For two teammates already bonded by hockey, two close friends further drawn together by their faith, this was not the way they wanted to be connected at season’s end. Together, off the ice, watching from afar while the rest of the Bruins competed on it, prevented by injury from joining a postseason run that everyone in black and gold believed would last far longer than it did.
But if it was tough for Brandon Carlo to watch the Bruins lose their final three games of the playoffs after he was slammed into the boards by the Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck, fate was even crueler to Kevan Miller. As Miller revealed Friday during a marathon series of wrap-up Zoom calls from the Bruins’ locker room, he had been cleared to return for a potential Game 7 against the Islanders, and “most likely” would have been back to his usual bruising spot on defense.
“I was super close to being back, and most likely would have played Game 7,” Miller said. “That just makes it even worse to be honest with you.”
Carlo will surely get another chance. Miller? Who knows?
This is a man who had already battled back from a devastating knee injury, not once but twice. This is a man who understands better than anyone that the opportunity to play should be treasured. This is a man who wanted nothing more than to get back out there and fight for his guys, to take his 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound body and go hit for hit with the bruising Islanders, to revel in the chance to do what he loves before his 33-year-old body finally says enough.
“Whether it’s winning or losing, you just want to be a part of it,” Carlo said. “I feel terrible about the way things have gone the past couple years for [Kevan]. It hasn’t been easy. When you’re away from the team it’s a bit of a disconnect. I’m thankful that during that time we’ve only grown closer. That speaks to Kevan and who he is. Especially a righthanded-shot guy, never hesitant to share advice with me, help me along the way. I feel bad obviously, it’s not the way you wanted to see his season end.”
But end it did. The Bruins didn’t make it to Game 7, bounced from their second-round series by Wednesday night’s 6-2 loss in Game 6, left with a hockey equipment-sized bag of what-ifs for a season of such promise.
What if Tuukka Rask hadn’t been playing through a torn labrum in his hip? What if David Pastrnak hadn’t missed that wide-open net? What if Taylor Hall hadn’t gone so cold or Jeremy Lauzon hadn’t looked so young?
What if Miller had been able to play?
“We missed him a lot,” Charlie McAvoy said. It was McAvoy who bore the brunt of his teammates’ injuries, clearly targeted by the Islanders as the last best Bruins defenseman standing.
“A lot,” he added. “He’s a big part of our team, the way he plays, the way he carries himself. Tons of respect for him. It would have been nice to have him.”
To retell Miller’s last few years is to channel one of sports’ great equalizers, that injuries know nothing of character or reputation. They can strike anyone, any time no matter how important the player is to a game plan or how beloved he is in a locker room.
And there is no doubt about how the Bruins feel about Kevan Miller. Since being sidelined by a Round 1, Game 4 hit from Washington defenseman Dmitry Orlov that was bad enough to send him into concussion protocol and off to Massachusetts General Hospital for a night, every Bruin hoped Miller could fight his way back just as he had from the fractured kneecap that has framed his entire Bruins existence since it happened 39 games into his 2018-19 season. He would nearly return in time for that year’s playoff run (think he might have helped in that Game 7 Cup Final loss to the Blues?), only to reinjure it so seriously that he missed the 2019-20 season.
When Miller played this year’s season opener Jan. 14 against the Devils, it marked 651 days between NHL games. While working all season to protect and prepare his body for the rigors of the playoffs, he still averaged 19:04 on ice in 27 games, the second-highest mark of his career. It was no surprise the Bruins elected him their nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy, given to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to hockey.
And still, cruel fate intervened. “A tough pill to swallow,” Miller called it.
“It weighs on you,” he acknowledged. “It’s not easy. You want to be out there with the guys helping, help them win. I think I could have helped. Just get one more game. That’s the way it goes sometimes. That’s hockey, that’s life. Just turn the page.”
If only it were that easy.
“With Kevan it seemed like it’s the same old story every year,” Rask said. “He can’t get a bounce. It seems like he’s had every single injury there is to have. Everyone knows him, he leaves it all out there every night he plays. His style is much appreciated by teammates. He’s a great warrior. It’s just sometimes you get in these injury cycles and you never seem to get out of it. I feel bad for him. He’s been a great teammate. Great player. Who knows what the future holds for him, but he set a very high standard here.”