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Bruins defensemen make best of injuries with Chara, McAvoy, Miller out

Depth players, rookies enjoy taking on 'great challenge'

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

BOSTON -- The Boston Bruins are missing Zdeno Chara, Charlie McAvoy and Kevan Miller. They've been without Brandon Carlo, Torey Krug and Urho Vaakanainen at times this season. They've dipped far enough into their defenseman depth to surface with names like Jeremy Lauzon, Connor Clifton and Jakub Zboril

And yet they're having fun. At least those on the ice. 

Though it might not be much fun to be Chara, out at least two more weeks with a left MCL injury sustained Nov. 14; McAvoy, out an undetermined length of time after sustaining a concussion Oct. 18; or Miller, out at least five weeks after injuring his larynx Monday; the rest of the group is taking a more lighthearted approach to a most unfortunate problem.

Because, really, none of them was supposed to be doing any of this. 

"For us, it's been a lot of fun," said Krug, noting that obviously he never wants to see teammates injured. "For [Matt Grzelcyk], myself, [John] Moore and then all the call-ups that have been plugging in spots. A lot of fun to take on more responsibility. Kind of a 'Let me show you what I can do' mentality."

Some of those defensemen (Lauzon, Clifton, Vaakanainen, Zboril, who has since returned to the American Hockey League) weren't supposed to be in the NHL this season; none of the four had played an NHL game. Clifton, who was selected by the Phoenix Coyotes in the fifth round (No. 133) of the 2013 NHL Draft but didn't sign, probably was not known even to some hardcore Bruins fans. 

Having one of them on the roster could have been seen as reaching. Having all four of them at various times, including two games when Lauzon (averaging 15:35 of ice time in 12 games), Clifton (17:32, six games) and Zboril (10:56, two games) each made the starting lineup, is simply stunning. (Vaakanainen has averaged 9:06 in two games.)

Video: Kevan Miller out indefinitely with throat injury

And that's not to mention the others. Moore was supposed to be a depth defenseman; there have always been questions about Krug's defense, though none about his offense (he is fourth on the Bruins with 10 assists in 13 games); and Grzelcyk, a small (5-foot-9), mobile defenseman, has played 85 NHL games and is seen as an elder statesman. Steven Kampfer, who wasn't expected to be much more than the extra defenseman, has played in 14 of Boston's 24 games.
None of them was supposed to be getting the heavy duty against the heavy competition. In his six games played before Chara was injured, Krug averaged 20:56 of ice time. In the seven since, that number has risen to 24:11. For Moore it was 19:45, but his average is up to 22:00 in the four games he has played since. Grzelcyk was at 19:37 before averaging 23:06 in his past seven games.

"It's been a great challenge," Krug said.

But it's not getting any easier for the Bruins (13-7-4), who are 3-1-1 in their past five games.

"Just craziness is the word for it," Carlo said. "I've talked to a couple of guys that have been here for a lot longer than me and they say they've never seen really anything like this."

The latest hit came Wednesday when the Bruins announced that Miller had sustained a cartilage injury to his larynx in the first period of a 4-2 loss at Toronto Maple Leafs. Monday marked Miller's fourth game back since he missed 13 with a hand injury.

"We'll miss him," coach Bruce Cassidy said. "When he was out of the lineup, I thought we weren't as gritty as a team or as hard to play against, so that's the part we really miss."

Video: BOS@MTL: Krug finds DeBrusk with sweet feed

This has been a season-long issue for the Bruins. Krug injured his ankle in a preseason game and did not debut until Oct. 30. Carlo has missed the past eight games with a shoulder/collarbone injury but could return against the New York Islanders at TD Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; SN1, SNE, SNO, SNP, NESN, MSG+, NHL.TV). McAvoy (Oct. 18) and Vaakanainen (Oct. 23) each sustained a concussion.

And it's not just this season. Boston also went through this in 2016-2017, losing Krug, Carlo, Colin Miller and Adam McQuaid over the course of a six-game loss to the Ottawa Senators in the Eastern Conference First Round, though even that seems to pale compared to the current woes. 

"I think that shock factor was there a few years ago, like holy smokes, we're missing a lot of guys that play in key situations, who's going to step up? Who's going to do what?" Krug said. "Now that immediate knee-jerk reaction of the guy going down is, it's not such a drastic fall."

They know what they have to do. They've done it before.

"I thought we've handled it well," Cassidy said. "If you look at just the raw numbers, goals against, I think last year we were generally in the top five. This year we're still in the top five."

Cassidy said that ranking is significantly affected by Boston's goaltending, with both Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak playing well, especially of late; they've combined to allow 12 goals in the past six games. Still, it's extremely impressive that the Bruins have allowed the second-fewest goals per game in the NHL at 2.46, behind the Nashville Predators (2.40). 

That is partly because the defensemen have simplified their games, a necessity when the few "veterans" (Krug, Moore, Grzelcyk) are playing consistently with rookies. It's also about being adaptable, with pairs changing almost daily. 

"If we didn't handle it well, we'd be on the outside looking in," Cassidy said. "Right now we're still in a -- not a great spot, but a good spot, considering everything."

And somehow, they're still having fun.

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