MONTREAL — Only time will tell us whether Thursday night was one giant step in Matt Fraser’s esteemed and lengthy Spoked-B career, or if on May 8, 2014, he simply became a delightful footnote, a fanciful and unexpected piece of trivia in Bruins history.
“Name the player called up that morning from the minors,” the quiz on the chalkboard behind the bar at The Fours might read a half-century from now, “who gave the Bruins a 1-0 overtime playoff victory at the Bell Centre.”
Uh . . . hmm . . . Matt Fraser?
Yep, Matt Fraser, who is guaranteed to be back in the lineup Saturday night when the Bruins and Canadiens face off in Game 5 of their second-round Stanley Cup series on Causeway Street. Because of Fraser — the Central Casting Frank Capra character from Red Deer (what, it couldn’t have been Moose Jaw or Bedford Falls?) — the series is tied, 2-2, with a return date inked in for Monday night in Montreal.
A stunned, near-silent crowd of more than 21,000 CH communicants filed out of Bell Centre shortly after 10:30 p.m. Thursday after the strapping Fraser smacked his doorstep shot by Habs goaltender Carey Price.
A first whack at the puck by Carl Soderberg, interrupted by Lars Eller, squirted over to the alert Fraser near the left post, and the wide-eyed newbie shoveled it home before defenseman Mike Weaver could prevent destiny from doing otherwise.
Of the combined 68 shots the two sides fired over the course of 61 minutes and 19 seconds, it was the only one all night to do what it was meant to do, find its way onto the scoresheet.
Matt Fraser? Yep, Matt Fraser, 23-year-old kid of the Canadian prairie, all smiling 6 feet 2 inches and 205 pounds of him.
The day before, he practiced with the AHL Bruins in Providence, his mind-set on boarding a bus there Thursday at noon for a 250-mile drive toward Scranton and more minor league playoffs.
Instead, he was scrapped from the travel manifest and ordered north to the varsity, the Bruins in need of someone, anyone, to aid their sputtering offense.
“I guess you can tell from my voice,” said an excited Fraser moments after the win, “it’s pretty exciting. I hardly slept today. I tried off and on, but . . .”
Time also will tell whether Fraser’s shot, one of four he attempted across the night, indeed awakened what has been Boston’s dormant, frustrated offense.
The first line, centered by David Krejci, again failed to find its mojo in Game 4, the trio’s frustration in part the reason why Fraser was summoned.
With the headliners in his lineup showing little offensive presence or know-how in the first three games of the series, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli ordered Fraser into the mix, hoping that a different stick might stir a change in mind-set, or at the very least luck.
“He can score, he has a legit shot, a very good release,’’ noted Chiarelli as he made his way to the dressing room following the win. “I thought he was going to score just before he did, because he had a chance at one out in the slot.
“Matt’s been hot for Providence — like I said, he has some scoring ability. We just thought . . . the way things have been going . . . and I thought that line looked really good for us.
“They made a difference out there.”
Four games into the series, we now have a solid fix on the contrast in how these teams play. Overall, though they also haven’t had an abundance of success in beating Boston goalie Tuukka Rask, the Habs have been better at employing their offensive game than the Bruins.
The Bruins are built for a strong, physically dominating game in the attack zone, not designed to score so much off the rush as they are to gain the blue line and eventually manufacture a goal via puck control and punishing body work. They wear people down. They grind their way to goals.
The Habs are built on more of a speed and deception model, one that has their whizzing forwards firing off the rush, be it by darting into lanes or firing through shifting screens. They don’t look to dominate the attack zone with physical presence, but rather get in there quickly and hope their havoc produces quick-strike chances.
The Bruins live to own the zone, pressure the net (see: Fraser’s winner) while the Habs prefer to race through the door, smash the display case, grab the jewelry, and bolt with the goods before the cops show. Witness their three breakaway goals in Game 3. They prefer wizardry over hard work.
In each of the two games here, the Bruins attempted 14 more shots than the Habs. But they finished with only a marginal advantage (63-59) in shots that actually made it on net. For the four games, the Bruins own a 35 percent advantage in shot attempts (297-220) yet only a 27 percent advantage in shots on net (149-117).
The Bruins too often are misfiring (albeit with a fair number of posts and crossbars in that total) or seeing their shots blocked. The Habs, in fact, own a 96-60 advantage in shot blocks. The combination of Boston misfires and Montreal blocking nearly 25 shots per game reflects Boston’s rushed, ineffective presence in the zone.
The Bruins are not able to establish presence, puck control, and, most of all, sustained pressure in and around Price’s crease. The Habs have been masters of flashing quick sticks in the defensive end, often sealing up passing lanes, and cleaning up what few rebounds Price yields off Boston shots.
First-line wingers Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla are the two heavyweights who should be able to establish presence around the net. But that line, centered by Krejci, has been out of synch the entire series. In the two games here, they totaled nine shots on net and came out of it with only an Iginla goal and a Lucic assist.
Krejci, typically an offensive force in the playoffs, is now a paltry 0-3—3 in the 2014 postseason. By contrast, Patrice Bergeron alone had 11 shots on net (to Krejci’s two) in the two games here.
“I don’t think we’ve played our best hockey,” said Boston coach Claude Julien. “We played hard, but I’ve seen our team play better. You hope this helps us get better.”
Home ice, where the Bruins can better orchestrate desired line matches, should help in that department. If Fraser is the real deal, then that means Julien enters Game 5 with some reliable attack in his second line (centered by Bergeron) and that newfound third line (centered by Soderberg). If the top line can come around, play could swing Boston’s way.
The Habs have a No. 3 defensive pairing, in Weaver and Doug Murray, that the Bruins can exploit. They were out there for Fraser’s winner, one of the very few times all night when the Bruins maintained puck pressure and saw the Habs collapse around Price.
The other four Montreal defensemen — Josh Gorges with P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov with Alexei Emelin — do a much cleaner, faster, efficient job in their own end.
“I think,” mused Boston captain Zdeno Chara as he packed up here Thursday night, “we were better than our last game.”
Progress. In small steps. And Thursday night it was a kid’s first steps leading them.