On Friday at TD Garden, Alain Vigneault learned the hard way what life is like without two 200-foot centers.
At 8:06 of the second period, No. 2 center Derek Stepan broke several ribs when Matt Beleskey blasted him into the boards. Stepan finished the period, but did not return for the third. It was probably not a coincidence the Rangers' one-goal third-period lead turned into a 4-3 Bruins win.
The Rangers are leading the Metropolitan Division mostly because of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. But Stepan and Derick Brassard have been a good 1-2 punch up the middle. Now Stepan, who had been centering Boston College boys Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes, is out indefinitely.
The Bruins, on the other hand, are climbing, with a healthy chunk of the credit going to Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci. Through a quarter of the season, they might be the best three-zone center combination in the league, and not just because they're scoring points (24 for Krejci, 21 for Bergeron). They've been touching the game in every area.
As usual, Bergeron was a monster. In 19:59 of ice time, Bergeron landed a game-high six shots on Lundqvist.
At 14:15 of the first, Bergeron slipped one of those shots between Lundqvist's pads to give the Bruins a 1-0 lead. Bergeron and Brad Marchand helped make Frank Vatrano, a newcomer to their line, play sound hockey while he logged 14:39 of action on the right side. The Bruins attempted 23 five-on-five shots when Bergeron was on the ice.
At the other end, Bergeron saw most of his shifts against the Rangers' top line of Brassard, Rick Nash, and Mats Zuccarello. Brassard's line did not score when Bergeron was on the ice. The Rangers attempted only eight even-strength shots against Bergeron's line.
Meanwhile, Krejci led all team forwards with 21:03 of ice time. At 18:17 of the third, following an extended cycle by the second line, Krejci's point shot deflected off the stick of Emerson Etem and fluttered past Lundqvist for the game-winning goal. Krejci's strike capped off a furious application of pressure that included a post clank by Colin Miller and a good decision by Torey Krug to go down the wall and cause some confusion in coverage.
"We were in their zone for about 45 minutes — ah, 45 seconds," Krejci said after correcting himself, although the shift seemed as long as the former number. "We had a couple looks. Millsy hit a post. It was a good rotation with Torey. The guys did a good job in front of the net. My shot just hit the guy's stick."
Krejci would not have scored without a slick interchange with Krug. Krejci was originally drifting in the high slot when Krug retrieved the rebound of Miller's clang off the post. But when Krug skated lower into the zone, Krejci rotated up high. This served two purposes: covering up for Krug, but also causing defensive hesitation.
The Bruins hammer home the concept of a third man high when a defenseman goes low. It's become standard operating procedure — even more so with Krejci and Krug, who regularly rotate as point men on the No. 1 power-play unit.
Today's goalies and defenses are excellent. To open seams and disrupt coverage, teams are encouraging their defensemen to roam in the offensive zone instead of stapling themselves to the points. Such movement demands smart forwards. It helps the Bruins that Krejci and Bergeron have top-shelf hockey IQs.
Bergeron showed off his smarts on his goal. After winning an offensive-zone faceoff against Oscar Lindberg and pulling the puck back to Krug, Bergeron stayed at home at the right dot. When Krug wound up, Bergeron jumped away from Lindberg, creating separation between himself and his defender. Because he popped out from coverage, Bergeron had room to snap home the puck after Lindberg blocked Krug's shot.
"You learn a lot," Vatrano said of skating with Bergeron and Marchand. "Not just even by playing with them, but by watching them every day in practice. Different shifts, just watching what they do when they have the puck in certain situations. Even though I'm not playing with certain guys, you learn every time you watch them."
With 39 seconds left in regulation, Vigneault called a timeout following a Bruins icing. Vigneault sent out his six best attackers in search of the tying goal. Krejci won the defensive-zone faceoff against Brassard. Four seconds later, after the puck went into the stands, the teams regrouped for a neutral-zone faceoff. This time, Julien replaced Krejci with Bergeron. Although Brassard beat Bergeron on the draw, the Bruins held their ground and forced an icing.
"It was a good win," Krejci said. "We were down a couple times. But we never quit. Big win for our team."
Bergeron and Krejci had done their jobs. They usually do.