Kalman: Bergeron, Chara absences catching up to Bruins

Matt Kalman
December 16, 2018 - 11:46 pm

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The positive news came from Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy before Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Sabres.

Center Patrice Bergeron and Zdeno Chara have continued skating in recent days in an attempt to return from a ribs/collarbone and knee injury, respectively. Bergeron’s a little closer than Chara to joining the Bruins for practices, and in turn he could be back in the lineup as soon as next weekend of perhaps after the Christmas break. Both players should be back shortly before or after New Year’s.

Then the negative news came during the 60 minutes that unfolded on the ice at TD Garden. Neither of the Bruins’ cornerstone players was in the lineup and that gave the Sabres’ top players free reign during a 4-2 Buffalo victory.

Buffalo’s top line of Jack Eichel (two goals two assists), Jeff Skinner (two goals) and Sam Reinhart (three assists) came through at all the crucial moments of the game, including Eichel setting up Skinner for the go-ahead goal with 3:31 left in the third period. The performance of the Sabres’ top dogs came two nights after Pittsburgh defeated the Bruins 5-3 led by crucial goals set up by Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

The Bruins had won three in a row before losing their past two games, and they've stayed afloat in the playoff race for nearly a month without their best all-around player and best defensive defenseman, but life without Chara and Bergeron is catching up to the Bruins.

Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy decided that Charlie McAvoy, usually a right-side partner to a healthy Chara, and Matt Grzelcyk would get the assignment against Eichel’s trio. After deciding that David Krejci’s line with Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak wasn’t operating at full strength (Cassidy said Marchand was “under the weather”), Cassidy went with the Bruins’ fourth line of Sean Kuraly, Noel Acciari and Chris Wagner in front of the McAvoy-Grzelcyk pair, and it worked ... until  it didn’t.

A forechecking mistake by that line let the Sabres skate off on a 2-on-2. Grzelcyk turned the wrong way, Eichel took the puck wide and then beat Tuukka Rask with a high wrist shot past the short side. Cassidy said you "hope to get a save there” because the shot was from the outside, but Eichel is no average shooter from that spot.

In the third period the Bruins’ top line got a couple more shifts against Eichel’s group and the Bruins were able to tie the game 2-2 on another Krejci backhand pass across the slot to Torey Krug for a one-timer with 6:39 remaining.

But then Cassidy tried his hand at having Colby Cave’s line with Joakim Nordstrom and David Backes take on the Eichel line. Grzelcyk tried to check Reinhart in the corner but bounced right off the Sabres forward. Reinhart got the puck to Eichel behind the net and he found Skinner in front for a goal in the midst of a bit of a scramble.

“At the end of the day their best players outplayed ours,” Cassidy said. “From the goalie to the top line ... another tough one that we probably deserved points in but we’re not getting any.”

Cassidy didn’t want to blame his defense pair on either of the goals, but McAvoy and Grzelcyk were the one constant in both those scores. (The third goal scored by Eichel’s line came when the pair of John Moore and Steven Kampfer got caught on the ice with the Ryan Donato-Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson-Danton Heinen line.)

Perhaps Moore would’ve been a better choice to pair with McAvoy against the size of Buffalo’s top line. Or maybe a Moore-Carlo combo would’ve been the way to go (Carlo after all is paid to be a shutdown defender). It’s hard to argue with a coach that’s utilized his personnel so well throughout this trying season, as limited as it has been at times by injury and ineffectiveness,

For all the boasting about organizational depth, though, you take Bergeron and Chara out of the lineup and it’s hard to maintain high-quality play, especially at the defensive end, for too long a period. Eichel would’ve run into Chara’s long stick rather than having as much space as he had on his 2-on-2 goal. Bergeron would’ve contributed to keeping Eichel’s line more occupied at the defensive end, and Bergeron would’ve made Crosby’s life more difficult in Pittsburgh on Friday.

Cassidy noticed a consistent mistake the Bruins made the past two games was having a defenseman chase behind the Boston net. He said “we’re going to have to correct that in a hurry.” There are several things – playing-wise and coaching-wise – that need to be shored up so that the next span of games without Bergeron and/or Chara, regardless of how long a span it is, doesn’t cost the Bruins more crucial points in the standings.