Justin Florek stands 6 feet 4 inches and weighs 199 pounds, both of which are valuable assets when deployed in front of an opposing net.
“That’s a huge part of my game,” Florek said. “I’m a big body, so getting in front is really important. You don’t always get the glory. But a goal’s a goal and helping out the team. It’s awesome to be out there just trying to contribute.”
Torey Krug’s deciding goal in Saturday’s 4-1 win over Winnipeg at TD Garden might not have happened had Florek not done his job. Seconds earlier, Florek had driven to the net, put himself in position for a Gregory Campbell feed, and tapped the puck just wide of Ondrej Pavelec.
But Florek didn’t quit on the play. As Daniel Paille shuttled the puck up to Krug at the left point, Florek knew exactly where he had to go.
Florek rooted himself in the slot in front of Pavelec. Florek drew Dustin Byfuglien and Keaton Ellerby. As both Winnipeg defensemen tried to remove Florek from the net-front patch, Krug took advantage of the three-body screen and ripped the winner past Pavelec at 3:08 of the second.
Not bad for a player who was sound asleep earlier on Saturday when his promotion came calling.
Like many Massachusetts residents, Jordan Caron reported to work Saturday with a stiff back. The fourth-line right wing would not be available to play.
The 23-year-old Florek, the team’s fifth-round pick in 2010, was the best candidate to replace Caron on the fourth line. Assistant general manager Don Sweeney called Florek Saturday morning. It was the most effective wake-up call Florek’s ever taken.
“You don’t have too much time to think about it,” Florek said. “It’s actually pretty nice to just hop in my car, drive up here, and get ready to play in the game rather than think about it for a day. So it was pretty good.”
Florek is the sixth player to make his NHL debut for the Bruins this season. Five of those debuts have taken place since Dec. 7, when things started to go cuckoo against the Penguins. That night, the Bruins lost Loui Eriksson, Shawn Thornton, and Chris Kelly. None has played since.
In the 14-game segment including the Pittsburgh showdown, the Bruins have called upon eight players from Providence. The reinforcements were required because of Eriksson’s concussion, Thornton’s suspension, Kelly’s broken leg, and a pileup of injuries and illnesses that claimed Caron, Paille, Carl Soderberg, Dougie Hamilton, Adam McQuaid, and Johnny Boychuk. Florek, Craig Cunningham, David Warsofsky, Zach Trotman, and Niklas Svedberg made their first NHL appearances.
The Bruins have gone 10-4-0 in those games. They remain in first place in the Atlantic Division. They might be in a worse position had Providence not filled its mission.
Aside from Ryan Spooner, the Bruins have not asked their call-ups to assume major responsibilities. They’ve played support roles — fourth line, bottom pairing, energy shifts.
Florek was the latest in that line. In Providence, Florek assumed more ice time once Matt Fraser was recalled Dec. 8. Most recently, Florek was playing on a scoring line with Carter Camper and Seth Griffith. In 34 AHL games, the left-shot Florek has nine goals and 11 assists. In the AHL, Florek is a wide-shouldered power forward who can score and open up space for his creative linemates.
But like Fraser, an AHL sharpshooter turned into third-line NHL grinder, Florek’s role is different with the varsity. If Florek lands a full-time NHL job, it most likely will be as a bottom-six plumber.
The coaching staff asked Florek to submit high-tempo, hard-hat work alongside Paille and Campbell. Florek responded with 10:14 of good, strong shifts. Florek landed one shot and two hits as the No. 4 left wing. Florek also had 24 seconds of shorthanded ice time in the first when Paille was called for goalie interference.
“He played well,” said coach Claude Julien. “He’s a good skater. He’s got good size.
“On one of Krug’s goals, it was him doing a great job in front of the goaltender there. I thought he had a real good game for us. You also have to give credit to Dan Paille, who I thought looked really good on the right side.”
Providence started the season with several potential high-end NHLers. Spooner could be a second-line center. Trotman could develop into a top-four defenseman. Svedberg, who won his first game Thursday against Nashville, projects to be at least a No. 2 goalie.
But management has done well at identifying and acquiring smart, dependable prospects. Of the eight players recalled since Dec. 8, four were draft picks: Florek, Trotman, Spooner, and Cunningham. The Bruins traded for Fraser and Warsofsky. They signed Svedberg and Nick Johnson as free agents.
The result is a collection of youngsters hungry for NHL paychecks. Every time a Providence player goes up, his teammates wonder when it will be their turn.
“In the back of your mind, it’s there a little bit. You always want to get up to Boston,” Florek said. “At the same time, we’re focusing on winning down there. Last year, we had such a great season, first-place finish. But it was pretty disappointing in the playoffs. I think that’s in the back of a lot of people’s minds down there as well. We want to make that push, continue to move up the standings, and have a good playoff run this year.”
Florek will play for Providence against Manchester Sunday. Depending on Caron’s condition, Florek could join the team on its California road trip. Even if Florek doesn’t travel to the West Coast, he made his case for a future recall. It’s what every minor leaguer hopes to do in his NHL debut.