Monday, January 19, 2009

How Much Have Injuries Hurt the Bruins?

No way I'm going to try and crank out a preview for today's 1pm game against St. Louis -- the game would be over before I finished writing. Suffice it to say, the best team in the East versus the worst team in the West is something of a mismatch.

The Bruins can't complain too much about injuries when they look at the Blues' IR list. Nevertheless, there's no question that they've lost a step since the latest round of injuries (Kessel, Lucic, Wideman) took hold. Now, it's worth taking a step back and remembering that for most of the season Boston has missed the talents of solid second-line players Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm, as well as quality defensemen Andrew Ference and Aaron Ward. The Bruins squad which has taken the Eastern Conference by storm has done so mostly on the backs of their first (Lucic-Savard-Kessel) and third (Ryder-Krejci-Wheeler) lines, with a huge dose of support from AHL call-ups.

But there's a huge difference between losing Bergeron/Sturm (depth scoring, frequently injured), as opposed to being deprived of Kessel/Lucic (elite scoring, dependably healthy). Here's the difference it has made so far:

The Hard Numbers

The Bruins remain one of the tougher matchups in the East, but their offensive numbers have come back down to earth.

Record With Kessel and Looch: 31-7-4
Record Without: 2-1-0

Goals Per Game With: 3.67
GPG Without: 2.0

Shots/Game With: 29.8
Shots/Game Without: 26.7

Effect on Teammates

Pity Marc Savard -- one day he's skating with Kessel and Lucic on the NHL's best-rounded line, the next he's centering P.J. Axelsson and Chuck Kobasew.

Savard With: 42 games played, 14-38-54, 2.6 shots per game, +29
Savard Without: 3gp, 2-0-2, 3.7 spg, +1

Note that Savard is shooting the puck much more often, and therefore scoring goals, but that his overall production is down as he's being forced to play "out of character".

But then there are the changes that have been made deeper in the lineup:

First line:
Kobasew since being promoted: 0-3-3, 6 shots, +1
These are good numbers for a third-liner, but Kobie's lack of elite offensive skills makes him nearly useless as a scorer. 6 shots in 3 games doesn't replace Kessel.

Axelsson since being promoted: 0-0-0, 5 shots, +1
Yeah, that includes PP time.

Second line:
The line of Ryder-Krecji-Wheeler has suffered the most, since they are now effectively the first line (in terms of expectations, anyway) and are seeing much more defensive attention.

Since becoming the "first" line:
Krejci: 1-1-2 (all against Montreal), 5 shots, even
Wheeler: 0-1-1 (against Montreal), 6 shots, even
Ryder: 0-1-1 (against Montreal), 5 shots, even
Needless to say, their past two games have not been much fun for this line.

Third line:
The domino effect continues to the third line where Stephane Yelle finds himself centering the AHL duo of Petteri Nokelainen and Byron Bitz. Deprived of his veteran linemates, Yelle has had "0"s all across his stat line -- in fact, the entire line has combined for 0 points and only 5 shots.

Fourth line:
Early in the season, the Bruins had a bread-and-butter fourth line that was used to maintain a strong forecheck while the other team's top scorers frustrated themselves with scrumming in the corners and dumping the puck in from the red line. At this point the fourth line is basically a rotating carousel of AHL grinders, with Shawn Thornton as the "regular". They've had mixed results -- Martin St. Pierre scored the winner against the Isles, but made the crucial mistake on the Caps' game-winner only two nights later.

The Bright Side

Actually, there are quite a few positives to report. Neither of the Bruins' special-teams units (PP 3 of 12, PK 10 of 12) has been underperforming under the most trying circumstances. The defense has held fairly steady, giving up only 4 goals in 3 games.

And most importantly, the record is still better than even.

Word out of Boston is that Bergeron and Lucic will wait until after the All-Star break to return. In the meantime, the Bruins face two non-playoff teams (St. Louis and Toronto), and so the injuries might not have much of an effect on their place in the standings. The schedule for the next month thereafter is much tougher, so a quick return for each player will be key.

But for the time being, we're going to see how this team handles adversity. Based on last year's gritty charge into the playoffs, that might be the brightest side of all.

Coming soon: What in the world to do with the All-Star game...

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