He won key draws at important times in a game. He played point on power plays and he killed penalties. And those are just his defined roles, never mind the little things he does to win games.

He cannot be replaced. So, who takes his spot? The smart money is that Steve Begin slides down to center Mark Recchi and Daniel Paille on the third line and Lucic comes back to play wing with Savard and Sturm for now and nothing else changes too much. However, if Bergeron goes on Long-Term Injured Reserve (which is very likely if he is out four to six weeks), things get interesting.

The Bruins would have his $4.75 million off the books for that month or so and could do any number of things with it. That deserves its own article and may just get one, but one option I would look at if I was Peter Chiarelli is bringing up Zach Hamill from Providence.

A former first round pick by the Bruins in 2007, Hamill is a center with offensive skill that could use a look with the big club. His salary is a little high, but with Bergeron on LTIR, it would work for a little while. If Bruins management is serious about throwing a few things against the wall for the next few weeks, giving one of your own guys a shot isn’t a bad idea.

5. With all that being said, there is still a big game tonight in Ottawa to be played. The Senators are one point behind the Bruins in the standings as they haggle over fifth and sixth place while chasing down division-leading Buffalo. This is one of those “four-point” games where a Bruins win is almost like two because they get the deuce while their closest competition gets none.

Tim Thomas should get the start tonight. He is 3-0 against Ottawa this year and 10-1-1 over the past three seasons against the Sens. He will need to be at his best to backstop a team reeling from losing its leader to an important win.

This is the type of game where a team’s identity is formed. If they rally for the win, they prove to themselves they can overcome obstacles. If they falter and lose, it can send them spiraling down the abyss.

If I am Claude Julien and Peter Chiarelli, I am paying close attention tonight. The players that pushback and fight for their lives are the ones I would want in my room the rest of the season. Those that don’t, get them away from me.

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