BUFFALO — It was no coincidence that Claude Julien picked his third line to start Wednesday’s overtime against Buffalo.
Chris Kelly, Carl Soderberg, and Loui Eriksson had earned that right.
“They did a great job every time they were on the ice,” said the Bruins’ coach following the 5-4 loss to the Sabres. “They created a lot of stuff. I continue to like that line.”
Prior to Matt D’Agostini’s winning goal, the third-liners were doing what they had done throughout the game: control the puck down low and along the walls.
Eriksson had fished the puck off the right boards and was looking for help up top. Eriksson couldn’t connect, however, with Zdeno Chara. Moments later, D’Agostini was sprinting past a flat-footed Chara and tucking a backhander past a leaky Chad Johnson.
It was not a good loss. The Bruins had wiped out a two-goal deficit to grab a 4-3 third-period lead. They were less than a minute away from grabbing a regulation win in their first post-break game.
But in the big picture, they will take another good game from the No. 3 line, even framed against a foul-tasting setback.
The Bruins dominated the puck-possession game. They took 65 shots to Buffalo’s 35 attempts. Thirty-three hit the net. Eighteen were blocked. Fourteen went wide. Kelly, Soderberg, and Eriksson combined for 18 attempts, most of any line. In contrast, the sputtering first line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Jarome Iginla attempted only eight shots.
It was just three years ago that Kelly and his wingmen proved how third lines can be difference-makers. In the playoffs, top-six forwards regularly cancel each other out. It often comes down to the third- and fourth-line plumbers who pop in the much-needed goal or submit the momentum-changing shift.
Kelly, Michael Ryder, and Rich Peverley helped the Bruins fight past Montreal in the opening round of the playoffs in 2011. This time, instead of centering Ryder and Peverley, Kelly is on the left side. It’s where he should stay. Soderberg has the middle on lockdown.
The Bruins originally projected Soderberg to be a left wing, but he is a natural center. It’s much easier for a 216-pound tank such as Soderberg to remain at full flight when he’s flowing through the middle instead of stopping and starting on the wing.
“I like center, for sure,” Soderberg said. “We’ll see what happens. But I like that spot. I think Kells is pretty comfortable on the wing, too. Our line is really good right now. I have a big body. It’s easier to play at center to get your speed going. I’ve been playing center for my whole career, almost.”
In the first period, Soderberg showed his hands are as dangerous as his wide body. Soderberg pursued a puck that had glanced off the end boards. When Soderberg went in on the forecheck, he knew Kelly was behind him providing support. As soon as Soderberg retrieved the puck, he flashed a blind backhand pass off Cody Hodgson and onto Kelly’s stick. Kelly snapped a shot past Jhonas Enroth for the Bruins’ first goal.
“Our feet were moving,” Kelly said. “I thought we controlled the pace pretty well. We did some good things in the offensive zone. Obviously, it’s not the way you want to end the game. But I think at this point, you want to take the positives out of that game. I thought we did a lot of good things.”
Eriksson was the best of the three. He landed a team-high five shots on goal. Enroth stole a goal from Eriksson with a save in the second period.
Lucic, steaming down the left wing, spotted Eriksson open at the far post. Lucic connected with his pass. Eriksson fired a shot on goal. A stretched-out Enroth punted Eriksson’s shot away from the net.
“Loui was a good player again tonight,” Julien said. “He continues to play well. He’s strong. Good heads-up play. Smart decision-making. I really liked his game.”
This has not been the season Eriksson nor his employer expected. The Bruins thought they had landed the perfect two-way fit for the No. 2 line. In Dallas, Eriksson was strong on the puck. He got open in the danger areas. Eriksson made smart plays in all three zones.
Whether it was the change of leaving the only organization he’d known or the concussions that rattled his brain, Eriksson has been a shadow. He was deservedly dropped to the third line. The Bruins are not paying Eriksson $4.25 million this season to be their No. 10 scorer.
But finally, Eriksson looks like he’s gaining traction. He led all forwards with 18:37 of ice time, which is a designation usually claimed by Krejci or Patrice Bergeron. Eriksson manned the right boards on the No. 2 power-play unit. Eriksson killed penalties with Kelly. Eriksson logged 4:43 of shorthanded ice time, most of any forward.
Eriksson was a go-to player for Sweden in the Olympics. He trailed only Daniel Sedin in average ice time. For one game, Eriksson’s Olympic rhythm carried back into his stateside performance.
“I thought it really helped me to go over there and play a lot,” Eriksson said before Wednesday’s game. “It’s fun games to play, too, when you get to the quarters and the semifinals. It’s important games. I’ll take a lot of things with me from that and go on from it.”