SUNRISE, Fla. — In the fall of 2003, Matt Grzelcyk was a 9-year-old Bruins fan hanging around the Garden, where his father, John, was a longtime member of the bull gang.
The elder Grzelcyk gave his son a bit of advice: Watch Patrice Bergeron. The second-round pick looked like he might make it.
“He had longer hair. He used a wooden stick at the time. He wasn’t the fastest skater,” the younger Grzelcyk recalled this week of his first impressions of Bergeron. “He wasn’t toe-dragging guys out there. But from Day One, you could see it — this guy understands the game at a high level.”
Part of that understanding, 19 years later, is knowing when rest is best. At 37, Bergeron remains the Bruins’ No. 1 center, playing some 18 minutes a game, but his minutes at even strength and shorthanded have taken a dive.
Among Bruins, Bergeron entered Wednesday night’s game against the Panthers ranked 19th in average five-on-five time on ice (12:12). By time on the penalty kill, he and Brad Marchand are the second pair of forwards, behind Charlie Coyle and Tomas Nosek. In the 5-2 loss to the Panthers, Bergeron played 9:59 at even strength and 2:53 shorthanded.
“He’s the best team player there is,” coach Jim Montgomery said of Bergeron before puck drop. “He sees that everybody is part of the success.”
Obviously, whenever the Bruins need him, they will use him. But Bergeron’s freshness for the playoffs depends in part on taking a few reps off in the first half of the season. The success of players such as Coyle and Nosek is essential to that goal. The Bruins have scored shorthanded twice, and Coyle and Nosek have one shorty each. At even strength, they have carried their weight.
“It’s a luxury to have those guys leading your third and fourth lines,” Montgomery said. “We go on the road, and Nosek or Coyle gets out there against [Aleksander] Barkov, and we’re fine. That’s a luxury. We’d like to get Bergy out there, but we have guys that can handle the minutes. It frees up Bergy to play more on the offensive side of things.”
Some 60 percent of Bergeron’s faceoffs have come in the offensive zone. He entered the night ranked third in the league in total faceoffs (426). He was winning 61.3 percent, which ranked fifth. He is a major reason why the Bruins seem to possess the puck most of the time.
Zboril in for Stralman
Jakub Zboril subbed in for Anton Stralman, opening the night paired with Connor Clifton.
The left-shot defenseman was sitting in the cold press box the previous three games, after playing five in a row (and scoring his first NHL goal, the winner, Nov. 12 in Buffalo). Prior to that, he was a healthy scratch for four of five.
Keeping Zboril’s confidence up is a challenge, mostly because of his age (25) and relative inexperience (66 NHL games entering Wednesday).
“It’s hard for everybody,” Montgomery said. “You have 23 guys on a roster, and there’s usually three guys sitting out. It’s becoming a pro and understanding what your role is and relishing your role. The minutes that you get are valuable to the team’s success. We’re lucky that everyone’s bought into that.”
Zboril was nearly invisible on Wednesday night, playing a team-low 7:17 and coughing up the puck before Florida took a 2-1 lead.
Frederic out, Smith in
Craig Smith, who has become the Bruins’ 13th forward, subbed in for the injured Trent Frederic (left shoulder) and played his 800th NHL game. Smith, who hadn’t played since Nov. 12, was 1-2–3 in his first 10 games … Jeremy Swayman made his sixth appearance of the season in net and took the loss, stopping 26 of 30 shots. “I’m really fortunate to feel good,” he said postgame. “I’m getting my timing back.” … The Bruins gave up five goals or more for the third time in 20 games … One defenseman does not a penalty kill make, but the Bruins were 30 for 32 with Derek Forbort (injured on Nov. 1), and are 34 for 43 without him. “It hurts for sure,” Marchand said. “He’s incredible on the PK. Blocking shots, he’s got a really long reach, closes quick in corners. We miss him.” … The Bruins said Charlie McAvoy purchased 400 pies from Stop & Shop to distribute to Boston-area organizations, including New England Center and Home for Veterans, St. Francis House, Pine Street Inn, Haley House, and Brighton Marine Center. McAvoy will also deliver 200 pairs of socks, donated by the Bruins Pro Shop, to the Pine Street Inn, and help deliver mattresses, recliners, and pillows donated by Bob’s Discount Furniture to the Brighton Marine Center and Fisher House Boston. The Bruins said the Thanksgiving tradition began with Aaron Ward donating turkeys in 2008 and has since been carried on by Dennis Wideman (2009), Gregory Campbell (2010-14), Matt Beleskey (2015-17), and Zdeno Chara (2018-20).