WILMINGTON – After missing 15 games with a concussion, Loui Eriksson returned to the Bruins’ lineup Saturday and logged 13:18 of ice time.
Sure, he helped set up the lone goal in that game – a 1-0 road-trip-ending win against the San Jose Sharks – with a pass that was a shot that deflected off an opponent’s skate and perfectly deflected to Carl Soderberg for the game-winning shot. It was a fortuitous bounce and not exactly the type of play that should have people clamoring for Eriksson and Soderberg to be crowned the Swedish version of Cam Neely and Adam Oates.
Eriksson didn’t land a shot on net throughout his hardly visible return. However, what was maybe most important was that for the first time since he was clocked by Brooks Orpik on Dec. 7 in that hockey-game-turned-carnival against the Pittsburgh Penguins, Eriksson made it through the Bruins’ victory unscathed.
It was a relief both mentally and physically for the 28-year-old forward.
“Of course it’s tough when you sit out and watch the games that are playing,” he said after practice at Ristuccia Arena on Monday. “And it was definitely nice to be back out there. And I didn’t really think that much when I went out there and played. So I think it was a good first game back, we played against a good team, and we got the win too, so that was real nice too.”
For any player that suffers a serious injury like Eriksson’s – and remember he has now suffered two concussions (remember the John Scott hit in Buffalo) in one season – there are two levels of testing readiness in a game. There’s the exertion and the absence of concussion-like symptoms. And then there’s the fear angle, where a player has to go right back to playing a game that’s physical just weeks after the physicality went a step too far and endangered his life. There may have been some tentativeness in Eriksson’s game. One play early on, it looked like Eriksson rushed to chip the puck away before bracing himself for an incoming check along the wall near the benches.
Nonetheless, Eriksson said he tried to forget about the ramifications of another hit that could change the course of his career, and instead tried to let the game flow naturally.
“Yeah, I didn’t really think about that. That’s the game we played. We always get hits out there and just have to be ready more about when that happens. So I felt good, so it was nice to be back,” he said.
Although Eriksson didn’t want to admit it, tentativeness is a natural result of what he’s been through this season. And the Bruins have witnessed it before, all too many times, with other concussed players. It typically results in lessened production. Eriksson might go out and prove me wrong Tuesday night by scoring a hat trick against the Toronto Maple Leafs, but I strongly believe that the Bruins and their fans are going to have to be patient with Eriksson as he tries to round into the player he’s expected to be for this team down the stretch and through the playoffs.
When Nathan Horton returned for the start of the 2011-12 season after Aaron Rome knocked him out of the 2011 Stanley Cup finals, the Bruins forward admittedly wasn’t himself for quite a while. He scored two goals in his first 12 games that season, and also had a dismal December, when he scored just three times.
Marc Savard’s returns featured equal struggles. Everyone remembers Savard’s game-winning goal in his return to the lineup for Game 1 against Philadelphia in the second round of the 2010 playoffs. However, that goal was his only one in the seven-game loss to the Flyers. Savard’s return the following season after he missed the start of the 2011-12 campaign featured 1-3-4 totals in his first 13 games.
Even Patrice Bergeron, who in most Bruins observers’ eyes has never done anything wrong, was slow to find his form after most of the 2007-08 season. Bergeron only scored eight goals in 64 games in 2008-09. Prior to suffering a second concussion in two seasons in late December, he’d been goal-less in 10 straight games. Patience paid off, however, as Bergeron blossomed in future seasons into an Olympian and a Selke Trophy winner.
Regardless of whether he’s willing to publicly admit it, Eriksson needs time. Bruins coach Claude Julien said Monday that part of the reasoning for placing Eriksson on a line with Soderberg and Ryan Spooner was to try to limit Eriksson’s ice time and create some favorable matchups that he wouldn’t get playing in the Bruins’ top six.
As he morphs into game shape and gets his timing back, it might be wise for Eriksson to also increase his on-ice awareness. No one is blaming him for the hits that Scott and Orpik used to knock out Eriksson. But as sad as it is, there are predatory players out there looking to make a big bang, and Eriksson can ill afford now to wind up on the wrong end of another bone-crushing blow.
Eriksson acknowledged the epidemic of cheap hits that have changed the course of this season for so many players. He hopes that the game will be cleaner going forward. And as for his own play, he’s not expecting to make much of an adjustment.
“No, not really. I’m going to keep playing how I’ve been playing,” he said. “It’s just the two hits I got this year, I haven’t really seen. So maybe keep my eyes up a little bit more than I’m used. But that happens in the game, you always get hit. And that’s just part of the game.”
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.