Nathan Horton, out since suffering a concussion on Jan. 22 but recently back on the ice skating on his own, has been shut down for the entire postseason as he continues to experience post-concussion symptoms.
That is a dramatic loss for the Bruins, who will dearly miss his size and production. After never playing in the playoffs in his first six seasons in the NHL with Florida, Horton made up for lost time in his postseason debut last spring. He had eight goals and 17 points in 21 games, scoring the game-winner in overtime in Game 7 against Montreal in the opening round and the only goal midway through the third period of a 1-0 win over Tampa Bay in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final to give Boston the chance to end its 39-year Cup drought.
Horton picked up where he left off with 17-15-32 totals in 46 games before the injury, combining with David Krejci and Milan Lucic on Boston's top line the past two seasons. That's a mighty big void to fill, but the Bruins do have the advantage of having become accustomed to filling it over the final 10 weeks of the regular season.
"I'll miss that guy, but the good thing is he's in the room, he's around us," Krejci said. "He's part of the team. It's hard. You don't want to lose one of your best players. He's a great guy in the room too, so we're going to miss him. But we played without him the last 40 games and we found a way to win without him as well. I believe in this team. We've got good depth, so I believe we can make a good run again this year."
Helping the Bruins' cause is the fact that Rich Peverley returned to the lineup for the final eight games of the regular season after going down with a knee injury the week before Horton was concussed. Peverley has stepped into Horton's old spot alongside Krejci and Lucic, just as he did for the final four games of the Cup Final against Vancouver after Horton was concussed for the first time by Canucks defenseman Aaron Rome.
Peverley had 4-8-12 totals in last year's postseason, including a pair of goals in his first night filling in for Horton in Game 4. After taking some time to get his rhythm back after his knee injury, Peverley has begun to click on that line again. He had 2-2-4 totals and was a plus-4 after his return, and continued to progress during this past week of practice.
"I think having missed six weeks I don't think we expected him to come back and be at the top of his game," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of Peverley. "It's a work in progress. He is getting better, every game he's played he's gotten a little better. He's skating well. His skating's not an issue, which is a good sign because the injury he suffered could have hindered his skating. But it's his hands with the puck, making plays, stuff like that he's trying to find his groove and his comfort level. Even watching him this week in practice it's gotten better. It's a matter of time and if he continues to improve, then we're going to be in good shape."
While Peverley has stepped into Horton's spot on that line, the Bruins know replacing Horton's timely scoring and physical presence will require a team effort.
"Obviously the loss of Nathan has been huge," Bruins center Chris Kelly said. "He's such a big part of this team and a big part of the locker room. But guys have learned to step up and try to fill that hole that he's left and guys have done a great job. It's a group effort that everybody needs to step up collectively to kind of fill that big hole that he leaves."
The Bruins will need Peverley to help keep that top line effective, but they'll also need production from their other lines. The combination of Patrice Bergeron (22-42-64), Brad Marchand (28-27-55) and Tyler Seguin (29-38-67) has led the offense all year and will have to carry that over to the postseason, while the third line of Kelly, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Rolston (13 goals, 34 points in their last 12 games together) will also need to stay hot to balance the attack.
Having multiple players stepping up to fill holes is nothing new for the Bruins, who have had to overcome far too many injuries to key players in recent years.
"We've had a lot of guys step up," Lucic said. "Not just this year, but in the past when guys have gone down with injuries. That's one thing we pride ourselves on that we do have depth in this organization. Guys are filling in the voids real well. We've dealt with now almost two and a half months without Nathan Horton, who is such a great player in this league. We've managed without him, but having said that, he's going to be sorely missed."