BOSTON -- Patrice Bergeron widely is regarded as one of the better forwards in the NHL.
Boston was reminded of just how good -- and how valuable -- he is when it had to play nearly all of last season without him.
"He's as important as any key guy in the league," Bruins coach Claude Julien said yesterday.
Bergeron missed all but four games in 2007-08 because of a severe concussion that resulted from Philadelphia defenseman Randy Jones driving him headfirst into the boards with a hit from behind.
Although Bergeron, whose team faced the Penguins at TD Banknorth Garden last night, did not score a goal in his first four appearances this season, he set up four and was praised for his strong work at both ends of the ice.
And, perhaps most important, he seems to be feeling no lingering effects of his injury.
"I'm feeling good," Bergeron said. "Very good."
Which is pretty much how the Bruins feel about getting him back. Bergeron's talent is important, of course, but his intangibles are a major asset for Boston.
"He was one of our heart-and-soul players that the guys really missed," Julien said. "He always leads by example. His work ethic is second to none."
There still is a bit of rust on Bergeron's offensive game in the wake of his extended layoff, although the Bruins are confident that will change soon enough.
"He'd probably like to be a little better with the puck," Julien said. "That's his assessment of himself, but I think overall, we couldn't ask for more from him at this stage."
The Penguins will hold the first of four designated Student Rush promotions when Carolina visits Mellon Arena Thursday.
Six hundreds tickets have been set aside for high school and college students, who can purchase them an hour before game time at the Gate 8 box office. Tickets are $20, and purchasers must present a student ID.
The other scheduled Student Rush nights are Nov. 13 (Philadelphia), Jan. 20 (Carolina) and March 20 (Los Angeles).
Student Rush tickets are sold on a game-by-game basis, based on availability, for other regular-season games.
Boston left winger Milan Lucic, whose game blends talent and toughness, received lukewarm reviews for his work during most of the Bruins' first four games.
That, he suggested yesterday, is an indication of how he raised the bar with his play as a rookie in 2007-08.
"I think there were more expectations for me, coming into the season," he said.
Another factor that shouldn't be overlooked is that Lucic is 6 feet 3, 228 pounds, and bigger men often need a little extra time to get their game in sync.
"I know from the past, every year I've been kind of a slow starter," he said. "It's always taken me nine or 10 games to get back into the groove."
The bad news for opponents: Lucic scored his first goal of the season in Ottawa Saturday, and believes his game is rounding into shape.
"I feel like every game, every practice, I'm getting better and better," he said.
The Penguins played without winger Matt Cooke, who has an abdominal injury, for the third consecutive game.
Boston, meanwhile, was missing winger P.J. Axelsson, who traditionally plays well against the Penguins but sat out his second game in a row with an undisclosed injury.
Although Julien did not specify the nature of Axelsson's problem, he suggested that it isn't serious.
"It's the early part of the season," he said. "There are parts where you can play through an injury, and other times when a coach has to make a wise decision.
"It's the type of injury that doesn't normally last a long time. We're hoping to have him back this week, probably sooner than later."
Last night was the Bruins' home opener, making them the final NHL team to play a game in its own building this season.
What's more, Boston spent significant stretches of training camp in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Stowe, Vt., so a game at the TD Banknorth Garden really was something of a novelty.
"We've been on the ice only four times in the last month and a bit," Lucic said. "It's a little odd to be out here. But it's a nice feeling to come back."