Dennis Seidenberg watched Tuesday’s 5-3 loss to the Islanders, just like he will be an observer for the rest of this season. Neither Seidenberg nor the Bruins prefer him in his navy suit instead of his Black-and-Gold uniform.
It may be coincidence the Bruins lost the two games in which Seidenberg’s wrecked right knee has kept him sidelined. The two-game sample size is small, much like the Islanders’ margin of victory — three weird bounces led to three goals — in Tuesday’s setback at TD Garden.
But the results so far do not indicate a smooth ride for the Seidenberg-less Bruins.
“We’ve lost two in a row now,” said coach Claude Julien. “We don’t like being in that situation. So hopefully we get a positive response on Thursday.”
Seidenberg has missed six games this season. The Bruins are 2-3-1 in those games. They’ve allowed 22 goals in those games for a 3.67 goals-against average. It is well off their season-long mark of 2.10 goals against, second-fewest in the NHL after Los Angeles (1.95).
Against the Islanders, the Bruins took a 3-1 lead into the third period. The Islanders rallied for four straight strikes. When Seidenberg is at his best, he can quiet down opponents with a solid hit, a shove out of the danger area, a smothering shift against a dangerous sniper. The Bruins won’t have that asset for the rest of the year.
“It’s frustrating, obviously, when you have two leads and it ends up going the way it does,” said Milan Lucic.
The Bruins have no choice but to power their way through the calendar without Seidenberg. The trade market has yet to form ahead of the March 6 deadline. Too many teams remain in the playoff hunt. Many clubs are tight against the salary cap. Battle-tested defensemen like Seidenberg are hard to find and even tougher to acquire.
Until the likes of Chris Phillips and Andrej Meszaros become available — that’s assuming Ottawa and Philadelphia fade from the postseason chase — the Bruins have to improve in all areas to survive Seidenberg’s loss.
In Tuesday’s loss to the Islanders, the Bruins used Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk as a shutdown pair against the Islanders’ top line of Thomas Vanek, John Tavares, and Kyle Okposo. Tavares submitted a 2-2—4 line. Okposo scored a goal and had two assists. Vanek added two helpers. The Bruins’ shutdown duo has had better nights.
The issue, however, is how Seidenberg’s loss touches the blue-line depth. Matt Bartkowski and Adam McQuaid were the second-pair defensemen. For now, Bartkowski is assuming Seidenberg’s job as the physical, second-pair, left-shot defenseman.
In Saturday’s 4-3 loss to Ottawa, with Seidenberg and Chara unavailable, Bartkowski led the team in ice time. Against the Islanders, Bartkowski played 19:48 while matched mostly against New York’s second line of Michael Grabner, Frans Nielsen, and Cal Clutterbuck. Nielsen had two goals, both on the power play.
Bartkowski has the speed, strength, and puck-carrying ability to play a top-four role. He played well in the second round of last year’s playoffs against the Rangers when Seidenberg (hamstring) and Andrew Ference (foot) were unavailable for stretches. This will be Bartkowski’s chance to show his bosses he’s capable of a repeat performance
“Guys have to step up and learn how to play in front of the net,” goaltender Tuukka Rask said. “Seids is really good at it. Today, we missed him. But we have full confidence in guys. The younger guys can step up.”
The worry, however, is the effect Seidenberg’s absence will have on the team’s two most important players: Chara and Rask.
Chara’s job will not change. The Bruins have and will continue to ask Chara to match up against opposing top forwards.
But in those game-defining moments, when the Bruins are protecting a late lead, Julien and assistant coach Doug Houda, who manages the defensive shifts, won’t have Seidenberg as an option. It will be tempting to tab Chara for some of those shifts.
Chara played 25:14 against the Islanders. It’s a good bet Chara’s average workload will be squarely in that range, with an increase sure to come in the playoffs.
When Slovakia calls upon Chara in Sochi, it will be for half of every Olympic game.
It’s not an ideal situation. Chara broke down and ran his tank dry last season against Chicago. The Bruins must be cautious with Chara’s workload, which is easier said than done.
They’ll face a similar issue with Rask. Because of Seidenberg’s absence, the coaches will be eager to give Rask more starts.
It’s the right move. He is more reliable than Chad Johnson. But Seidenberg’s two-game sitdown coincides with two losses for Rask. On Saturday, Julien pulled Rask after the Senators scored three goals on 12 shots.
The Islanders tucked five pucks behind Rask. In the opening minute of the third, Tavares shot the puck with his skates below the goal line. The puck ticked off Rask for the game-winning goal. Later on the power play, Tavares slipped a half-slapper through Rask from the left circle.
“I couldn’t stop the puck when it mattered and they got those bounces, so that’s the result,” said Rask (26 saves).
Rask has started 32 of 40 games. Rask is on pace for a career-high 65 starts. He could be Finland’s No. 1 goalie in the Olympics.
Chara and Rask need help. For now, they’ll have to wait.