The Boston Bruins have already won one battle in this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal, a 6-5 victory in game two that Tampa Bay Lightning bench boss Guy Boucher called "a pond hockey game."
Today, without the puck even dropping, it appears they've won another one. Patrice Bergeron, arguably the Bruins' most consistent center, reportedly will return to the lineup for tonight's game three, returning just under two weeks after suffering the third concussion of his career, suffered in game four of the conference semifinals when the Philadelphia Flyers' Claude Giroux laid a hit on him in his own zone.
Everyone who's seen Bergeron practice since the injury has said that he's looked good, using glowing adjectives like "crisp" and "clean" and "strong" and "confident" to describe his appearance. But Bruins fans have reason to be wary; after all, Marc Savard returned from a concussion in an early December game against this same Tampa Bay team that the Bruins won 8-1, but Savard became an anchor after a couple of games back and struggled to find his game before a hit from Matt Hunwick concussed him again, possibly ending his career.
If Bergeron returns and maintains the form he showed prior to the concussion, averaging over a point per game, winning over 60 percent of his faceoffs and making Mark Recchi and Brad Marchand relevant again, the Bruins are in great shape. Shawn Thornton likely heads upstairs, Rich Peverley likely drops to the checking line and the Bruins once again become the deepest team in these playoffs.
Then there's the matter of the kid.
Tampa's stars went off in game two; Vincent Lecavalier, Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis combined for ten points including four goals in the Bolts' loss. This would normally be a huge area for concern for the Bruins, who managed to shut down Tampa's secondary scoring and hold the heretofore brilliant Sean Bergenheim quiet for almost the first time all postseason. But because Tyler Seguin took the game, his team and the 17,565 at TD Garden by the reins in the second period of that game, Tampa's superstar performance went for naught.
Seguin's back in the projected lineup tonight, playing alongside Michael Ryder and Chris Kelly. Bergeron's back, centering Recchi and Marchand. The big question for the Bruins now isn't the offense, as they can - and will, for better or worse - roll four lines that can forecheck and put the puck in the net. The question is how they'll perform in their own end, where a few atypical errors cost them game one and a completely abysmal effort nearly cost them game two.
Tim Thomas has allowed ten goals in two games - three more than he allowed in the entire series against Philadelphia, twice as many as he allowed in two games against the Montreal Canadiens, both losses by the Black and Gold. It's not been just him, though two goals in particular in this series can be ruled as his error. The defense in front of him has been questionable at best. Johnny Boychuk's been in the wrong place too many times, and has lost his man on a regular basis when he turns to the net; Zdeno Chara hasn't been the physical presence that he'd been earlier in the playoffs and Adam McQuaid just looks frozen when trying to deal with Tampa's speed. To be sure, Dennis Seidenberg continues to improve his game, and even Tomas Kaberle played a strong game two.
Just like the defense struggled with Montreal's speed in the opening-round series, they're a step behind Tampa. They don't need to be perfect, but they need to be better. And so does Thomas.
Since scoring 17 goals in that seven-game, first-round series against Montreal, the Bruins have put 28 pucks behind a goaltender in just six games. The offense is rolling; with Seguin and Bergeron in the lineup tonight, that figures to continue. But if the Bruins want to take home ice back in this series, they need to go back to basics to do it.
Defense wins championships, they say. With Bergeron returning, the blueliners should be able to relax a little bit - the pivot is one of the best two-way forwards in the game, and he makes his entire line more imposing defensively. It's been the trademark of the Black and Gold all year long, and they're not going anywhere unless they find it again. And quickly.