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Bruins defense increasingly hit by injury bug at worst possible time

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Perhaps the biggest reason the Blues had everything come together for them in the Western Conference final is that the Sharks’ best players were increasingly banged up.

Erik Karlsson could barely skate, and Joe Pavelski and Tomas Hertl both missed time. Some of this, you could say, was a result of the Blues’ “heavy hockey” style, but it was also the cumulative effect of a tough playoff stretch and, in Hertl’s case, a dirty hit that went under-penalized.

Similar stuff is now happening in this Stanley Cup Final, as the Bruins’ blue line is now stretched to the breaking point, and it could be seen as a big determining factor in the remaining two or three games.

Captain and minutes-monger Zdeno Chara took a puck off the face early in the second period of Game 4, and did not return. It’s not his first injury of this postseason, granted, but with rumors that this is a broken jaw, you have to acknowledge that’s probably a season-ender.

Meanwhile, as with most concussion cases, there’s no indication one way or the other how Matt Grzelcyk is doing after he got crushed from behind, but safe to say his return for Game 5 Thursday night is questionable at best.

And if neither can go, Bruce Cassidy has little recourse but to go with 11 forwards and seven defensemen at home, simply because he can’t trust any of the remaining guys on his roster — Steven Kampfer, John Moore, maybe even Urho Vaakanainen, but not Kevan Miller, who’s been out since early April — to play the kind of minutes Chara and Grzelcyk would collectively consume.

Moore has been in and out of the lineup throughout the playoffs (seven appearances) and does have about 22 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time in this Cup Final. His numbers aren’t great and his contract, signed last summer, doesn’t look good either. Kampfer has just two appearances and has done as well as could be expected in very selective minutes. Vaakanainen hasn’t played for the big club since late October but put up solid offensive numbers as a 20-year-old in the AHL, and might be a better option than Moore as a puck-mover, even if he’s a mostly unknown quantity to the layperson.

As for who to pull out from the forward group to make it work, the obvious answer even a few weeks ago would have been David Backes, but he hasn’t been terrible for Boston thus far, but has been terribly irritating to the Blues. And in a series where agitation seems to matter (though not so much in Game 4 after Berube worked the refs through the media), maybe Backes isn’t your scratch. In that case, it might be Noel Acciari, who has, shall we say, struggled against the Blues.

Not that Chara was ever going to be any great aid in the Bruins’ pursuit of faster, more agile play, which they sorely need especially in Grzelcyk’s absence. But he filled a role that allowed other guys to be the puck movers who made things happen offensively, and is of course A Leader and all that. The options, then, aren’t great, but these are the kinds of tough decisions a battered roster necessitates.

The good news for Boston is Cassidy has proven adept time and again at pulling the strings to get a little more out of the roster and make things happen. Let’s not forget: Few teams in the league suffered as much as the Bruins did in terms of man-games lost to the top of the roster. Just about everyone who’s moved the needle for them in this postseason — David Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, Charlie McAvoy, Torey Krug, Grzelcyk, Chara, Sean Kuraly, Brandon Carlo, etc. — missed significant time, and their most-used defender (Carlo) still missed about an eighth of the season.

So this is, in a way, kind of old hat for the Bruins and that has to give them some mental relief. “We’ve been through this before,” is a useful motivator, especially for a team with as much evidence they can get through it as Boston’s second-in-the-league point total from the regular season.

Still, the timing for this spate of blue-line injuries couldn’t be worse. One was a freak thing that could happen to anyone at any time (at least if they’re spending a lot of time in their own zone), while the other was a predatory hit that was justly seen as suspendable.

But that’s hockey, right? The end result is the same, and it puts the coach and team in rather a bad spot at a time when the Blues seem ascendant. Not sure how you coach your way out of this one, but if anyone can, it’s probably Cassidy.

Ryan Lambert is a Yahoo! Sports hockey columnist. His email is here and his Twitter is here.

All stats via Natural Stat Trick, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference and Corsica unless noted.

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