WILMINGTON — Chris Kelly is a center. He has been the pivot on the third line since his arrival from Ottawa, where he first made his mark as a smart, reliable, defensive center.
It’s a good bet, however, that Kelly will be on the left side when the Bruins resume play against Buffalo Wednesday.
Kelly played in the last six pre-pause games after returning from a broken right fibula. The Bruins planned to ease Kelly back in. Kelly saw time on the third and fourth lines. He took shifts at center and wing.
It is not of Kelly’s doing that he might play left wing against the Sabres. It’s because Carl Soderberg, who opened the season as Kelly’s left wing, has found his rhythm in the middle.
Soderberg scored a goal and an assist in the Bruins’ 7-2 rout of Ottawa Feb. 8. It was Soderberg’s fourth straight game as the No. 3 center. The Bruins went 3-0-1 in that stretch.
Soderberg, a natural center, looked comfortable in the middle. Kelly may be the better defensive center. But Soderberg is playing with more offensive presence at the position. Soderberg gives the Bruins three attacking centers with David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron.
In his last seven games, Soderberg has three goals and four assists. On the power play, Soderberg’s found a home as the goal-line man on the No. 2 unit. His preferred play is to walk the puck toward the net and look for Reilly Smith cutting to the far post.
“He makes plays,” Kelly said. “He skates well. He’s a big guy. He gets in the corners. He does a lot of things that sometimes go unnoticed. He’s understanding our system more and more every game, which is making him more effective.”
Soderberg’s emergence at center gives the coaching staff options. They can keep Kelly on the wing, where he’s comfortable. Depending on defensive matchups, they can switch Kelly and Soderberg, especially in late-game situations and defensive-zone faceoffs. If they need Soderberg higher in the lineup, they can move Kelly to center and bump Daniel Paille up to No. 3 left wing.
“It’s a real luxury that we have that maybe a lot of teams don’t,” Kelly said of the flexibility. “When you have guys that can play center and easily transition over to the wing, it makes your team a better team all around. It makes the coaches’ jobs a little easier, rotating guys in and out of positions and seeing where guys are succeeding.”
Justin Florek and Matt Lindblad participated in Friday’s practice after being recalled from Providence. They replaced Craig Cunningham and Alexander Khokhlachev, who were returned to Providence after practicing with the varsity Thursday.
Florek was very good during a January promotion. Playing on the fourth line, Florek recorded a goal and an assist during a three-game stretch against Winnipeg, Anaheim, and Los Angeles. Florek could push for a permanent fourth-line position next year or he could be used as a trade chip prior to the March 5 deadline. Florek could be a third-line NHL wing for a team with less depth. He was the team’s fifth-round pick in 2010.
Friday marked Lindblad's first NHL recall. Lindblad would have been a senior at Dartmouth this season but turned pro last spring. Lindblad projects to be a defensive-minded, penalty-killing bottom-six NHL forward. But during practice, Lindblad took most of his shifts on the first line between Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla.
Chad Johnson could draw the start against the Sabres because of Tuukka Rask’s Olympic workload and travel back to Boston. The Bruins have a back-to-back set against the Capitals and Rangers next weekend. It’s possible Johnson could start two of the first three post-break games. “The last few games, he’s played very well for us,” said assistant coach Doug Houda. “I’m sure as we go along here, Claude [Julien] will make the decisions when needed to give Tuukka the rest and Chad to go with the ball. Obviously there’s a lot of games coming up. So we definitely need not just Chad, but we need everybody to step up.” . . . As the coach responsible for the defense, Houda has led a group that includes three players (Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski, Kevan Miller) who played most of their games for Providence last year. Houda has also seen call-ups David Warsofsky and Zach Trotman perform effectively in limited windows. “When they come up here, we put them in tough situations,” Houda said. “Warsofsky the other day is in a tough situation. He’s put on the power play and he played great for us. It shows that our depth is there.” . . . Smith didn’t practice because of an illness . . . Former Tufts goalie Scott Barchard was the second puckstopper. Ex-Northeastern goalie Adam Geragosian filled in for Rask on Thursday . . . The Bruins will hold their third straight practice on Saturday at Ristuccia Arena at 11 a.m.Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.