Things went sideways for the Bruins on Dec. 7.
Already without Johnny Boychuk (back) and Adam McQuaid (hip/groin) that night, the Bruins said goodbye to three more players during their 3-2 come-from-behind win over Pittsburgh.
They lost Loui Eriksson to a concussion on the first shift of the game. Shawn Thornton yanked himself out of the lineup for 15 games when he went looking for retribution on Brooks Orpik later in the first. A period later, Pascal Dupuis slashed Chris Kelly’s leg, cracking the No. 3 center’s fibula.
The days to come were not kind to the Bruins, either. One night later, Dougie Hamilton suffered a lower-body injury that has kept him out seven games. Daniel Paille was diagnosed with a concussion that has left him, too, sidelined for seven games. A virus blew through the dressing room.
Through it all, the Bruins ripped off a 7-2-0 run. They entered the Christmas break atop the Atlantic Division, 3 points ahead of second-place Tampa Bay, after a stretch in which they could have tumbled down the standings.
Everybody gets hurt. Anaheim, the best team in the NHL, is without goalie Viktor Fasth and defensemen Sheldon Souray and Luca Sbisa. Previously injured Ducks include Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu, Dustin Penner, Mathieu Perreault, Francois Beauchemin, and Jakob Silfverberg.
Pittsburgh is the top team in the Eastern Conference, but its lineup is not recognizable. For the Penguins’ final pre-break game against Ottawa, the following players were out of uniform: Orpik, Beau Bennett, Andrew Ebbett, Tanner Glass, Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin, Jayson Megna, Rob Scuderi, and Tomas Vokoun. But before their 5-0 loss to Ottawa Monday, the Penguins had rolled off seven straight wins.
The Ducks, Penguins, and Bruins have two things in common. Their AHL affiliates — Norfolk, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, and Providence — have shuttled up respectable replacements. And their lead dogs — Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, Sidney Crosby and Marc-Andre Fleury, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask — have pulled the sled with others pulled up lame.
The Bruins, like Anaheim and Pittsburgh, will be better off for it.
Amid the wreckage to their lineup, the Bruins called upon six reinforcements from Providence: Ryan Spooner, Matt Fraser, Nick Johnson, Craig Cunningham, David Warsofsky, and Kevan Miller. Spooner’s recall was one of two significant moves. The other was promoting Reilly Smith to the second line in place of Eriksson.
Spooner’s promotion did not start well. On Dec. 8 against Toronto, he played just 8:53, second-least among the forwards. He lost all four faceoffs he took.
Two nights later, Spooner assisted on a Smith goal. But he lost five of six draws. On Dec. 12, Spooner played just 8:16. Once again, only Fraser logged less ice time.
Had the Bruins been healthy, Spooner might have been returned to Providence. But the Bruins had no choice but to stick with the second-year pro.
Spooner rewarded his bosses for their patience.
In the two games preceding the break, the ghost who first came up from Providence disappeared. In its place was a skilled and swaggering center with no intentions of returning to the minors. Spooner, the right-side half-wall quarterback on the No. 2 power-play unit, set up Smith for a one-up goal in the Bruins’ 4-1 win over Buffalo last Saturday.
On Monday in Nashville, Spooner submitted his best game as an NHLer. He racked up three assists in a 6-2 win. He ripped off a game-high six shots. He won four of eight faceoffs. Of his 14:34 of playing time, 53 seconds took place on the penalty kill.
Spooner showed off both his off-the-line acceleration and his top-end speed. They are game-changing elements. Before, he couldn’t put them to use consistently because of his deficiencies on the draw and in the defensive zone.
Smith doesn’t have Spooner’s explosiveness, but he has developed into one of the team’s more consistent offensive performers while riding shotgun with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Smith (12-16—28) trails only David Krejci (7-25—32) in points on the team.
Smith has been just as good on the power play as he has been at even strength. One of the Bruins’ signature plays has become the back-door look for the No. 2 unit. Carl Soderberg, the right-side goal-line man, makes his first look to Smith sneaking far post. Four times this season, including in the last two games, the Soderberg-to-Smith connection has worked. They will keep taking it as long as opponents continue to give it to them.
Kelly will be back. The third-line center is eligible to return from long-term injured reserve next Thursday at home against Nashville. If Spooner continues to play at his current pace, the offensive-minded center may displace Kelly. Spooner’s speed and creativity will be too important to relegate to Providence. Kelly may have to switch to wing. Jordan Caron, currently the fourth-line right wing, could be a roster casualty.
It’s impossible to say when Eriksson will return. If he is declared fit to play, he should not go back to the second line. Smith deserves to stay there.
Injuries are funny things. Had Kelly and Eriksson remained healthy, Spooner and Smith wouldn’t have gotten their chances.
Because of undesired events, the Bruins have some desired clarity.
It’s clear that Spooner and Smith are legit.