WILMINGTON - As Patrice Bergeron approached center ice at Denver's Pepsi Center Oct. 9, poised to take the first faceoff of the 2008-09 season, just about everything felt right.
Joe Sakic, Bergeron's idol while he was growing up in Quebec City, was opposite him for the draw. Marco Sturm, Bergeron's longtime linemate and good friend, was to his side. His parents, Gerard Cleary and Sylvie Bergeron, sat in the stands.
Before he knew it, Bergeron had lost the faceoff to Sakic. Twelve seconds later, Sakic, who had blown by Bergeron after winning the draw, ripped off a sizzler of a slot shot that Tim Thomas turned aside to keep the game scoreless.
The sprint-style pace of hockey, the business that Bergeron loved and the livelihood that had eluded him for nearly a full season, had appropriately given the 23-year-old little time to appreciate the most simple of realities: Bergeron was back.
Twenty-one games into the NHL season, approximately the one-quarter point of the campaign, Bergeron is, once again, better known as one of the league's brighter youngsters rather than one of its most famous head-injury victims.
Bergeron, Boston's No. 2 center, is third on the team with 14 points, trailing Marc Savard (27) and Phil Kessel (16) and tied with David Krejci. He is averaging 18:45 of ice time per game, trailing only Savard (19:21) among Boston forwards. Bergeron has won 59.1 percent of his faceoffs, the second-best percentage of any center in the NHL with 300 or more draws (Carolina's Rod Brind'Amour boasts a 62.7 percent efficiency rate).
Had the Bruins advanced past the Canadiens last spring into the second round of the playoffs, Bergeron might have been ready to play for the first time since suffering his Grade 3 concussion Oct. 27, 2007, in a game against the Flyers.
Bergeron trained throughout the summer, returning to Ristuccia Arena in July to participate in the Bruins' development camp. Dr. Robert Cantu, the neurologist who had been consulting with Bergeron throughout his recovery, gave him the all-clear to return to his place of employment. After overcoming some early jitters in his preseason debut Sept. 22 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Bergeron knew there was no reason to worry.
He only had two people left to convince.
Gerard and Sylvie had been in attendance when Philadelphia defenseman Randy Jones sent their son tumbling into the TD Banknorth Garden boards head-first. They had stayed with him while his brain started the slow process of healing. And yes, they were nervous when the Bruins faced off against the Avalanche last month.
"They came to the first game in Colorado, and after that one, they were fine," Bergeron said. "I think they were both a little nervous. I guess that's normal. The fact they saw me play and seeing that I was involving myself in physical play, they were fine. They've always been behind me and supporting me."
Perhaps the biggest reason why Bergeron made the big club just three months after being selected in the 2003 draft was his hockey sense. The 18-year-old made up for his inexperience and still-maturing body by exhibiting exquisite on-ice intelligence. Bergeron anticipated plays. He could read what his opponents were planning to do.
"I always knew," said Bergeron of the importance of mental acuity. "I was always paying attention to that and working on that."
So it was especially cruel that his head was what had put his career in jeopardy. But the mental game is one that Bergeron, like every other hockey player, can never claim to master, even if he is as healthy as he is today.
Reclaiming his gameWhen things are going right on the Boston power play, the Bruins are moving the puck crisply, finding seams, and forcing opponents to shift their penalty-killing boxes. Bergeron, back at his usual spot on the point, has been a key cog, recording 7 of his 14 points on the power play. In the faceoff circle, Bergeron has been getting help from linemates, but he has also been winning most of his draws cleanly.
Bergeron, however, can't call himself a dominant offensive performer just yet. In 2005-06, his most productive season, Bergeron had 31 goals and 42 assists for 73 points in 81 games. This season, he is on pace to score 16 goals. He has 61 shots, second-most behind Kessel (71), but a rotten 6.6 shooting percentage.
"Maybe his confidence isn't 100 percent, as far as being able to finish around the net, but he still brings a lot to our hockey club," coach Claude Julien said. "He's by far our best faceoff man. He's killed penalties for us. On the power play, he does a good job back there.
"He's another guy that once he finds his confidence around the net and a couple pucks start going in for him, his game will pick up a lot more."
Many more optionsWhile Bergeron is still adjusting after his extended layoff, one benefit of his return has been the trickle-down effect throughout the lineup. Last season, Glen Metropolit, who was invited to training camp on a tryout basis, had to fill Bergeron's spot as second-line center. Metropolit had never killed penalties regularly, but Julien made him Bergeron's replacement on the PK as well. On the No. 1 power-play unit, Dennis Wideman played alongside Zdeno Chara in Bergeron's position on the point.
Just by having Bergeron back, Julien's options have exploded this season. Krejci, once the No. 1 center last year, is serving as a dangerous No. 3 pivot, freed from the more effective checkers that Savard and Bergeron must face.
Bergeron is averaging 2:38 of shorthanded action per game, second among forwards behind P.J. Axelsson (3:08), freeing Chuck Kobasew from PK duties and allowing management to walk away from Metropolit (2:49 shorthanded time per game last year) and to demote Jeremy Reich (1:25). With Bergeron returning to the top power-play unit, Wideman is quarterbacking the second group, knocking more than a minute off his man-advantage ice time (3:43 to 2:40).
As of yesterday, the Bruins had the league's seventh-best power play (21.2 percent) and the 12th-best penalty kill (83 percent). Last season, they had the 16th-ranked power play (17.6 percent) and the No. 28 penalty kill (78.6 percent).
"That's where we missed him the most last year," Julien said. "We were putting guys in positions we needed to fill because of his absence. With him being in the lineup, it creates a lot.
"The power play and penalty kill that he plays on have moved up in the rankings from where we were last year. I'm not saying it's all about him. But certainly he's a big part of that process of improving."
Bergeron is healthy. He's on the verge of recapturing his game. His team hasn't lost in regulation since October and is in first place in the Eastern Conference. Things don't get much better.
"I am happy," Bergeron said. "By the way we're playing as a team, I think I'm part of it, too. I feel like I've helped the team win. That's what matters to me.
"At the same time, I think my offensive game is picking up, too. I was expecting some time to readjust to the time back. I'm feeling good."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached email@example.com.