The Boston Bruins are off on a three-game road trip this weekend as they begin a nice stretch of four games in six nights before the Christmas holiday. For the married guys on the team, they probably don’t hate missing out on those time-honored Christmas events like present-wrapping and in-law tolerating. The boys can go out, win a few games to ensure a spot on the “Nice List” and head home on the 23rd to enjoy the beauty and joy of that special day.
One person who may not be having as much joy in his world right now is Bruins defenseman Mark Stuart. The rugged blueliner was injured in the game against Philadelphia on Monday, suffering a broken sternum. Stuart, who was, at the time, the Bruins’ leader in consecutive games played at 196, broke his breastbone sometime in the middle of the contest and continued on through the rest of the skate. He is expected to be out four to six weeks – a period which will eliminate him from participating in the Winter Classic.
Let’s take a minute to emphasize what happened here. Stuart, at some point early in the game fractured his chest. Take your hand and push gently against the sternum area. Even that pressure doesn’t feel too comfortable, does it? This guy, with a broken part of that bone somewhere kept himself in the game, engaging in physical contact and never shying away from a situation. Football is an extremely tough game and I have all the respect in the world for players who play that sport. However, doesn’t it feel like too many times a football player leaves a game with an injury that shouldn’t seem to hinder his play too much? I am not talking about head injuries or those vicious knee and ankles twists, but more like when a guy is listed as “questionable – finger” and you see him on the sideline with some tape on.
Hockey players, on the other hand, I would argue are the toughest (or craziest) athletes out there. For every player like Stuart who carried on with a broken sternum, there are 100 who missed maybe two minutes of game time while getting stitches to suture up a cut received at the hands of an errant stick or puck. New York Islanders defenseman Brendan Witt was hit by a car in Philly last week (not a difficult thing to imagine having lived in that remedial drivers’ ed class of a city) and got up, dusted himself off and played 22 shifts that night while blocking two shots with his crash-test dummy body. Immediately after he was struck, he was quoted as saying “I am ok. I am a hockey player.” Despite playing hockey since I was three years old, I am continuously amazed at how tough these players are.
My ranking of toughest athletes is as follows:
1-600: The 20 guys who are on the active roster for NHL teams.
601: Wes Welker
602-1,696 : Every other NFL player
9,999: Sasha Vujacic
Mark Stuart’s rugged manliness aside, his absence sparks a bigger concern for the Bruins over the next month. With Stuart out, his spot needs to be filled on the back end. Keep in mind, that not only is Stuart gone for a month or so, but Dennis Wideman seems to be battling a big injury and is out for the foreseeable future as well.
So, tonight in Chicago, Matt Hunwick will turn in his suit and spot in the press box for a roster spot. In addition, the B’s called up two D-men from Providence to join the big Club. Adam McQuaid and Andy Wozniewski are big bodies who can replace some of the physical presence Stuart brings when on the ice. Of the two, McQuaid plays more on a bruising game, with just 10 points in 29 games in the AHL this year to go with 66 penalty minutes. He is not afraid of dropping the gloves – a role Stuart often filled.
Wozniewski is almost a point a game player in the AHL, with 23 points in 29 games. He makes a better pass than McQuaid and would seem to work into the transition game a bit better. The guess here is that Wozniewski gets the nod tonight as he brings a bit more NHL experience than McQuaid and the Bruins will need to have some offense from the back end against the high-powered Blackhawks team. McQuaid could get a look on Saturday in Toronto against the Maple Leafs who are a bit more plodding and physical in nature.
The other big development out of yesterday’s practice in the Windy City in preparation for tonight’s game was the shuffling of lines up front. In what is becoming as regular a part of his coaching strategy as snarky looks at referees and random drawing of shootout competitors, Claude Julien again looked to add some spark to his offense by mixing and matching his weapons.
Clearly, Julien read Tuesday’s post here on how Byron Bitz is killing Marc Savard’s buzz and needed to be moved back down to grinder-land. Bitzy, a serviceable third or fourth liner, was bumped from the first line and will run with David Krejci and Blake Wheeler tonight. That is a good spot for the Cornell product, as Krejci and Wheeler have good chemistry together and Bitz won’t be asked to create that instantly, rather stay out of the way and just go to the net to collect the garbage.
Savard again finds himself lining up with Marco Sturm and Michael Ryder. Sturm has the speed to skate with Savard and stretch the defense a bit while Ryder’s sniper-like release should make him a natural fit to ride shotgun with Savvy. However, Savard has never really clicked with either player in various stints over the past two years. Now, there are no other options and these three have to figure it out.
If I am Julien, my pregame meeting with Sturm and Ryder is pretty simple. I would explain that their sticks should never leave the ice and their eyes should always be on the guy wearing 91 on his jersey who likes to make passes people wouldn’t try in Thursday-night pickup games. Trying to read what Savard is going to do and anticipate is not going to work. That is his job. Let Savard know where you like the puck and he will do the rest. I mean, Phil Kessel scored 36 goals on his wing last year and that guy isn’t a MENSA candidate. There are maybe six guys on an NHL team paid to think. Wingers are not included in that group.
All in all, this three-game roadie is very important to the Black and Gold. Tonight, they skate against the Blackhawks. Chicago is widely considered a favorite to win the Stanley Cup and much like when lining up opposite Pittsburgh, Detroit, Washington, or San Jose, a team’s performance against the ‘Hawks is a strong indicator of where they stand in the NHL’s pecking order.
Tomorrow night, the Bruins head to Toronto for a big division game against the Leafs. The B’s won two from Toronto last week by a combined 12-4 margin. I would expect the Leafs to bring better effort on their home ice and Saturday-night hockey in Canada between two Original Six teams is always intense. Then, on Monday the Bruins are still in Ontario, taking on Ottawa – a team tied with the Bruins right now in the standings. Those points are maybe the most important of the six at stake this weekend. The Bruins need to win in Ottawa in regulation, putting some space between the two teams.