In four weeks, the Bruins will be wrapping up their regular season. Assuming they continue their current pace of play, the results of the four final games (April 3-8) will have little consequence on their postseason seeding (No. 2 or 3 in the Atlantic) or first-round opponent (Toronto). The Bruins could dress a roster stuffed with squirts and still be playing beyond Game No. 82.
They are hoping, however, that one baby-faced player will be available for duty before the regular season concludes.
Charlie McAvoy is in excellent shape. He experienced the NHL playoffs last year without a single varsity tuneup. McAvoy’s class can allow him to succeed where other less naturally gifted players would fall short. He will stay fit with alternate conditioning options: spins on the Airdyne bike (a contraption powered by arms instead of foot pedals) and sprints on the underwater treadmill.
But an MCL sprain is a serious injury for a whirling dervish like the mobile McAvoy. He would be best served with time to refire his engine and have his wheels properly aligned before the first round begins. Whether McAvoy will have that luxury — or even be ready for the start of the playoffs at all — is unknown.
“I’m hoping he’s a fast healer, obviously,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “But if it ends up being longer, we’re just going to have to make do. Assuming it’s on that timeline, he’ll have a little bit of time to get ready before playoffs. That’s still a stretch away.
“I don’t know how it will all play out, where we’ll end up. We’ve got to get in first, obviously. We’re obviously trending that way. We expect to. But that’s Goal No. 1.
“We’ll see when Charlie comes back, how important are the games vs. how important is it that he gets back into the lineup? How much time will he need?”
Neither Cassidy nor the medical staff can answer those questions now. The only thing the Bruins can do is wait and hope McAvoy’s left knee springs back into shape promptly.
In a way, they are fortunate McAvoy suffered the injury when he did.
It would take a first-order tailspin for the Bruins to cede their 19-point lead over No. 4 Florida. Even then, they would still claim one of the two wild-card positions. Neither is a likely outcome. The Bruins could turn their sticks upside-down for the 18 remaining regular-season games and still not think about tee times for at least one round.
Their cushion allows Cassidy to evaluate different setups without McAvoy in his defensive six-pack. Brandon Carlo, a healthy scratch Feb. 25, is back with Zdeno Chara, his former security blanket. Having Chara a few steps away would give any player the strength of two men. A stretch with the strongman could give Carlo the confidence he needs in the playoffs.
For now, with Carlo moving up to the No. 1 pairing, Nick Holden will serve as Torey Krug’s right-side partner. It puts two lefties on one tandem, which is not Cassidy’s preference.
Cassidy likes his defensemen to play their strong sides, especially when they’re transitioning from defense to offense. It puts them in position to take in-stride pucks on their forehand. In theory, it makes the journey from one end to the other seamless.
Holden, however, has a history of right-side consistency with the Rangers and Avalanche. Even if switching sides delays his transition, Holden is smart enough to compensate for the lag in other areas. Once he enters the offensive zone, he is good at threading pucks on net, even if they’re not traveling as rapidly as those that spring off McAvoy’s stick.
“There’s always a silver lining in everything that happens,” Cassidy said after Tuesday’s 6-5 overtime win over Detroit. “Even the Charlie injury, we thought, ‘Well, now Nick Holden, we’re going to get a better look at and play a bit on the right side. [Matt Grzelcyk] gets back in. We’ll get different flavors of what our lineup will look like. You’ve always got to look at it that way when you know you’re getting the player back eventually.”
Because Holden can play the right side, it allows Cassidy to keep Adam McQuaid as his spare defenseman. Even with a history of performance, a willingness to sacrifice his body, and a personality that makes him a fixture in the dressing room, McQuaid is where he is on the depth chart — on the outside looking in.
“He’s the ultimate pro,” Cassidy said. “So there’s no outward emotion. But I know inside, it’s tearing him apart not to be out there. We have every second night now, so Adam will get back in the lineup. I just can’t tell you when. It’s not tonight. It could be Thursday, could be Saturday, Sunday. We’re going to need everybody. We know that. He’s aware of that. But he wants to play. That’s a tough part of the job.”
Additional injuries will pile up. Defensemen will tire. Performance will climb and dip. Cassidy will ditch looks he doesn’t like and try different combinations in search of results.
The six defensemen and the formations in which they skate against Detroit will not be the same when the playoffs begin. By then, the Bruins hope they have McAvoy up and running, ideally with a few regular-season tuneups for him to stretch his legs.
If that doesn’t happen, McAvoy has proved to be the type of performer who does not need much time to clear his throat before commanding the microphone.
“He’s been through that experience,” said Cassidy. “Not like [Patrice Bergeron] has, by any means. But he has been through it once, so he knows the value of playing at that time of the year. So I think that does help him.
“It allows us a little comfort that if he doesn’t get a lot of time before and he is ready just come playoff time, he has been through it. So he has that going for him.”