Banged-up Bruins face test at Pittsburgh
WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The Boston Bruins play the first of five games in seven days Wednesday when they take on a struggling Pittsburgh Penguins squad that is itching to climb above .500 and get some of its stars, particularly Evgeni Malkin, going.
Boston (7-3-1, 15 points) will be without star center David Krejci, who is out at least a week with a concussion, and defenseman Johnny Boychuk, who is at least two weeks away from returning from a broken forearm. Coach Claude Julien knows the Penguins (7-7-1, 15 points) will present a solid test for his banged-up team.
"It's going to be a challenge obviously, but it's not a challenge we've never faced before," Julien said. "It's one of those things you need to expect your players to be, maybe a little bit grittier and willing to play that type of a game when some of your best players are missing."
There's a sideshow as well, whether the players on each side like it or not. Fans and media will be watching for aftershocks from last season, as this is the first time the teams have met since the Bruins' Shawn Thornton exacted some revenge by picking a fight with Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke for Cooke's blindside hit on Boston center Marc Savard. Savard hasn't played this season because of post-concussion syndrome caused by that hit.
After Tuesday's practice, Julien made it clear his team is focused on the two points at hand and not the past.
"Unless you guys ask those questions, it hasn't been talked about," said Julien. "At one point, you have to move forward with your team and let things happen the way they should, simple as that. If we want to keep wanting the revenge here the next two, three years, I think we're losing a lot of focus on what we have to do right now."
However, Julien did say that if Cooke were to commit another act that warranted a response, his team would be ready.
"If he acts in a certain way that deserves retribution, we'll deal with it then," said Julien.
But Julien is more concerned about his team being ready for a Penguins team that is desperate for wins. One area that has drawn the Bruins' attention is the young and improved Pittsburgh defense.
The Penguins lost veteran offensive defenseman Sergei Gonchar to free agency but they brought in Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, whom Julien coached in New Jersey. As Julien pointed out, the Penguins' blue line can still generate offense.
"They've still got some pretty good offense," Julien said. "You look at [Kris] Letang and [Alex] Goligoski, who's given them offense as well. [Paul] Martin is a defenseman I coached in New Jersey and he moves the puck well. So I don't think they necessarily got weaker, they got younger. I think it's a matter of respecting what they have and what they can do if you're not ready."
Of course, while the Bruins are aware of the Penguins' back end, they know there's one player who can change the flow of a game by himself -- Sidney Crosby.
Asked to compare Crosby with Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin, Julien said, "Crosby is a more complete two-way player. That's my opinion, and I'm not afraid to give it."
As far as his team generating offense, Julien is hoping his new forward lines can click, as he had to reshuffle the deck with Krejci leaving a void on the top line. Patrice Bergeron will take Krejci's place centering Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic, while Blake Wheeler will center the second line with Jordan Caron and Mark Recchi as his wings. Daniel Paille also steps into the lineup as a left wing on a line with Tyler Seguin and Michael Ryder.
The Bruins' power play -- which has improved as of late -- will see a new look as well with Horton taking Krejci's spot along the left-side half wall and Wheeler at center on the goal line.
"I think he's one of those guys that can take that step on the half wall and then shoot the puck very well," Julien said of Horton. "At the same time, we've got Wheeler on the goal line, and Wheels has been pretty good too. Our goal-line guy, at times, when the puck goes up, has to go to the front of the net and create some screens. And I think, if there's one thing Wheels has done very well, and gotten better at over the years, it's been that. He's a pretty good big body in front of the net, so we thought that was, for now, the best way to kind of stabilize our power play, and hopefully keep it going in the right direction."
But Julien knows no matter what line combinations or power-play units he puts out there, his team will have to rise to the occasion with some key players out, something the Bruins have done in the past. Believing in Julien's system and each other has been the key, and the coach is confident they can do it again -- and snap a two-game losing streak in the process.
"A team has to buy in no matter who the different coaches are," Julien said. "You've got some different situations and challenges along the way, and you've seen us in the past where we've been pretty banged up and people didn't really believe in us much. But the bottom line is that we believed in ourselves and that's what we're doing right now."
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.