WILMINGTON, Mass. – Upon losing left winger Marco Sturm to an injury on the first shift of Game 1 of the Bruins’ second-round playoff series with Philadelphia, head coach Claude Julien inserted Steve Begin for a shift on the left side of Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi.
The gritty forward rewarded the coach’s decision by utilizing his nose for the net to score a goal off a feed by Mark Recchi.
In the third period of Wednesday’s Game 6, Michael Ryder set up a Bergeron scoring chance in front that resulted in a hit post.
So what did Julien do today at practice at Ristuccia Arena in his effort to find a more offensive replacement for Daniel Paille on Bergeron’s line? He gave Blake Wheeler a gold practice sweater.
That’s the same Wheeler who rode a roller coaster all season, shows only mild interest in making himself a net-front presence (despite his constant words to the contrary) and hasn’t registered a point in the Bruins’ last two games (while recording just two shots on net in Game 5 and none in Game 6). Wheeler has never skated a regular shift with Bergeron throughout his first two pro seasons, outside of the power-play time he logged in Game 3 and 4 after David Krejci was injured. Wheeler’s man-advantage presence in front helped create a big Mark Recchi goal in that third game, but he has since been replaced on that power-play quintet by Ryder because of ineffectiveness.
While Julien never writes his line combinations in stone, it’s a solid bet that today’s practice groups will open Friday night’s Game 7 together. To his credit, Wheeler always seems enthused regardless of his role on the team and his struggles.
“I’m excited. I’m real excited to have the opportunity to play with those two guys and it’s a great time to hopefully get some chemistry and create some good chances tomorrow night,” said Wheeler after practice.
There’s more to playing with Bergeron and Recchi than making things happen with the puck. The Bergeron line is Julien’s perennial shutdown line asked to match up against the opponents’ top line – in this case the group that includes center Mike Richards and speedy winger Simon Gagne – all night long. Wheeler has become more responsible as he has matured as a pro, but his propensity for turning over pucks at both blue lines and his allergy to body contact seem to make him even less of a worthy candidate for duty on the Bergeron unit than his lack of offensive finish.
Wheeler is thinking that the key might be limiting the time he has to play defense against the Flyers.
“I supposed the best way to counter that is to play in the offensive zone,” he said. “So if you’re playing offensively with the puck and you’re controlling the play, then you don’t really have to worry about the defensive zone. But at the same time, everyone has to be accountable defensively. You have to be in the right spots and you’ve got to be willing to sell out and do whatever it takes to hopefully negate their guys from scoring.”
Julien has done less mixing and matching of his offensive lines since the early stages of this series and his team’s earning of a 3-0 lead in games. You’d think that in a do-or-die situation, he’d be more flexible should Wheeler or anyone not seem like a fit on their starting lines Friday. It would seem, however, that in Ryder and Begin Julien has two better options than Wheeler to fill that spot on the wing and avoid an early-game miscue.
Ryder’s addition to that line would require a move back to the left side for Recchi, who has played both sides throughout his career with similar effectiveness. When he’s so motivate, Ryder can be a physical presence and a forechecking force. He tends to feed of the play of his centerman, so he has struggled while Vladimir Sobotka has been reduced to a non-factor. Keying off Bergeron would probably be enough to get Ryder, whose shot from between the hash marks is one of Boston’s best offensive weapons, going. And once Ryder gets going offensively, he tends to become a more reliable defensive player.
Julien could also keep Recchi on the right side and turn to Begin. In addition to his successful Game 1 shift on Bergeron’s line, Begin showed a knack to do more than just crash his body around during a brief stint at Marc Savard’s side in the regular season. You never have to worry about Begin slacking off in the defensive end, and his speed might be able to slow Richards and Gagne, who have had a free pass from the neutral zone to the attack zone for the better part of the last three games.
This move of Wheeler to Bergeron’s line might be as much about winning Game 7 as it is seeing what Wheeler can do when all the chips are on the table and he’s being asked to play a starring role. The lanky forward is a restricted free agent this summer and the Bruins are probably still trying to figure out what they have. Wheeler might be a power forward in the making that can still bulk up and learn how to consistently score goals around the net, or he could be a guy that buckles under pressure and never reaches his potential in the goal-scoring column.
The first few minutes of Game 7 might be a mini-referendum on Wheeler’s present and future. If playing him on Bergeron’s line costs the club early and the Bruins aren’t able to recover, it’ll be a thumbs down that makes history. Should he find the knack on Bergeron’s flank, Wheeler could the hero the Bruins desperately need to make an appearance in the Eastern Conference finals.