BOSTON (CBS) – Two questions often come up in radio interviews and just in conversation with curious fans and media members.
They are “what would the Bruins look like without Zdeno Chara?” and “what would the Bruins do if Tim Thomas didn’t keep playing like the best goaltender in the world?”
Well, in Columbus Saturday night a little light was shed on the answers to both inquiries. Oh, the Boston Bruins pulled out the victory over the lottery-bound Blue Jackets, 5-3, to snap a two-game losing streak. But as you can tell by the final score, the victory wasn’t a typical Boston triumph.
Through 40 minutes, Thomas was as far from his Vezina Trophy-worthy form as he’s been maybe since his injury-plagued 2009-10 season. It wasn’t just the three goals he allowed on 25 shots. It wasn’t just that the third of those goals, which tied the game late in the second period off of R.J. Umberger’s stick had hardly any mustard on it and came from out wide, yet it still made its way through Thomas’ 5-hole. It was the other dangerous rebounds, and the fumble of one bouncing puck that caused Thomas to make a diving glove save on Vinny Prospal late in the first period that made Tim Thomas look more like Andrew Raycroft. Head coach Claude Julien was certainly offended by what he saw, so he pulled Thomas for the first time since last March.
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Then there was the injury to Chara in the type of play that Bruins fans have had nightmares about for the last five years. NESN cameras tracked Chara’s disappearance from the game to around the 14-minute mark of the second period, after he collided with Columbus forward Antoine Vermette and his left knee seemingly bent the wrong way. Chara did not return and after the game head coach Claude Julien said that the Bruins’ captain suffered a “lower-body” injury and was still be evaluated.
With Thomas and Chara out, the Blue Jackets attacked the Boston zone as though they were facing a Pee Wee team. They had no fear in firing 11 shots on goal, driving the net or banging in the corners. The Bruins’ depth helped them to survive the final 20 minutes, as Dennis Seidenberg paired with Johnny Boychuk to make some the Blue Jackets’ scoring chances a little tougher, Joe Corvo awoke from his season-long offensive slumber with the second of his two goals on the night and Tuukka Rask swooped in to make 11 saves on shots.
Rask winning in relief was truly a revelation, as last season he was typically the one getting yanked. However, the Bruins don’t want to make a habit out of winning games the way they did in Ohio’s capital city.
Thomas is excused for having an off night after his almost non-stop brilliance through the first two-plus months of this season and last year’s championship run. He’ll undoubtedly bounce back big time. You wouldn’t want to be a Los Angeles shooter heading into the Garden Tuesday night to face a redemption-minded Thomas.
The Bruins might not have a choice but to play without Chara for the short or long-term. We won’t know for another day or two the extent of the injury. Regardless of the length of his absence, the Bruins are going to do more than lean on their netminder to withstand a shooting gallery if they’re going to stay afloat without their minutes leader. The onus will be both on the defensemen and the forwards, in particular centers David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Chris Kelly, to tighten up things defensively. Without Chara, the Bruins might have to resort to a conservative game plan in order to make everyone’s job easier.
The Bruins have been ridiculously healthy relative to the league’s other top teams dating back to last season. Now they might be faced with the ultimate injury absence. While the third period in Columbus hinted at what a scary proposition that can be, the Bruins might be able to grind their way through a short-term stint without Chara.
Of course, any absence longer than a week could mean doom for Boston.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com. He operatesTheBruinsBlog.net and also contributes coverage to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on twitter @TheBruinsBlog.