The Bruins worked out in Brighton Wednesday morning, scurried to the airport, boarded their charter flight to Newark, checked into their hotel, and Thursday night will open their new NHL season against the Devils.
Ah, normalcy — sweet, sweet normalcy.
In a world that has been nothing but upside down and inside out since the start of March last year, the mundane can border on wonderment.
“It’s one of the most welcomed parts of this whole thing,’ said veteran fourth-liner Sean Kuraly, tailored and spiffy as he made his way out of the Warrior training facility. “I might have some dust on this suit — I haven’t had my suits out in a while.”
“Yes,” added coach Bruce Cassidy, “getting into your normal routine will be good for everybody. Good for the players, probably for the wives, too … ready for their husbands to get back to work.”
The NHL regular-season race is on, a mad dash to be played out nearly every other night for the next four months, and ideally another 60 or so playoff days tacked on to the end.
The 2020-21 NHL season, which was unveiled with 10 teams facing off Wednesday night, has been trimmed back from 82 to 56 games, the league forced to relent yet again to the devastating clench of a pandemic virus that was born in 2019. It will be the Bruins first regular-season game since facing the Flyers in Philly on March 10.
The Bruins, playing in the makeshift East division, won’t truly look normal until they have their top goal-scorer, David Pastrnak, back from offseason hip surgery.
“Hopefully sooner than later,” mused Cassidy, who’ll open with promising rookie Jack Studnicka, a natural center, filling Pastrnak’s right wing spot on the No. 1 line with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand (who also required offseason surgery).
It also will take some time — perhaps the entire 56 games or more — for the backline to look normal, if that is possible, in the wake of Zdeno Chara (Washington) and Torey Krug (St. Louis) departing as free agents.
Jeremy Lauzon is expected to open in Big Z’s spot, to the left of Charlie McAvoy on the No. 1 pairing. Matt Grzelcyk should be paired with Brandon Carlo on the No. 2 pairing vacated by Krug. And Kevan Miller, fractured kneecap mended after missing all of last season, likely will open with rookie first-round pick Jakub Zboril as his running mate.
If there is a tripwire this season for the Bruins, the only NHL team to rack up 100 points last season, it could be how the patchwork defense comes together. No one replaces Chara’s size, will, and overall presence. Krug was their best offensive performer along the blue line, their power-play QB.
No telling if the reshuffle works, or if GM Don Sweeney has to rush out to Home Depot for some quick-dry blue-line spackle prior to the April 12 trade deadline.
Based on Wednesday’s workout, here’s how the Bruins are expected to roll out for Game 1:
Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Jack Studnicka
Jake DeBrusk-David Krejci-Ondrej Kase
Nick Ritchie-Charlie Coyle-Craig Smith
Anders Bjork-Sean Kuraly-Chris Wagner
Jeremy Lauzon-Charlie McAvoy
Matt Grzelcyk-Brandon Carlo
Jakub Zboril-Kevan Miller
As of early Wednesday evening, Sweeney had not made public his cast of extras, with a roster limit this season expanded to 29 max (with as many as six players designated to a taxi squad).
But look for most, if not all, of the following to stay aboard for the early going: Forwards — Greg McKegg, Par Lindholm; Defensemen — John Moore, Connor Clifton, Urho Vaakanainen; Goalie — Dan Vladar.
Cassidy said veteran reserve backliner Steven Kampfer needed to go home to Michigan for a family emergency, his status to be determined.
Only four of the seven teams in the East will qualify for the 16-team playoff format. Pittsburgh, Washington, and Philly should be locks. If not for the questions on defense, the Bruins also would be shoo-ins. If they struggle in back, then it could be a taffy-pull between the Bruins, Islanders, and Rangers for the No. 4 spot.
The only relief for the Bruins is that the mighty mighty Lightning, fresh off their Sept. Cup win, aren’t in their division this season.
“I think it’s a very strong division,” said Cassidy. “Most coaches probably say that about whatever division they’re in, but we’ve got some pedigree in our division, I guess is the best way to put it. Whether teams play up to their pedigrees remains to be seen.”
The Bruins went into the 2019-’20 season as prime Cup contenders, after stretching the Blues to a Game 7 of the championship finals. They had the likes of Chara, Krug, and David Backes eager for another crack at it. They fizzled out in Round 2 of the postseason, the second notch in Tampa’s Cup belt.
Only one new season later, those three vets are gone, and ultimately success now will be determined by production from a slightly re-designed forward group, the giant makeover on defense, and once more, just how far Rask can carry them.
Rask, forced to bolt the summer playoff bubble prematurely, will need to show off the hop that he remains determined to be counted among the game’s top five tenders.
Step No. 1 in the new normal begins Thursday eve.
“We’ll get used to the empty arenas, because we just did it,” opined Cassidy, referring to how fans will continue to be barred from attending games during the pandemic. “What will be a shock is going into TD Garden for our home opener with no fans there, because we haven’t done that, and it’s such an electric building. So that will be a bit of an adjustment.
“But hopefully this is the beginning of normalcy … get the country back up and running, including pro sports.”