TORONTO – The Bruins managed to find some magic against the Columbus Blue Jackets in their season opener, but it’s clear the foundational cracks are starting to show for the Black and Gold with no Patrice Bergeron in the lineup.
The B’s head to Winnipeg after a 4-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre on Saturday night, and their ears are ringing with the sound of Toronto celebrating their organizational centennial amid a crowd of promising, young star players. The crowds were certainly making noise for the 90-minute pregame ceremony honoring the 100-year history of the franchise and the fitting, deserved retirement of a slew of jersey numbers, but also because the Bruins played the perfect, polite guest at an on-ice butt-kicking.
The job was made that much easier because Boston was missing its best player and heart-and-soul leader, and there doesn’t seem to be much expectation that No. 37 is going to suit up for the road trip finale after missing the first two games this season.
Instead, the Bruins will try to patch together another effort without Bergeron, but his absence loomed large against the Leafs in the Toronto loss. It all started in the faceoff circle, where the B’s were destroyed in losing 30-of-52 draws, and David Backes struggled to a 6-for-21 evening filling in for Bergeron while largely matched up against Toronto nemesis Nazem Kadri.
The important draws are obviously a place where Bergeron is counted on for yeoman’s work throughout the season, and the dropoff in face-offs was plainly noticeable on Saturday night.
“There’s no question you miss guys like [Bergeron], and [Adam McQuaid] and [Kevan Miller],” said Zdeno Chara. “But we did a pretty good job in the first game, and tonight was a different game. We need to play like we did in the first game.
“[Faceoffs] really decides whether you’re going to start with the puck, or whether you’re going to be chasing. Obviously it’s not just the centerman’s job, but it’s everybody’s job to go after that loose puck. But if you’re starting with the puck and making a play, then you’re not taking your time chasing the puck.”
It wasn’t just draws where Bergeron was missed, of course.
Toronto’s top line of James van Riemsdyk, Tyler Bozak and Mitch Marner ended up scoring a couple of damaging goals in what might normally be a match-up against Bergeron and his line. Boston’s top power play unit has also looked a little lost without No. 37 playing the familiar bumper role while directing traffic in the slot, and linemate David Pastrnak admitted that’s where he’s felt the absence of Bergeron the most thus far.
“You can see we miss him on the power play. He plays a big role in that bumper role on the PP. You can see we miss him on the face offs, but we still have good guys that can fill in there,” said Pastrnak, who scored the game’s only goal and leads the Bruins with three strikes on the season. “We just need to help our centermen a little bit more.”
There’s also the simple disruption to the lines that the B’s coaching staff had designed prior to the start of the season. Shifting Backes up to center on the top line leaves the Bruins with one forward line that’s been a threat through the first two games, and the second line with Ryan Spooner, David Krejci and Danton Heinen has been completely invisible through three games. The same could be said for a third line that hasn’t been able to consistently possess the puck, or amass a consistent stay in the opponent’s end of the ice.
It’s still early in the season, but it’s clear watching the Bruins that an already-thin roster is having trouble functioning without its leader and top two-way center.
There are no excuses in hockey, of course, and nobody is going to throw a puck pity party for the Bruins with so many big injuries to start the season. At this point, Bergeron is just another participant in the World Cup of Hockey that’s fallen victim to an injury before the season even started, and now leaves the NHL missing a significant group of their star players that went full throttle in the fall tourney.
To his credit, Claude Julien wasn’t having any of the injury excuse after the exasperating loss to the Leafs where the coach didn’t feel all his players were properly focused.
“We’re always going to look at losses and whine about who isn’t here,” said Julien. “But we were fine in Columbus, so it’s certainly not an excuse. Our guys can be better there, and that’s not just the center-men. I think guys can come in and help out with loose pucks. I thought at times it was a tie, but our forwards and our D lost battles for loose pucks. That goes back to what I said before, I think [the lack of effort] hurt us a lot.”
Perhaps the overall focus is another area where a tone-setting leader like Bergeron could have helped everybody snap to attention if a lower-body injury hadn’t knocked him out of the season’s early going. Because it’s clear right now the Bruins aren’t consistently putting things together the way Bergeron demands when he’s on the bench, and on the ice setting his maximum-effort example and lending his elite skill level.