BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins’ defensive corps is going to look significantly different over the next two games. Specifically, they’re going to look shorter — a lot shorter — and they’re going to be younger.
With captain and ice time leader Zdeno Chara in Russia to carry the Slovakian flag during Friday’s opening ceremonies, the Bruins will have to face a potent St. Louis team on Thursday night and an always-pesky Ottawa team on Saturday without him.
Of course, the other veteran stalwart on the blue line — Dennis Seidenberg — had his season ended by that Ottawa team back on Dec. 27. That leaves 30-year-old Johnny Boychuk as the senior member of the Boston defense, a position he’s never been in during his five seasons as a regular in the lineup.
“I just realized that today,” Boychuk said with a laugh Tuesday night when told he’s the team’s lone veteran D-man.
If Tuesday night’s performance against the Canucks was any indication, Boychuk is more than ready to step up in Chara’s absence. But it’ll take more than a few bruising hits from No. 55 to limit the St. Louis offense, which ranks second in the NHL with 3.33 goals per game.
“I think you’re going to need a lot more than Johnny to be solid next game, and next two games, in order to win,” head coach Claude Julien said after Tuesday’s victory. “I think it’s going to be important that our whole D corps does a good job there. So you can’t put all the burden on one guy’s shoulder. And as much Zee is a big part of that back end, other guys have done a great job in making our whole D corps pretty solid. So I would have to expect the same thing. But we all know that when you lose a guy like Zdeno it’s a big, big piece of your team. And then you move forward with it, and to me it’s an opportunity for us to maybe even [see] more how good we are as a team rather than looking at just individuals”
Aside from the absences of Chara and Seidenberg, the Bruins are also without Adam McQuaid, who’s not expected to return to the lineup until after the Olympic break due to a leg injury. That leaves Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, Dougie Hamilton, Kevan Miller and David Warsofsky as the remaining five D-men, a group that includes exactly zero players with a full season’s worth of NHL experience. Warsofsky has just four NHL games under his belt, while Hamilton is the elder statesman — if you will — of that group with a whopping 81 games of experience.
Despite their youth (the average age of those five players is 23 years old) and inexperience (they have an average of 45 career NHL games), the majority of them have played well enough to earn their playing time — even without any absences. Now however, the challenge becomes a bit greater.
“These guys that we have back here, they don’t play like rookies, that’s for sure,” Boychuk said. “I am pretty sure that they will do a great job.”
“I think naturally, they just grow just by getting some more games and minutes, and getting put in different situations over that last month,” Milan Lucic said of the inexperienced defensemen. “So we’ve relied on them a lot the last month, and especially on this last stretch they’ve come up big for us. And you see guys like Dougie and Bart and Millsy [Miller] playing big minutes, and Kruger still having the successes he’s had so far this year, so nothing changes with these last few games. We put a lot of emphasis on ending off on the right note before the break, and that’s our focus.”
The Bruins have played without Chara before, though it’s not very often that the workhorse gets a night off. He missed a Dec. 28 game against Ottawa, a 4-3 Senators win. To find Chara’s previous regular-season absence, you have to go all the way back to April 2012, which was a 3-1 win in Ottawa. Due to dehydration he also missed a first-round playoff game in 2011, a 3-1 home loss to Montreal.
But days off for Chara have been few and far between. He’s averaged 79.5 games per year from 2006-12, he played in all 48 games last season and all 22 postseason games, and he’s played in all but one of the 55 Bruins games this season. And when he has been out, typically there’s been enough veterans to help shoulder the load.
This time around, Chara’s 24:57 of time on ice will be distributed among Boychuk (21:07), Bartkowski (19:03), Hamilton (18:49), Krug (17:26), Miller (16:45) and Warsofsky (14:43). It helps that the prospect of a three-week break can provide the D-men with some added incentive to leave it all out there on the ice, but that won’t make the work any easier.
But it’s not all necessary bad. For one, any time the Bruins can fit in a break for Chara, who is a month away from his 37th birthday, it’s a good thing. The Bruins also wouldn’t mind seeing Slovakia face an early exit in the tournament to get Chara even more rest.
And really, there’s a limit to how impactful Chara’s absence can be on the Bruins. It will just be two games, and if the Bruins can win just one of them, they’ll have earned 17 of a possible 22 points in their final 11 games before the break. Anything more than that would be gravy, and with a six-point lead over Tampa in the Atlantic Division, anything less would be far from catastrophic.
It’ll be different, no doubt, watching the Bruins close out their pre-Olympics schedule, but Boychuk has a plan for the remaining D-men that shouldn’t be too hard to follow: “As a defense core we have to step up and not try to replace what [Chara] brings to the table but just step your game up individually and just try and keep it simple out there.”
Gresh and Zo discussed the positives of Chara’s absence, and the opportunity for the young D-men to make a case for more playing time going forward, on Thursday’s show: