BOSTON -- When Boston Bruins center Patrice Bergeron stepped on the ice for warmups prior to the game against the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday, there seemed to be an audible sigh of relief.
From the players on his team. From the fans at TD Garden. From what felt like the entire region. After missing the first five games of the season because of a lower-body injury, Bergeron was back and all was right in the Bruins' world.
The Bruins are a different team without Bergeron on the ice, without the wizardry and steadiness, the calming influence, the boosting presence. And through those first five games of the season, the Bruins were an uneven team. They went 2-3-0, losing a home-and-home set against the Colorado Avalanche and they also lost at the Vegas Golden Knights.
All continues to not be right for the Bruins now, with goaltender Tuukka Rask out indefinitely because of a concussion, with center David Krejci having left the game Thursday because of an upper-body injury, with defenseman Adam McQuaid taken out with a blocked shot, with center Ryan Spooner out 4-6 weeks because of a torn right adductor muscle.
But Bergeron is back, and that brought some stability Thursday, and heading into their game against the Buffalo Sabres at TD Garden on Saturday (7 p.m. ET; NESN, MSG-B, NHL.TV). On Thursday, though, it brought more than just stability. Bergeron returned against the Canucks with a virtuoso performance, with a goal and three assists in 20:58 of ice time, as the Bruins won 6-3.
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Bergeron's presence reverberated through the team, creating depth and balance on the forward lines that had been missing, lifting the play of longtime linemate Brad Marchand, steadying everyone. It's something they'll need going forward with a lineup filled out by rookies and especially with Rask's absence.
"I think it's just morale as much as anything, on the bench and in the room," coach Bruce Cassidy said. "Those intangibles, leadership. First shift of the game he's standing up, [the Canucks] had scored a goal, and kind of settling the troops down, talking about the details of the game, finishing your routes on the forecheck, reloading all the way to our zone. Stuff that coaches preach a lot but goes in one ear and out the other sometimes. And when you hear it from the leaders of the group it means so much more."
Though whether he stays back is not quite certain.
"That's the million-dollar question, right?" Bergeron said when asked if the injury is behind him. "I don't know what to say to that. I guess, yeah, I mean, I'm feeling good but there's … we might manage a little bit for quite a while, but I'm feeling good and tonight was no issue."
The idea of managing an injury for Bergeron is tough for him, for the Bruins, for the fans, all of whom watched as he played through a sports hernia last season, knowing he was not his usual self and hoping he would get better before the season ran out on the Bruins. He didn't, and they lost to the Ottawa Senators in six games in the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And then Bergeron missed the first five games this season. He returned, and the effect on Marchand and rookie linemate Anders Bjork, who scored twice Thursday, was obvious. Bergeron created opportunities for them, settled them, battled for the puck and won, again and again. As forward David Backes put it, "His brain, it's ridiculous."
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Not just that.
"It's pretty evident, the way he played out there," Marchand said. "It's incredible the way he came back and dominated the game after being out for that long. He's just such a big part of the group. He's able to calm things down in the room, on the bench, and he leads by example. You know, he just does everything that a top guy does."
There continue to be questions surrounding the Bruins. How long Rask will be out? How will Anton Khudobin fare in his place? How will they avoid the recklessness that led to two goals allowed Thursday that probably could have been avoided? How will the rookies to do at this level?
Bergeron's play, however, never has been a question for the Bruins. As long as he's healthy, as long as there's less management of his injury and more sublime on-ice play, it will seem better for the Bruins.
As Cassidy said, "At some point, obviously, it's nice to see it all fall into place."
That happened Thursday, led by Bergeron. Whether it continues to happen, for him, for his rotating cast of teammates, remains to be seen.