RALEIGH, N.C. — Hockey stick in his left hand, right arm free, Patrice Bergeron hovered on his skates just near the exit of PNC Arena’s ice. As teammate after Bruins teammate reached his side, that right arm went around for a hug, a postgame line of embrace that said so much. Not about who Patrice Bergeron is, though that was obvious. But about what Patrice Bergeron means to the Bruins.
Or, if his offseason contemplation goes a certain way, what Bergeron has meant to the Bruins.
“So much,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said.
“The backbone of our team,” is how Brad Marchand put it.
Bergeron’s days of holding up the Bruins could be over, with the very real possibility the 36-year-old, 18-year NHL veteran just played his final game in Black and Gold. If this was really it, and the venerated captain is done, there will be plenty of time and lots of reasons to write long, well-deserved tributes to a legacy of skill, leadership, class, and consistency that will rightfully elevate him to the highest echelon of great Hub superstars.
But even as the Bruins gathered in the dungeons of their own personal Carolina hockey hell, neither the sting of their 3-2 Game 7 loss to the Hurricanes nor the finality of their first-round playoff exit could smother thoughts of Bergeron. He’s been the face and the soul of this franchise for nearly two decades, the player who has no contract signed and no decision made for next season, the player who has grown from wide-eyed young rookie to black-eyed grizzled veteran before our very eyes.
Bergeron’s future is the one big question, maybe the only question, of a Bruins offseason that came all too fast Saturday. With no first round draft pick after the Hampus Lindholm trade, with no other major piece a free agent, and only the potential possible trade of Jake DeBrusk looming as a significant change to the bones of the roster, the question becomes what kind of heart that roster would have should Bergeron elect to retire. Or …. gasp, move on.
“I hope not,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “He means so much to this franchise that we all want him back. But only he can answer that.”
He wasn’t ready to do that Saturday.
“No,” he said. “It’s too early right now. Not after … it’s too fresh right now. It still stings from a hard-fought series. We came up short. Obviously I’m going to have to think about it but I’m not there right now.”
If he is finished, there will be mourning to match the departure of Tom Brady, the dismissal of Mookie Betts, or the farewell to Zdeno Chara. There will be memories to treasure, including moments from this series that served as reminders, over and over again, of just how much Bergeron brings to the hockey table. There he was in the middle of the Bruins’ last best gasp of the season, a second-period sequence that cut their one-goal deficit in half and stood out as about the only time the rollicking, reverberating building seemed to hold its breath in fear.
With a restart anchored by Charlie McAvoy, it was Bergeron who did the hard work against the boards to hold onto the puck, Bergeron who delivered a laser pass back toward DeBrusk, Bergeron who was there to celebrate after that puck bounced through a charging McAvoy and went from DeBrusk’s stick into the goal.
With his 127th career playoff point in his 13th career Game 7 playoff game, Bergeron ultimately couldn’t lift his team to victory, but nor could he ever be blamed for its loss. He was a factor in every win of the series, erupting with particular force in Game 4 at home, when his one goal and two assists (Who can forget that perfect faceoff to set up David Pastrnak?) were matched by the bleeding cut under his eye that he had to have stitched up before returning.
That is the leader this team was playing for this series, the guy for whom they wanted to win so badly that his steady linemate and close friend Marchand had to fight to maintain his composure just talking about him.
“That’s why this one probably hurts more, the unknown for next year with him,” Marchand said. “He’s done so much for this group and sacrificed so much that it would have been nice to make a good run for him. So it’s disappointing.
“He’s the backbone of our team. Obviously the biggest part of our team. We want him to come back. But whatever happens he’s earned the right to make whatever decision he wants, and take the time that he needs. I guess time will tell.”
One by one Bergeron took his time to greet every teammate Saturday, sharing a final hug with backup goalie Linus Ullmark before leaving the ice himself.
“It’s always tough when it ends like that, so it was more to share with them, thanking them for battling every day,” is how he explained it. “It stings and it’s not the feeling that you want, but that being said, we did it together.”
Now it’s time to consider the decisions of the future. And nothing looms larger than what happens with Bergeron, the man who has been at the center of all things Bruins for so long now it’s all but impossible to imagine them without him.