So far this season the Boston Bruins are 5-1-1 with Milan Lucic out of the line-up. They were an equally solid 4-2-2 without Marc Savard dressed last season. But the Bruins cannot afford to test the limits of those trends for a lengthy portion of their schedule.
Starting tomorrow against the Washington Capitals, those two thirds of the Bruins’ top line could be out for a bit of time — pending medical clearance for their upper-body injuries suffered Thursday night in the win over Anaheim. While the Bruins, who handle injury information the way the Bush Administration protected “state secrets,” wouldn’t confirm the nature of the injuries beyond the obligatory “upper-body” designation, it’s widely believed Lucic might have been nicked up in his one-sided scuffle with Mike Brown.
Regardless of whether the two star Bruins are out due to fight-related injuries, this is still a good time to point out that the Bruins hold a nine-point lead for the conference’s top seed and there are only five weeks left in the regular season. At this point, health is more important than macho victories. The Bruins are going to face a lot of teams down the stretch that are desperate just to make the playoffs, and some will be trying to make a statement to a Boston team that could be their first-round playoff opponent. That could be some over-the-line physical play, some glove-dropping and some liberties taken against the Bruins’ best players.
And I’m here to say, the Bruins have to limit which players are allowed to respond and which are not. While injuries during fights are just as common as fights that occur during the hockey action, a fight provides another avenue for another injury to happen.I’m not calling for a prohibition on fighting. Just a designated group of black-and-gold sweater-wearing players that are allowed to answer the call. Lucic does not fall in that category. Savard does not fall into that category. I’m confident we won’t have to worry about Savard ever tussling again. But Lucic, he’s another story. It’s time for him to realize, and the Bruins to drill into his head, that he is no longer a protector but a protectee.
If someone takes a cheap shot, sure he can respond. But otherwise, leave the fighting up to others. Shawn Thornton, Shane Hnidy, Byron Bitz … all players that can come to the defense of a teammate now. They’ve all been important to the Bruins’ season, all contributed in their own ways — but they’re not as important as Lucic.
If Lucic weren’t more important, he wouldn’t be on the Bruins’ top line, he wouldn’t even be in their top six. There’s a hierarchy on every NHL roster, whether coaches and management types want to admit it. From here through the end of the Bruins’ 2008-09 season, with that ever-elusive Stanley Cup window wide open for a June parade in Boston for the first time in more than 30 years, Lucic, his fellow top-six forwards and the Bruins’ top four defensmen — you know who they are — cannot risk injury for the sake of settling a score or turning the momentum of a game.
I asked Bruins head coach Claude Julien today after practice at Wilmington about weighing the benefits of aggressive physical play against preserving players’ well-being for the postseason. He vigorously shot down the notion of lowering his club’s aggression level.
“I think if you do that, you’re trying to prevent injuries, and a lot of times it doesn’t really do you that much good; it takes away from your game. I think we’ve got to play with emotion and we’ve got to let the emotions take over, he explained. “If you take that out, all of sudden, there’s a lot of times when you play soft, you get hurt. Does playing hard mean you’re going to get hurt even more? I’m not sure. I think things balance out. I really think you’ve just got to go out there and play and make things happen.
“There’s obviously situations in the game where you’ve got a big lead and teams are trying to get things going by stirring the pot a little bit, and you’ve got to walk away from those situations. But I don’t think you want to take the emotion out of the game at this stage.”
That’s all well and good. I’m not advocating the Bruins put on skirts and stop hitting people. I’m just saying that if Lucic, Savard, David Krejci or Michael Ryder gets hit up high or someone trips them up, or someone insults their mom, they don’t need to fight back outside of the time between the whistles. There’s nothing to be proven by one of those guys winning a fight at this point of the season. At this point, the only proving time for the Bruins takes place after April 12, when they’re in the tournament, when they’ll be in pursuit of that trophy that you don’t get for risking injury in a March fight with a tomato can. Trying to win the Cup without Lucic or Savard or another equivalent player, well that’d be a battle the Bruins would lose every time.