From his suite-level perch at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto on Thursday night, Cam Neely was absorbing the unfamiliar experience of bubble hockey.
No fans cheering their team or booing the enemy. No swells of the crowd to spur the action. Not even a peep or puff from that blasted Columbus cannon, a respite for the ears given the final result (Blue Jackets 4, Bruins 1).
“It’s a different environment,” the Bruins president said Friday, reviewing the team’s bubble debut from his Toronto hotel room. “None of us have seen this at the NHL level, a live hockey game like this where … it’s similar to watching a practice, although you’re playing against another team.
“And come Sunday, things are going to matter, things are going to count.”
The Bruins took it on the chin, spotting Columbus a three-goal lead in the first period. They also lost star winger Brad Marchand, who appeared “unfit to play” at the end of a third-period penalty-kill shift, during which he grimaced and seemed to favor his core or lower body.
Neely had no update on Marchand’s availability for Sunday’s round-robin opener against the Flyers. The Bruins were off Friday.
Neely said some of the Bruins’ sloppiness in the first period was to be expected, and he liked how they parked the early miscues they made in the neutral zone and defensive zone.
They’re still in line-juggling, rust-shaking mode, and that makes you wonder whether they’ll be capable of re-securing a top seed after the round-robin, given how good Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, and Washington looked in their exhibition tuneups (all winners; aggregate score 11-4).
“Obviously our guys are very competitive,” Neely said. “I think they’re going to want to maintain the top seed. I just want us to continue to improve as these games kick off, before we head to the first round.”
The bubble remains an adjustment in progress. After Neely arrived in Toronto last Sunday, he said he watched about 30 minutes of live hockey. Staging, video boards, lights, and cameras covered the seats that used to house howling fans.
“This is strictly made-for-TV, that’s for sure,” Neely said. “It was a strange experience being in the building, watching it live. Then I watched some games on TV, which felt a little bit more normal.
“The biggest thing is going to be the energy that you’re going to have to somehow get from within, especially on the bench. I think guys are going to have to get really lively on the bench.
“We talk about how if you’re down by one or two goals, or down by three goals like last night for example, and you’re in your own building and you get one to get within one or two, the energy picks up in the building. We’re not going to see that. We’re not going to get that.”
Squeeze your own juice, the players have been told. Neely hopes they won’t have to do the same in 2020-21.
All NHL teams, at the moment, are preparing for the unknown. The Bruins are no different. They are modeling what TD Garden would look like, financially and physically, if no fans are allowed next season, or if the building is permitted to be half-full, a third-full, or completely full.
“It’ll be difficult to play many games without fans, from a business perspective,” Neely said. “We’ll wait and see when we start next year. I think we’ll get through this season and see what happens next year.
“Everybody’s anticipating some kind of a spike [in COVID-19 cases] in the fall. Whether that happens or not, I guess remains to be seen. I don’t know if you can play too many games without fans.
“It’s all speculation right now what we’re going to see by the time we think we can start next season,” Neely said.
If the bubble doesn’t burst, the Stanley Cup will be awarded in early October, and next training camp would start in mid-November.
Keeping in touch
Ondrej Kase remains back in Boston, but the team is keeping him as involved as possible. “Those guys certainly welcomed him in when he first got here,” Neely said of Kase, who has played six games in Black and Gold. “I think Pasta [David Pastrnak] knows him well. Some of the European players have had some experience together, whether it’s international play. I know that everybody tries to stay in contact, certainly during the pause. I know the players had regular Zoom calls to keep in touch with one another. Our group does a really good job of bringing players in, whether it’s someone coming up from Providence or in this case at the trade deadline.” … Nick Ritchie is a part of the Bruins’ Toronto contingent, though he did not play Thursday … The Bruins’ top two faceoff men, Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci, were a combined 29 for 39 at the dot (74.4 percent) against Columbus … Tuukka Rask will start in goal Sunday against Philadelphia, with Jaroslav Halak in relief. Who will start against Tampa Bay on Wednesday is to be determined.
The Bruins wore helmet stickers Thursday — No. 26 in gold, inside a black heart — to honor former teammate Colby Cave, who died in April of a brain bleed. He was 25. The Oilers, Cave’s final team, wore his No. 12 jersey during a team scrimmage, and are using the hashtag #WeSkateForColby in his memory. Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo often thinks about his late friend. “He was the kind of guy who came to the rink every day with a passion to play hockey,” Carlo said. “That kind of reiterates it for me to appreciate this moment, appreciate the life that you have. It was so unfortunate what happened with that situation. Just take each day as a blessing, come to the rink with the same smile that Colby brought every day. It’s hard to do, but he’s definitely a big motivator in that.” … Carlo, the Bruins’ NHLPA representative, said there haven’t been any phone calls since the players reached an agreement with the NHL on a new collective bargaining agreement before Phase 4 began. “Obviously if there’s any concern, I’d be willing to talk to the guys and talk to one of the guys with the PA,” he said. “Everyone’s been pretty happy so far.”