Had things unfolded as planned, Jordan Caron would have spent opening night on the ninth floor of TD Garden alongside spare defenseman Matt Bartkowski, sampling the press box’s salt-lick popcorn.
A preseason ankle injury to Carl Soderberg, however, put Caron in uniform instead of a suit on Thursday against Tampa Bay. Caron should have been the Bruins’ extra forward. Instead, he was one of their best.
Caron, riding on the third line with Chris Kelly and Reilly Smith, played the desperate, hard-edge game his bosses have tried to squeeze out of him since he turned pro in 2010.
Caron only had 10:21 of ice time, third-least among team forwards. But Caron made those minutes count.
“Right now, he’s grasping the opportunity here,” said coach Claude Julien after his team’s 3-1 win. “I thought he had a good game. That line was pretty good for us tonight. Kelly was arguably our best player tonight. So were Jordan and Smith. They really worked hard on the forecheck. They made things happen. They were a good line for us. Jordan, I was extremely happy with his game.”
Caron landed two shots on goal. He missed the net with two other pucks. Caron was credited with two takeaways and one blocked shot.
Caron skated briskly in straight lines. He showed no hesitation in barreling into the areas where defensemen play the meanest. Caron was strong on the walls.
“I think our line had a good game,” Caron said. “We could have scored a few goals. We had some good offensive chances. It did go in tonight. Kells had a nice move on the breakaway. I think we did a good job tonight.”
At 2:06 of the second period, Caron appeared to score his first goal of 2013-14. Caron, skating down the left wing, slashed into the middle of the ice. Anders Lindback stuffed Caron’s first shot. Caron followed up his attempt and tucked in the rebound.
Referee Paul Devorski, however, waved off the goal. Devorski had blown his whistle after Lindback made the initial save. Video replay showed Lindback had zero control of the puck.
“That’s tough. That’s unfortunate,” Kelly said of Caron’s scrubbed goal. “Those things happen. I think the ref lost sight of the puck. But he did a great job taking it to the net. We had a few chances. I thought Smitty played well and was moving his feet well. We played well in all three zones.”
Less than a week ago, Caron could have been at his Boston crossroads. Caron was in a dogfight with Nick Johnson to be the No. 13 forward. Both required waivers to be assigned to Providence. The Bruins had no intentions of keeping both of them up top.
Caron beat out Johnson, who was waived on Sunday. Had the Bruins done so with Caron, his size and pedigree could have made him a possible claim. The Bruins would have thrown away a first-round pick and three years of development for nothing.
In theory, Caron had the advantage. Caron is 22 years old. Johnson is 27. The Bruins picked Caron in the first round of the 2009 draft. Johnson, a third-round selection in 2004, is with his fourth organization in the last four years. Caron is faster. He is familiar with the Bruins’ system. The left-shot forward can play both wings.
Caron has the skill set that should make him a seamless fit for the Bruins’ thump-first identity. But Caron’s theoretical assets haven’t always produced on-ice results. In both Boston and Providence, Caron has too often played a meek game. Caron’s hockey style should be work boots and hard hat, not a three-piece and wingtips.
In the season opener, the possible waivers casualty hustled like a player facing his Bruins mortality. At the end of the second period, Kelly stole the puck from Pierre-Cedric Labrie and set up Caron for a net-front strike. Only a flash of Lindback’s right pad kept Caron from giving the Bruins a 3-1 lead.
In the third, Kelly and Smith rushed the puck toward Lindback. Kelly hit Caron on the left wing. Caron shoveled the puck just wide left of the net.
“That’s my type of game,” Caron said. “They want me to take the puck to the net. I think that’s what I did tonight.”
The third line was the Bruins’ primary question mark heading into this season. Kelly entered training camp as the line’s only lock. Soderberg’s size, hands, strength on the wall, and power-play experience gave him the edge on the left wing job. Smith’s speed and creativity earned him the job as Kelly’s right-hand man.
But injuries happen. Soderberg has yet to skate since his injury. It’s unlikely he’ll be ready for Saturday’s game against Detroit. If Caron plays like he did against the Lightning, Soderberg can take his time to heal.
The first two lines didn’t execute crisply for extended segments. During that time, Caron, Kelly, and Smith did their job. They submitted crisp, efficient shifts to swing the momentum back in the Bruins’ favor.
By late in the second and most of the third, the first two lines found their legs. Milan Lucic scored the go-ahead goal with a minute left in the second. Patrice Bergeron netted a shorthanded goal in the third.
Depth matters. It’s often the difference between 2 points and none. The former 13th forward did his part to ensure a 2-point start.