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Bergeron’s injury a blow for Bruins, but it won’t be devastating thanks to Atlantic cushion

The best-case scenario for the Bruins would see Patrice Bergeron back in the lineup in short order, but Boston can afford to be without its captain given the cushion they’ve built up in the Atlantic Division.

That sound you heard on Saturday amidst reports that Patrice Bergeron was seen leaving the Air Canada Centre was the collective gasp of the Boston Bruins’ fan base. And the sound you heard on Sunday, as Bergeron took the ice for the Bruins’ meeting with the Buffalo Sabres, was an en masse exhale. The respite from worry was short-lived for Bruins fans, however, as news came down on Tuesday that Bergeron will be sidelined at least two weeks after a CT scan discovered a small fracture in his right foot.

It’s easy to see the injury as a disaster for Boston. After all, Bergeron was one of the few true frontrunners for the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and losing that caliber of a player at this time of year is always difficult to stomach. 

Statistically, his season hasn’t been as glowing as others who are vying for the Hart — Bergeron has 27 goals and 54 points, which puts him into a tie for 40th in NHL scoring — but regardless of his standing in the Art Ross Trophy race, it is impossible to argue against his value in Boston. He sits third on the team in scoring, three points back of leader Brad Marchand, and boasts the second-best points-per-game rate of any Bruins skater. Additionally, Bergeron has taken on the second-highest average ice time among the forward group and his two-way play has made him a near lock to be a finalist, and potentially win, yet another Selke Trophy. Another Selke win as the league’s best defensive forward would give Bergeron an NHL-record total of five.

Beyond his individual impact is the fact that Bergeron has centered the NHL’s best line all season, delivering the perfect mix of offense and defense to a unit that includes Marchand and David Pastrnak. While they haven’t done it singlehandedly, the trio has played a huge role in Boston’s charge up the standings since December and the Bruins wouldn’t be challenging the Tampa Bay Lightning for top spot in the Atlantic Division without the play of that top line. 

At even strength, the Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak unit has scored 26 goals while allowing only nine against. That’s the third-best plus-minus when it comes to goals for versus goals against, and the 74.3 percent goals for percentage at evens is the best of any line to skate at least 400 minutes together this season, according to Corsica. There’s also the play-driving aspect of the trio, as the unit’s 58.3 Corsi for percentage is the third-best rate among three-man lines that have been together for 400-plus minutes. Add in power play and penalty kill time and the possession rate jumps above 65 percent while the goals for percentage leaps to a gaudy 77.1 percent.

Making the injury that much worse is that there’s no real replacement for Bergeron. In Tuesday’s game against the Carolina Hurricanes, Riley Nash skated between Marchand and Pastrnak at even strength, just as he had at prior junctures throughout the campaign. But the time Nash has spent on that line — a mere 53 minutes as of last night’s game — pales in comparison to the time Bergeron has spent on it. And while the production and possession rates can’t truly be compared given the chasm in minutes played as a line, Nash’s presence has resulted in a dip in Corsi for of roughly six percent across the small sample. It’s difficult to compare goals for percentages as the Nash-centered line has two for and zero against in their limited time together.

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Now, all this said, there is a way to put a positive spin — or at least have a positive outlook — on this situation going forward. True, there’s nothing good about Bergeron being injured, but the two-week timeline for reevaluation at least gives promise that the Bruins captain could be back in the lineup by mid-March. And even if he’s not ready to return then, Boston will have additional weeks to let Bergeron get to full health before the playoffs begin in mid-April. So, even if Bergeron is on the shelf for six weeks, he should still be ready for the post-season. 

And make no mistake, Boston has the cushion it needs to give Bergeron time to heal completely. The Bruins have 21 games left in their season but shouldn’t have even the slightest concern about missing the playoffs. As of Wednesday morning, Boston is five points off of top spot in the Atlantic with two games in hand on the Lightning and one point back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for second in the division with five games in hand. Not only that, but the Bruins’ margin for error should they go into a tailspin without Bergeron is massive. The next-best Atlantic team is the Florida Panthers, who are 20 points back of Boston for the final divisional playoff berth with only one game in hand.

Finally, from a coaching perspective, there may be some minor benefit for Bruins bench boss Bruce Cassidy. He’d love to have Bergeron in lineup, no doubt, but without his first-line center, Cassidy will be forced to mix and match his lines, which will give him the opportunity to see what works and what doesn’t ahead of the playoffs. Line juggling to win the matchup game can be an important part of winning a series, and Cassidy, instead of having to throw something at the wall and hope it sticks, can now get a look at his options should the go-to Bergeron-Marchand-Pastrnak unit get stumped at some point in the playoffs.

If nothing else, at least this didn’t happen at the start of April, because being sidelined now almost certainly ensures that Bergeron — well-rested and ready to contribute — will be around when Boston takes the ice to start the playoffs.

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