There was no way Loui Eriksson could have been a better player than he was Saturday.
Eriksson filled in for Jarome Iginla (lower-body injury) on the first line for the second time in three games. Eriksson assisted on four of the goals in the Bruins’ 5-2 win over the Flyers at TD Garden. The right wing led all team forwards with 20:29 of ice time. The first-year Bruin landed a game-high seven pucks on goal. As usual, Eriksson was on the ice alongside Chris Kelly and Patrice Bergeron to defend a six-on-five end-of-game situation.
All this from someone who could be the No. 3 right wing when the Bruins open the playoffs.
Assuming good health, Iginla will open the postseason as the top-line right wing with Milan Lucic and David Krejci. Reilly Smith, who claimed NESN’s Seventh Player Award Saturday, could be the No. 2 right wing.
Eriksson could start on the third line with Kelly and Carl Soderberg. That is not a good thing for the unfortunate opponent that draws the Bruins in the first round.
“I felt good out there,” Eriksson said. “We were making some good plays. We got some really good chances. It was nice to get some goals too and get the win.”
When the puck dropped Saturday, it didn’t matter that Eriksson was playing on his third line in the last four periods.
Eriksson started Thursday’s game against Toronto on the third line with Kelly and Jordan Caron. In the second period, Eriksson replaced Smith next to Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
Against the Flyers, Eriksson submitted his best game yet. He skated furiously in all three zones. He was strong on the puck. He was creative in looking for his linemates. He laid claim to the net-front real estate.
Eriksson was the player the Bruins believed they had acquired for Tyler Seguin.
“Now you’re seeing the real Loui that everybody’s been talking about,” said coach Claude Julien. “He’s such a smart player. He adapts to any line he’s with. He’s been a great asset to that third line with Carl Soderberg and Kelly. He was a great asset [Saturday] with Krejci’s line. I thought he did a great job also on Bergy’s line the other night in Toronto. That line got itself going with him being on that line. It means a lot as to what he’s capable of bringing to our team.”
Eriksson is entering the playoffs as one of Julien’s more trusted forwards. He’s skating well. He wields an active, well-positioned stick. He can play on any line. He’s the net-front man on the No. 2 power-play unit. Eriksson and Kelly are one of the team’s three penalty-killing pairs.
This hasn’t been an easy season for Eriksson. At the start, he had trouble adapting from Dallas, the only organization he’d ever known. Hits by John Scott and Brooks Orpik turned his head into a piñata. For a player with a high hockey IQ, Eriksson couldn’t blend into the Bruins’ system, especially in the neutral zone.
Eriksson addressed that last issue on Lucic’s third-period goal. After Zac Rinaldo’s shot missed the net and rimmed around the wall, Eriksson picked the puck off the boards and started the counterattack.
In Dallas, Eriksson’s tendency was to slash into the neutral zone, especially without the puck. In contrast, the Bruins instruct their forwards to stay wide through center ice. They like to spread out the defenders and enter the offensive zone with a strong, wide formation.
Eriksson barreled down the right wing with the puck. Because of that, the Bruins crossed the offensive blue line in a perfect setup. Krejci drove the middle to suck in Andrew MacDonald and Luke Schenn. Lucic stayed wide on the left wing. Torey Krug jumped up to make it a four-on-two rush.
Eriksson hit Krug in the seam. Krug dished to Lucic. Krejci drove the net. Lucic snapped the puck past Ray Emery to give the Bruins a 4-2 lead.
“I think the last many games here, I’ve been more used to playing that way,” Eriksson said. “Staying more wide and coming in the corner. Today we got some really good opportunities to get some chances — four-on-twos, three-on-twos, stuff like that. We were doing some good stuff out there.”
Eriksson’s day started with two close-range sniffs on net. Emery kicked them both out, but Krejci cleaned up the garbage at 15:56 of the first. Eriksson recorded his second assist by winning a puck race against Braydon Coburn that led to Krejci setting up Lucic at 14:55 of the second.
“He’s being the player everyone expected him to be,” Lucic said. “He’s a very smart hockey player. He’s in the right position a lot of the time. He’s got a good stick. That’s what makes him an easy player to play with.”
Midway through the third, the score was tied, 2-2. The Flyers could have pulled ahead. Brayden Schenn saw Sean Couturier breaking toward the far post. But Eriksson, backchecking hard on Couturier, busted up the scoring chance to keep the game tied.
Eriksson’s day ended with a helper on Kelly’s empty-net goal at 19:39.
The Bruins are 16-1-2 in their last 19 games. There is no reason to change lines entering the playoffs.
But Eriksson opens up the coaching staff’s options. He can stay with Kelly and Soderberg to give the Bruins one of the league’s more dangerous third lines. If Smith doesn’t produce at the start of the playoffs, they could flip the two wings to give the No. 2 line more offensive presence.
Depth makes a difference. The Bruins have it. Bring on the playoffs.