By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy can look at his lineup and easily get a measure of how much experience or talent he’s dressing for a given game.
Heart’s a lot tougher to measure, especially when that experience meter is on low.
The past week, capped by the Bruins’ 5-3 win against Minnesota at TD Garden on Monday, has sent Cassidy the message he was hoping to receive.
“You’re starting to see that personality of our hockey club that we are not going to be an easy out,” Cassidy said after five Bruins scored and 10 had at least a point against the Wild. “We are going to keep ourselves in games, and work hard to get back in games.”
With a key player seemingly leaving the lineup because of injury on a nightly basis, the Bruins have trudged on and are now 6-4-3. They rallied after their worst period of the season in Columbus to earn a standings point in a shootout loss. They grinded out a win against Vegas, an expansion team, but one with more of its prime pieces in the lineup than the Bruins had. And then came up short but were within a goal against Washington despite a talent disadvantage.
The latest strike against the Bruins came Monday when it was learned leading scorer Brad Marchand would miss the Minnesota game. With Frank Vatrano back in the lineup by default, defenseman Rob O’Gara called up to give the Bruins six rookies in their lineup, and goaltender Tuukka Rask playing with the thinnest of margins of error because Anton Khudobin remained sidelined with an injury, nothing short of a gritty effort from 18 skaters plus Rask was going to give the Bruins even a chance to prevail against the Wild.
It’s easy for Cassidy to put on a brave face and say “next man up” and expect his team to perform as though Marchand, David Krejci, Ryan Spooner and the rest of the missing wounded are in the lineup. The players have taken to repeating that “next man up” mantra as echoes of their coach. But this mix of rookies, journeymen and a handful of grizzled veterans of Bruins battles past had to execute that plan, had to show that it has the character worthy of believing they could get the job done.
If the injuries weren’t enough, the Bruins allowed the first goal. It could have been a long night at the Garden, the type that brings up the boo birds and sends legions to the exits to catch the early train home.
Instead the Bruins hustled for every inch of ice and made Minnesota look like the team that was missing half its forward corps. Vatrano scored a goal after winning a battle in the defensive zone and making an end-to-end rush. Sean Kuraly scored on a second rebound in front of the Wild net after he made a hit on the forecheck almost 200 feet away.
Jake DeBrusk won a race and battle with defenseman Jared Spurgeon and was rewarded with a fortunate bounce off Ryan Suter’s skate. Torey Krug broke up a Minnesota play at the defensive blue line and then seconds later scored on a blast from the top of the circle. Even Tim Schaller’s empty-net goal was the result of him hustling to the offensive end to win a race.
It might take more consistent efforts like Monday’s to prove they’re a legitimate scrappy team, but for now their own belief in that description is in full effect.
“We prepare for the games. It’s just happens that we are missing some guys. But we can’t be feeling sorry for ourselves,” Bruins captain Zdeno Chara said. “We accepted a few days ago that everything is going to be battling, or facing some kind of challenge with injuries, missing players. But like I said earlier, I think it’s a great chance for our players to step up, and they did. They played really well. We had a really good team effort. That’s important that you don’t always rely on the same guy. It’s other guys stepping up and making big contributions.”
Jordan Szwarz (who?) had two assists. Matt Beleskey, maligned for his lack of production, used his hands to keep momentum in the Bruins’ favor with a fight win against Luke Kunin. A week ago you never could’ve predicted the identity of many of the players the Bruins are relying on right now, or that they would hold their own against stiff competition.
“They’ve played great. I think they should hold their heads up high, they’re playing really good hockey, playing with a lot of confidence,” forward Riley Nash said. “But I think that kind of speaks for our coaching staff, the leaders in here. Even though we’re missing a couple of key guys the expectations haven’t changed.”
Cassidy also credited the leadership, especially Chara. Cassidy said the captain was vocal on the bench when the Bruins needed him. As much as this stretch of games is valuable for the rookies and newcomers, it’s also training for the veterans who’ve been here. Chara, Krug, Patrice Bergeron – they may have gotten used to having teammates that have been here before and don’t need that extra encouragement, that extra reminder to stay focused or pick up the intensity.
The other day Bergeron half joked that when the Bruins’ injured players come back it’ll feel like the team made some trades. Based on talent alone, those returns will be a jolt to the system if and when they come. But for now the Bruins, in the position they’re in, are learning the type of teamwork, determination and relentlessness that can pay off for even the most talented teams in the NHL.
That’s why picking up standings points the Bruins aren’t expected to get is important, but the character forged during this tough stretch by the Bruins could be the ultimate reward.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter@MattKalman.