Crunch time has arrived for the Boston Bruins, who have been on the receiving end of enough hits from the St. Louis Blues to have blue note logos imprinted all over their aching bodies. The Stanley Cup Final is tied at two games each, but the Bruins appear to lead in the most unfortunate of categories: significant injuries.
As the Bruins prepared for Game 5 on Thursday night at TD Garden, they didn’t know whether defensemen Zdeno Chara and Matt Grzelcyk will be able to play. Chara, the towering veteran who reportedly suffered a broken jaw Monday when he was struck in the face by a shot that deflected off his own stick, didn’t practice Wednesday. Grzelcyk, so skillful in moving the puck up ice in transition, hasn’t played since he sustained a concussion in Game 2 on a hit that got Blues center Oskar Sundqvist suspended for one game. Grzelcyk wore a noncontact jersey during practice Wednesday and remains in concussion protocol. He hasn’t been cleared to play, though it’s possible he will get clearance Thursday morning.
“That’s probably the best I can give you right now,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said Wednesday. “Obviously Zee’s not here, didn’t skate, so it makes it a little more difficult for him. I’ve always said that the guys that are skating are obviously a little closer.”
If both Chara and Grzelcyk are out, Cassidy will face a dilemma. Defense prospect Urho Vaakanainen practiced with the Bruins on Wednesday but Cassidy, one of the most articulate members of the NHL coaching ranks, acknowledged it’s a longshot that he’d choose to push the 20-year-old Finn into making a massive leap now. “That would be a big ask. A real big ask,” Cassidy said. “But if that’s the way we’ve got to go, then that’s the ask we’re going to make.… Earlier in the playoffs maybe it would be a little bit different for a guy to get acclimated, but we’re so far along now it would be difficult. You’re almost to the point where maybe you just ask guys to play more.”
Chara, 42, is a leader even though he’s no longer as fearsome as he used to be. “One guy doesn’t make a team, but he’s a big part of this team, he’s a huge part of this team. And you always want him in your lineup, on any given night, if possible,” center Charlie Coyle said of the Bruins’ captain. “We have guys that can step up and fill roles. Everyone takes on a little more responsibility. Whatever the case is, we adjust to it. That’s what you do at this time of year — fight through adversity, no matter what it is. Things happen. It’s how you adjust and pull together.”
The Blues also plan a change on defense but by choice, not necessity. Struggling defenseman Joel Edmundson will be replaced by Robert Bortuzzo, who was paired with Vince Dunn on Wednesday. Dunn was a catalyst in the Blues’ series-tying 4-2 victory on Tuesday, contributing an assist and quick puck movement. “We’ve used everybody. That’s what you need to do in the playoffs,” Blues coach Craig Berube said.
They’ve made the most of their depth. “It’s been like that all year,” defenseman Alex Pietrangelo said. “We’ve had injuries and guys have filled in. I was hurt for a while, guys filled in. Even throughout games we’re changing partners and whatnot. That’s how effective our group is. That’s just the chemistry that we have. You can see we do the same thing up front. When you’ve got guys who can read off each other and have good chemistry, you can do that.”
The Blues have noticed the damage they’ve inflicted against the Bruins and plan to continue feeding them a steady diet of bruising hits Thursday. “I think we can see it throughout games and throughout the series,” Pietrangelo said. “It’s tough minutes to play. Nothing specific to look for but you can just see the momentum that we create, line changes in the offensive zone when we’re using all four lines.”
Center Brayden Schenn has played a key role by averaging more than four hits per game in the Final after averaging 1.5 hits per game during the season. “We feel when we’re physical that’s our best hockey and we can’t get away from it, even later on the series,” the former Kings first-round draft pick said. “We’ve got to continue to try and wear them down, play our game, and hopefully that turns into success.”
In both the physical sense and the sense of being pushed to the brink of elimination, Thursday looms as crunch time for the Bruins.
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