BOSTON (CBS) – When called upon to fill in during the Bruins’ seven-game first-round loss to the Washington Capitals in 2012, Jordan Caron did the best he could. He threw his weight around and even had a head-on collision with Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin. Caron had a couple scoring chances, but he failed to record a point in two games of that ill-fated series.
Two years after that series with Washington, Caron is now 23 and still hasn’t established himself as an NHL regular.
With Game 1 of the Eastern Conference first round series against the Detroit Red Wings less than 24 hours away, Caron might be summoned again. With Daniel Paille and Chris Kelly both highly questionable after missing the entire week of practices, Caron and rookie Justin Florek might have to join the Bruins’ corps of 12 forwards.
Paille was clearly staggered by a hit last week against Buffalo and hasn’t skated since leaving that game last Saturday. With head injuries, you can never predict when a player will return. Kelly missed the last three games of the regular season with a back ailment. When it comes to sports, a back problem is second only to a head injury in terms of unpredictability. So you have to figure the Bruins will at least start out without their pair of left wingers when the series with Detroit commences.
That could spell trouble for a veteran Bruins team that derives most of its success from rolling four lines and wearing teams out with physicality and skill.
I’m not going to overstate Kelly or Paille’s value and tell you they’re irreplaceable. But they are key cogs to many of the things the Bruins do well. They’re both known for being relentless on the forecheck. Kelly was tied with Gregory Campbell in the regular season for second place among Bruins forward in shorthanded time on ice at 1:51 per game. Paille averaged 1:28 of ice time.
Kelly turned out to be the perfect left wing as Carl Soderberg settled into the North American game over the second half of the season. Not only was Kelly able to make sure that line, with Loui Eriksson skating on the right wing, stayed responsible defensively, Kelly also was an important second option on faceoffs when Soderberg was slumping (which was most of the time).
Paille’s known as much for his missed scoring chances as he is for his speed and surprising physicality. But the telepathy he shares with Campbell and Shawn Thornton helps turn an energy line into a line that’s a threat to produce offense every time it jumps over the boards.
Most important for the Bruins, Kelly and Paille are able to do all the above-mentioned things without getting overwhelmed by the pressure of the playoffs. Both were important players during the Bruins’ run to the 2011 Stanley Cup championship, and both have been through other lengthy postseason runs. Teams with championship aspirations rely on veterans to fill the types of roles Kelly and Paille play because they can’t afford to have to cut back someone’s minutes or juggles the lineup and expect the same success.
Caron’s been around a few years now, but the 2009 first-round pick hasn’t done anything in the regular season to deserve more playing time than he’s received. Maybe he’ll turn out to be the type of player that rises to the occasion in the playoffs. However, even if he’s not intimidated, it’s unlikely he can fill Kelly or Paille’s skates based on his lackluster performances.
Florek showed he might be a solid bottom-six forward who can battle in the corners and provide a 6-foot-4 net-front presence during his four NHL games this season. But that’s all we have to go on as far as his potential contribution. Again, the 23-year-old might stay cool under pressure. He’s still not going to be able to get the chemistry with the Soderberg or Campbell lines that the guy he’d be replacing has established over a longer period of time.
Caron and Florek won’t be the only ones trying to fill in for Paille and Kelly. Soderberg, Eriksson and Campbell are going to have to do more 5-on-5, and David Krejci and Jarome Iginla might have to get into the penalty kill mix. The Bruins should still be able to beat the Red Wings even without Kelly and Paille, but they might have to do it with a shortened bench and maybe some juggled line combinations late in games.
If one sign of a championship-caliber team is the ability to deal with adversity, the Bruins will have to prove they can handle it right at the outset of the playoffs.
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