Anderson: Bruins may have to choose health or first place

Ty Anderson
March 21, 2018 - 7:06 pm

Kim Klement/USA Today Sports

The Bruins have a legitimate chance at first place in the Eastern Conference. That’s if they have enough players left to avoid forfeiting the final 11 games of the season.

Although their chances of getting that top spot took a slight hit with Tampa Bay’s comeback win over the Leafs on Tuesday, the Bruins remain a team largely in control of their own destiny. Trailing the Lightning by five points (but with two games in hand), Boston taking care of business and winning at least one of their head-to-heads with the Bolts would seemingly put the Bruins in the No. 1 spot come the final horn of Game 82.

But it just feels as if the Bruins have been put in a situation where they’ll have to weigh what’s more important -- home-ice advantage through the postseason or icing the closest thing to their complete roster by the time Game 1 sneaks up on them?

Landing the top speed in the conference would not only help the Bruins avoid a round one series with the Maple Leafs -- a team they’ve beaten just once in their last eight games (a.k.a the start of the Auston Matthews era) and draw a more favorable first-round showdown with either the Devils or Panthers -- but it would also give the B’s home-ice through at least the first three rounds of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Which of those benefits you consider more important is obviously up to you, but it’s worth noting that no NHL team has been better on home ice than the Bruce Cassidy-led Bruins, with a 36-11-6 record and plus-59 goal differential since he took over as the Black and Gold’s head coach in Feb. 2017. And TD Garden, while shifting towards an offseason hangout for shutout Patriots fans and bored Sox fans in recent years, creating a sometimes listless atmosphere throughout the regular season, is among the loudest buildings in the league come playoff time.

Always has been, and always will be.

Beyond the obvious noise and comfort factor of playing in your backyard, there's also something to be said for having the benefit of last change when you can roll out a borderline unstoppable one-two punch featuring the Patrice Bergeron line and Zdeno Chara-Charlie McAvoy pairing. If only because it's a combo that no other team has shown an ability to match, really. In nearly 195 minutes of five-on-five action together, a Bergeron-Marchand-Chara-McAvoy foursome has consistently dominated the puck, outshooting opponents 123-88, holding a 127-77 edge in scoring chances, and outscoring them 13-3. Maximizing situations in which you’ve quadrupled opponents with a group that plays at least a third of the game has to be beyond tempting.

But dealt a downright staggering six injuries in less than a month’s time, the Bruins are obviously limping towards the finish line and simply hoping for the injuries to stop.

They’re without David Backes (leg laceration), Bergeron (broken foot), Jake DeBrusk (upper-body), and Rick Nash (upper-body) up front, and Chara (upper-body) and McAvoy (knee) on the backend. Defenseman Adam McQuaid, knocked out of Monday’s game with an undisclosed injury, ‘seems OK’ for Wednesday’s game with the Blues, which probably reads as ‘perfectly healthy’ to Cassidy these days.

Of the injured, Backes was the only player to travel with the club for the start of this four-game road swing, and that was only because of prior family obligations in St. Louis (where Backes played for a decade) and a trip to Minnesota (Backes’ home state).

By now, you know how I felt about Bergeron’s injury, so allow me to apply similar logic to Chara’s injury. These ‘forced breaks’ can only be a good thing when the schedule becomes as condensed as it does for the Black and Gold almost every March. If sitting out now means that the two most important Boston skaters will be at 100 percent when the games truly matter for a Bruins team that essentially punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup Playoffs almost two months ago, you’ll take it ten times out of ten.

In the now, however, this means another week of Riley Nash centering your first line, Ryan Donato logging top-six minutes and going against top defensive pairings right out of Harvard, and the aching Torey Krug shouldering the left-side workload. It also means Jordan Szwarz and Paul Postma are an injury away from a return to NHL games.

And comes against two teams trying to keep their playoff hopes alive and in pure desperation mode and then two teams locked into the top-three of their division.

These are not exactly considered horrible situations -- you can actually make the case that the Bruins are better for these things happening now instead of April and I would certainly agree -- but it does expose these player to greater workloads than expected and increase their chances of joining the rest of Cassidy’s press box infirmary.

But Cassidy knows he can’t allow himself to look at or coach it that way.

“I love it,” Cassidy said of other players stepping up in the absence of the club’s core pieces. “I think guys have taken the bull by the horns. I don’t want to list every player, but I don’t think we’ve been disappointed by one person that’s come up here.

“I think it’s been a great situation for the organization to have this much depth .. We’ve been able to develop [young players] on the fly here. You need to be able to do it. You probably could look at teams throughout the National Hockey League that haven’t been able to use that depth with injuries. They probably haven’t been able to sustain a level of success, and that’s been the difference for us. We have been.”

But if that push continues to tests the fringes of that depth with injuries -- the Bruins have replaced seemingly irreplaceable talents (Bergeron, Rick Nash) but are at an obvious breaking point, you'd have to admit -- when does it become time to abandon hope of a run as the No. 1 seed by resting guys in favor of a run with your No. 1 squad?