While the Lightning players were arriving for training camp in September, Marc-Andre Bergeron was still about five months from being back in the NHL where he belonged.
It was a long road back from major reconstructive surgery on his right knee. The slow rehabilitation process is one obstacle the defenseman has had to battle through. The late start to his season is another. But after joining Tampa Bay Feb. 5, his goal is to turn that into a major plus.
“Mentally and physically, I’m feeling fresh,” Bergeron said, after his overtime goal beat Carolina 4-3 on Feb 12. “At this time of the year, it’s pretty rare that you have a chance to feel like that, so that’s one thing I want to take advantage of. I’m down here with my family and we’re trying to enjoy every moment right now. I’ve gone a long way to be sitting in this stall.”
Bergeron, 30, was coming off his second straight year of more than 30 points. The skillful offensive defenseman, who once scored 42 goals in the Quebec Junior League (2000-01), had 32 points with Minnesota in 2008-09 and 34 with Montreal in 2009-10. He had seven power-play goals each season.
But when he suffered the devastating injury in the playoffs last May, he had to start over. Bergeron had surgery in late June, just over a week before he became an unrestricted free agent.
“It was hard,” Bergeron said. “When I first got out of the surgery, I couldn’t believe how little I could move my leg and how quickly my muscles were shrinking. After a couple days, I realized it was going to be a tough recovery and it was. But at the same time, injuries are a part of life.”
Bergeron began rehabilitation two days after surgery. Day by day, he saw little bits of progress. But it took a while for him to be able to walk up and down stairs.
He was moving forward though. Bergeron, from Trios-Rivieres, Quebec, progressed to the point where he could skate and the Lightning was interested in adding the power-play specialist with an under-rated defensive game. Executive Vice President and GM Steve Yzerman signed him to a contract Jan. 4. Bergeron cleared waivers to allow the Lightning to send him to AHL Norfolk, where he could spend as much time as possible to get into game shape.
In 13 games for the Admirals, Bergeron had two goals and six assists. He scored two goals, including the game winner in overtime, in his last game with Norfolk, Feb. 4.
“[The knee] is very solid now,” Bergeron said. “I don’t feel any looseness at all. I’m pretty happy how everything turned out.”
Bergeron said it seemed as though there were “a lot of players” out there early in his first game back on Super Sunday. But things felt better as the game went on. He had two assists and displayed his rocket of a shot, knocking off St. Louis goalie Ty Conklin’s mask, then causing a rebound that Vincent Lecavalier tapped home for the winning goal in overtime.
“When he came in here, he was very well received,” Lecavalier said. “He’s a great guy, an easygoing guy.”
Bergeron scored 24 and 42 goals his last two seasons in juniors with Shawinigan before being signed by Edmonton as a free agent. He broke into the NHL in 2002-03 with the Oilers in five games and played 54 with Edmonton the following year, scoring nine goals. His best statistical season was in 2005-06 after the lockout when he had 15 goals and 35 points. He also had two goals in the playoffs as the Oilers went to the Stanley Cup finals.
Even though he had a plus-minus rating of plus-18 his first three seasons, his offensive ability far overshadowed his defensive prowess. Bergeron is not big at 5 foot 9, 197 pounds, making it difficult to battle the big forwards along the wall. But Lightning coach Guy Boucher said the perception that his defensive play is poor is quite inaccurate. But he is not a shutdown defenseman.
“Let’s not kid ourselves, he’s an offensive defenseman,” Boucher said. “His vision on the breakout will really help us. He really spots guys and puts the puck right on their stick.”
Teams can never have enough defensemen, especially those who can move the puck.
“He’s one of those guys that are so poised in traffic with the puck and he has a cannon,” Boucher said. “He has an offensive flair and his sense of drama is outstanding.”
Boucher said that before the overtime victory over Carolina. Then Bergeron went out and provided an example. Bergeron didn’t take one of his hardest shots to win it in OT.
“It was just one of those that find a way to get in,” Bergeron said.
Said Boucher: “I saw him do that all last year with the Canadiens. Big goals at big moments. I’m happy, but I’m not surprised.”
It was just one of his 76 career goals and 197 career points in game No. 402. But it meant so much more to a player who could not move his leg eight months ago.
“I’ve had a few [injuries] the last couple years, so hopefully I’m done with them,” Bergeron said. “I’m just looking forward. I want to play hockey. It makes you realize that you’re really lucky doing what you’re doing.”