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Kevin Paul Dupont | ON HOCKEY

Door opens for Johnny Beecher, Trent Frederic, Morgan Geekie after two Bruins centers were sidelined

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The Bruins hustled out of TD Garden Saturday afternoon, before a possible recount or video review, with a shaky 5-3 win over the Coyotes. They were also left with a new world order at their center position.

The question is, how are things going to look down the middle in the near future, like, say, Wednesday night in New Jersey?

An upper-body injury, medically defined as somewhere between bellybutton and Adam’s apple, took first-line center Pavel Zacha out of the mix after the first period. Zacha logged eight shifts and 6:42 in ice time, and postgame, coach Jim Montgomery wasn’t sure how soon the 26-year-old will be back in NHL working order.


“I’ll know more Monday,” said Montgomery. “I haven’t seen him yet or talked to the doctors.”

Slightly more intriguing was the curious case of rookie pivot Matt Poitras, 19, who sat out Thursday’s loss to the Sabres and then sat out the third period vs. the Desert Dogs. It was a directed absence (i.e. coach’s decision and not injury). Montgomery didn’t like what he termed the freshman’s game management.

For a new pup learning the ropes of the NHL biz, Poitras clearly has been fitted with a short leash.

“Valuing game management … it’s something we’ve talked to him about,” noted Montgomery. “It’s still lacking in his game right now. We’re paid to win hockey games and I am going to go with the guys I think are going to win us hockey games.”

Poitras sat on the bench for the third period, despite setting up a Danton Heinen goal that provided a 4-2 lead midway through the second. Poitras played 8:26 across 11 shifts. Only Zacha punched the clock for less. By the way, it’s still not too late for Poitras to be added to the Team Canada roster for the upcoming World Junior tournament in Sweden (opening faceoff Dec. 26). It could be the Five-Hour Energy shot he needs.


The Zacha and Poitras exits led to a patchwork/duct-tape/paper-clip approach to the center spot over the final 20 minutes.

“White-knuckling, it is a good way to put it,” noted Montgomery. “We were white-knuckling it a lot on the bench.”

Bruins center Matt Poitras has seen his playing time get squeezed.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

No. 2 center Charlie Coyle saw plenty of work (20:17), riding with a variety of linemates. He won 17 of his 22 faceoffs for an impressive Patrice Bergeron-like 77 percent clip and was heavy on the puck.

Johnny Beecher, the No. 4 center, was used sparingly in the third and finished with 11:27. Beecher, who has quietly become one of the club’s top hitters, finished with four smacks.

“That’s him defining the fourth-line role,” explained Montgomery. “It’s become part of his DNA … I love it that he’s willing.”

Beecher’s inclination to hit is a value added, particularly on a club that doesn’t have much genetic smack. Prior to the 1:08 p.m. faceoff, the Bruins’ top three hitters were Trent Frederic (44), Beecher (38), and Coyle (31), combining for 113 hits.

Bruins center Johnny Beecher has quietly become one of the team's biggest hitters.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Across the league, only four clubs ranked below that total when comparing totals of their top three hitters. Nashville topped the chart with 217, led by former Bruin Jeremy Lauzon (78). Bruce Cassidy’s Vegas Golden Knights (211) were No. 2.

Maestro Montgomery orchestrated the third ostensibly with three pivots, with Coyle backed up by Frederic (Coyle’s right winger when the matinee began) and Morgan Geekie (originally on Beecher’s right side). The Coyotes closed within 4-3 early in the third, but some crafty footwork by Geekie, pivoting a line with Jake DeBrusk and David Pastrnak, led to the latter knocking in the 5-3 jawbreaker with 5:31 to go.


Both Frederic (6 feet 3 inches, 220 pounds) and Geekie (6-3, 202) have size and a center’s appreciation for defensive play in the back end. That’s the game management that Montgomery likes. Both grew up as pivots. They now have a combined 424 NHL games.

Frederic mostly has been a winger in his time with the Bruins, in part because Bergeron and David Krejci, with Coyle at No. 3, defined the job upon his arrival. Geekie was signed this past summer, ostensibly to be a No. 4 center, but the early success of Poitras and Beecher moved him over to the wing.

“I always say, the way we play, if you’re the first guy back, you end up being low and playing center,” said Frederic, asked his preference for position. “Obviously more responsibility, but it’s good.”

Frederic moved to the middle for a stretch around midseason last year and then again in the playoffs.

“It didn’t matter a whole bunch,” said Geekie, asked if he figured, upon signing, he’d be working regularly as a centerman after departing the Kraken as an unrestricted free agent. “Toward the end in Seattle, I was playing wing, then center most of the year before that. Obviously when you come here to the best team ever [defined by a 65-12-5 regular season], it’s just something that you’re happy to be a part of, and that‘s my mentality. We have a great team that can do great things.”


The Bruins still have 56 games to go in the regular season. Lots and lots of hockey to be played. But it’s the center spot that often defines how teams will attack and, ultimately, how often they score.

Centers drive lines. It’s beginning to look like the hands on the wheel could be changing.

Boston Globe Today: Sports | December 8, 2023
WATCH: On Friday's show: What are the chances the Patriots ship Belichick out of Foxborough? Brad Marchand puts the Bruins on his back.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at kevin.dupont@globe.com.