By Allan Muir
Six keys to the potentially decisive Game 6 clash between the Chicago Blackhawks and the Boston Bruins:
Patrice Bergeron’s status
This is an all-hands-on-deck elimination game, so it’s probably unwise to discount anyone’s availability for duty until the sides officially announce the scratches tonight. But this one came out of left field.
“Patrice will dress for warm-up tonight, and I’m feeling confident that he’ll play,” Claude Julien revealed at this morning’s press conference.
Honestly, Julien could have said that Milt Schmidt and the Kraut Line were starting and it would have produced fewer gasps. Less than 48 hours ago, Bergeron was in the hospital with a suspected ruptured spleen after removing himself from Game 5. Now he’s supposed to participate in a win-or-stay-home Game 6 at some reduced percentage of ideal health? This has the makings of one of those heroic/stupid moments when a player puts himself at great personal risk because, you know, it’s hockey and that’s what he’s supposed to do.
It sounds so crazy that I half wonder if it’s a decoy. That if Bergeron is going to play, it would have more impact to spring him on the Hawks and everybody else when warm-ups started. The upside to making the Big Reveal now is … well, what exactly? Unless, of course, Boston wants Chicago thinking that he’s playing, and planning for him, when he’s not.
Like I said, until they announce the scratches, it’s all speculation.
Even if Bergeron does dress, he won’t be at his best. That puts the onus on his teammates to assume chunks of his responsibilities. David Krejci has to step up and win a couple in the face-off circle after his disastrous 2-of-13 performance in Game 5, and then flip the on-switch for himself and the rest of Boston’s struggling first line. Carl Soderberg, in just his second playoff appearance, could be asked to eat important minutes against some stout defenders, and kickstart a pair of ice-cold wingers while he’s at it. And the rest of the team must chip in with the concerted defensive effort that always defined Bergeron’s approach.
It’s a team game and the results are always bigger than any one player. Whether Bergeron is in or out, it’s time for the Bruins to live up to that challenge.
“We’ve got to make sure we realize what’s on the line,” said Brad Marchand. “We don’t want to lose this opportunity. It could never come again so we are going to come out very hard.” The Bruins have shown an unnerving propensity for waiting until the last minute to step on the gas, both in these playoffs (shrinks are still booked solid in Toronto) and in the past. The B’s went down, three games to two, against Vancouver in the 2010 final before smoking them in Game 6 at home and then Game 7 on the road, so there are plenty of guys in the lineup who have been through this exact situation before. But that also has to make you wonder: As a team that won just two years ago, will the Bruins have the same desperation in their tanks as they did before their first Cup win? And more to the point, how much deeper will they have to dig to earn the same result against a tough, resilient Chicago squad than they did against a softer, more damaged Canucks side?
Look, we’ve been hearing about Jaromir Jagr’s subtle contributions during the past eight weeks. About his solo workouts after midnight, his gift for puck protection, how he forces defenses to respect his creativity and how he gets stronger as the game goes on. That’s all swell … but enough with the tire pumping, already. He’s been playing top-six minutes with a premier playmaker in Bergeron and he’s earned more power play ice than any Boston forward. It’s time for Jagr to mix in a goal for a change.
Tyler Seguin? Brad Marchand? We’re looking at you, too.
The Toews factor
Everyone is assuming that Jonathan Toews is going to be ready to go tonight — he said himself this morning that’s he definitely in the lineup — but how much will he have to give? Toews sat out the third period of Game 5 after taking a vicious forearm shiver to the head from Johnny Boychuk, but the team refused to release any details that would explain the benching other than to say that he’d suffered an upper-body injury.
So maybe that spell on the bench was strictly precautionary. Or maybe he’ll be playing through an ailment that limits his effectiveness. That would be as devastating to Chicago as a diminished Bergeron would be to Boston. Toews sets the tone for Chicago by doing all the things that can energize an offense. He works the boards, drives the net, battles fearlessly to create chances. He set up both of Patrick Kane’s goals in Game 5 — and let’s not forget that Chicago’s offense managed just one goal in Games 2 and 3 combined when Kane and Toews were separated.
A relatively healthy Toews means this series likely ends tonight. Anything less than that, and it’s a toss-up.
Picking on Chara
His struggles aren’t quite as bad as being on the ice for eight of the last nine Chicago goals suggests. One was an empty netter. Another was a flukey bounce off a broken-stick block by his partner, Dennis Seidenberg. But still, the Hawks are getting to Zdeno Chara, right? He’s not the player he was against the Penguins and Rangers. He looks less nimble, he’s slower to react. He seems more annoyed when he gets hit. He’s playing like he’s hurt. The Hawks may or may not be getting into his head, but their willingness to engage him physically is taking a toll on the NHL’s best defenseman. Expect them to challenge him tonight by throwing the puck in his corner, forcing him to turn to track it down and then hammering him every time he touches it … or maybe just a second or two after. Tearing Chara down is the surest way to success for Chicago.
Consider all that Claude Julien has done in the face of adversity this spring: playing three rookie defensemen during an injury crisis, then sticking with Torey Krug when the infirmary cleared out; putting Jagr on the second line with Bergeron and Marchand; shortening his bench and reworking his third line in the wake of losing Gregory Campbell. Here’s a guy who’s had the choice of a lot of buttons along the way and somehow has managed to push the right one every single time. Tonight is his biggest challenge as Julien tackles an elimination game with a lineup scrambled by injuries. Any reason to think he doesn’t have one more card up his sleeve?