BOSTON — For a little more than an hour, Boston Bruins fandom was abuzz. Both Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara had taken the ice in practice jerseys that indicated they were cleared for contact, making their returns possibly imminent. It was the best news the fanbase had heard in quite some time.
That was tempered a bit when coach Bruce Cassidy stepped to the podium after the session and admitted that Chara was not, in fact, cleared. It was just that the Bruins could not find a red non-contact jersey to fit his supersized frame.
The fact that Chara, who has been out with a lower-body injury since Nov 14, and Bergeron, out with a rib/shoulder injury since Nov. 16, were on the ice for the first time in more than a month was cause enough for celebration, especially coupled with the news that Bergeron, the team’s engine, conscience, and first-line center, could be back as soon as this weekend, against the Nashville Predators on Saturday or against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday.
[RELATED: Bergeron, Chara practice for Bruins]
And it seemed that Chara might not be far behind, along with three other injured players, forward Jake DeBrusk (concussion), defenseman Kevan Miller (larynx) and defenseman Urho Vaakanainen (concussion). Miller has been cleared for contact, though will not return before next week, while DeBrusk and Vaakanainen are still making their way through the protocols.
“It’s nice,” Cassidy said. “Things run a little smoother with guys that have been around. Practice habits. Pace of the drills. Mood of the team. I think that’s the biggest thing, guys know that they’re getting close when they’re out there skating with us.
“It’s always good to have the core guys out there. They mean a lot to this team. That’s probably the biggest noticeable difference, a little jump in everyone’s step, knowing that those guys are right around the corner.”
That is good news. It’s good news for any team that two of its best players are on the mend, but even more so for the Bruins, a team with Stanley Cup aspirations that is currently fighting through the Atlantic Division, the best division in the NHL, with the Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs, and surprising charges from the Buffalo Sabres and Montreal Canadiens.
Without Bergeron or Chara — a double whammy of injury news that could have crippled them — the Bruins managed to survive the past month, going 8-6-1. Not bad, but not enough, given their competition.
Reinforcements should help.
So should the knowledge that the Bruins played one of their most complete and dominant games of the season on Monday in Montreal, shutting out the Canadiens, 4-0, to move one point ahead of them for the first wild card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the Eastern Conference. With Bergeron, who has 26 points (nine goals, 17 assists) in 19 games, and Chara, second on the Bruins with an average of 21:30 per game, back, what is there to stop them?
“Definitely, it’s a positive thought,” Chara, 41, said. “But we’ve got to make sure that we don’t just rely all of a sudden now on certain players coming back. We’ve just got to blend in and play the same way we did last game in Montreal. Once we do that, it’s pretty obvious that we are a dangerous team and a very good team.”
They are both of those things, setting them up to be a dangerous playoff matchup. To get to that point, though, they need to get healthy. They need to stay healthy. That has been perhaps the Bruins’ biggest issue — along with secondary scoring — this season.
It had been so long since he had seen his full team together, his full complement of component parts, that Cassidy tried a joke. In reference to Miller, one of a slew of defensemen who have moved into and out of the ineup with injuries this season, the coach quipped, “We’d have seven healthy [defensemen]. We haven’t had to deal with that all year. That was a big discussion in August. Remember August?”
It’s hard to remember now, in the middle of December, but back in August that was the overriding concern: What would the Bruins do with all their defensemen?
It was never an issue. The Bruins saw extensive injuries to most of their defensemen — Chara, Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug, Vaakanainen, and Miller — plus forwards Bergeron, DeBrusk, and David Backes. They had to rely heavily on their goalies, Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak. They had to rely heavily on forwards Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak and load up their top line with David Krejci.
They had to cross their fingers.
Now, though, the fingers might get to relax. The hope might return.
“I think it was the first time we’ve all been on the ice since those injuries,” DeBrusk said. “It’s fun. It’s nice. The guys are obviously itching to get back. I think that any time you have guys like [Bergeron] and [Chara] and [Miller] come back, especially those three, it brings a lot of elements to the table, not just on the ice, but having them around, especially for us younger guys. It’s always an encouraging sight.”
The Bruins might be whole again by Christmas, by the break, by the 2019 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on Jan. 1. The Bruins might get to step onto the national stage as the team they were meant to be back in the offseason, back in August. And though it’s hard to remember August at this point in the season, soon — they hope — it won’t matter what they were meant to be. It will only matter what they are.
That can’t happen soon enough.