NEWARK — The Bruins won their 10th straight game on Tuesday by beating New Jersey, 4-2.
Loui Eriksson was one of the Bruins’ best forwards. Eriksson set up Chris Kelly’s goal with a pinball-wizard bank off the right-side wall to Carl Soderberg. Eriksson had one assist and two shots in 15:22 of ice time.
Eriksson can’t even get into the Bruins’ top-six formation.
The Bruins are four victories away from tying their franchise record of 14 straight wins. They turned the trick from Dec. 3, 1929, through Jan. 9, 1930. The team’s depth is a major reason the Bruins haven’t lost since March 1. Not many teams have a skilled two-way forward like Eriksson sheltered on their third line.
Opposing coaches have to send out their best forwards and top two defensive pairings to keep David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron from lighting them up. That leaves Kelly, Soderberg, and Eriksson more space against bottom-six opponents and third-pairing D’s.
Eriksson’s performance during the winning streak is in contrast to his ghostly start in Boston. The ex-Star, the primary piece the Bruins acquired in exchange for Tyler Seguin, looked lost at the start. John Scott blew him out of the lineup for five games with a blindside wallop on Oct. 23. Eriksson suffered his second concussion on Dec. 7 when Brooks Orpik cleaned his clock with a hit he never saw coming. Eriksson didn’t play for 15 games.
Maxim Lapierre caved in several of Eriksson’s teeth with an uncalled high stick on Feb. 6. Eriksson missed one game because of an infection on his right heel on March 4. Eriksson opened the cut in a cold tub during the Olympics.
Eriksson can wipe out all those false starts if his playoff performance looks like anything like his post-Olympic performance.
The player once considered a punch line is the two-way threat the Bruins thought they had landed. On Tuesday, the No. 3 right wing submitted one of his best games of the season. Eriksson set up Kelly’s third-period goal by using two of his best assets: his head and his stick.
Eriksson was on the right side of the neutral zone. Soderberg was in the middle. Eric Gelinas had a tight gap on Eriksson at the red line. Michael Ryder was applying back pressure and taking away Eriksson’s backhand pass to Soderberg.
Had Eriksson continued to carry the puck, Gelinas would have stood him at the red line. Ryder would have sealed off a dish. So with a forehand flick, Eriksson banked the puck off the right-side wall for Soderberg to retrieve. Gelinas was beaten. Ryder couldn’t catch up with Kelly. Jon Merrill, Gelinas’s partner, was caught in no-man’s land. Kelly tucked in Soderberg’s feed to give the Bruins a 4-1 lead.
“I think he’s got one of the best, if not the best, sticks in the league,” Kelly said. “It’s pretty impressive how he anticipates plays and knocks pucks down. I think there were two or three times tonight that having good sticks creates scoring chances or makes them take a penalty. He’s just doing a lot of good things out there.”
Eriksson has two goals and five assists in 11 games following the Olympic break. Because of his play and Reilly Smith’s missing goal-scoring touch, the coaches considered moving Eriksson back to the No. 2 line. But Eriksson’s been a critical piece of the third line, arguably the team’s most consistent threesome during the 10-game winning streak.
This is the longest stretch of consistent play Eriksson has turned in since becoming a Bruin. It hints at good things for the playoffs.
“He’s skating a lot better,” said coach Claude Julien. “It seems like he’s found his rhythm. What is it? I think it’s a matter of getting over those concussions. We’ve seen it with players. It’s hard to come back from a concussion. It takes a long time to find your stride and also that confidence. Right now, he’s really good. He’s got a good stick. He makes a lot of good heads-up plays. Very seldom do you see him make a mistake. He’s patient with the puck. He finds his guys. He’s just been a real good player. Hanging on to the puck and being strong on it gives you some opportunities to go on the power play.”
The Bruins had two power plays against New Jersey. Eriksson drew both of them. At 1:38 of the third, as Eriksson drove to the net, he took a slash from Gelinas.
Later in the third, Eriksson stole the puck from Andy Greene to set up a scoring chance. Greene had to hook Eriksson at 9:45 to bust up the play.
The Bruins didn’t score on either power play. But they were happy for the opportunities. They had zero against Minnesota the previous night. They remain last in the league with 192 power-play chances, which is a mystery to the coaching staff.
“We’re not blessed with too many power plays,” Julien said. “It’s a part that we still can’t figure out why. We see reasons we should be on the power play. Our penalty kill has to be good, because every night, we’re killing more than we are on the power play. That’s just the way it has been for years. It’s a good thing we’re a disciplined team. We don’t take a ton of penalties. We just don’t get a ton of power plays.”
If Eriksson continues his trend, he could help the Bruins draw more penalties. Eriksson is an above-average puck-possession player. Eriksson has an element of Marian Hossa’s puck-protection touch to his game. Opponents might have to take penalties to get the puck off his stick. Because of how quick Eriksson is with his stick, he can create turnovers and trigger the counterattack.
It puzzles the Bruins why Eriksson couldn’t find his pace before the concussions. But they’re not worried about that anymore.