ANAHEIM, Calif. — Somehow, when they’re practicing, the pucks go in. That’s when things go right, when the fourth line looks as it should, when they shake their heads and wonder at their inability to do exactly those things in games.
That’s when they laugh. Because that’s all they can do.
“There’s been a couple of practices that we seem to find each other really good on the ice for practice,” Simon Gagne said. “We’re scoring some goals in practice. We’ve been laughing after, saying, ‘Why is it not going in in the game?’ ”
Despite subtracting a career 39-goal scorer (Shawn Thornton) while adding a career 289-goal scorer (Gagne), the Bruins’ fourth line has done little to put pucks in the net. The trio combined for two points in the month of November: Daniel Paille’s first goal of the season on Nov. 21, and an assist by Gagne on Nov. 24. Gregory Campbell did not score a point in the month.
So when the Bruins chose to recall Craig Cunningham on Sunday, it could be seen as the team wanting to have a viable alternative should it choose to make a move on the fourth line this week. Cunningham has scored four goals and nine assists in 18 games in Providence in a more offensive role than he would see on the fourth line in Boston.
Coach Claude Julien said the team simply wanted enough players, given that they are on the West Coast for the week, though he did not rule out using Cunningham on the fourth line when asked specifically about the possibility.
“If there’s some injuries or some changes to be made, it’s easier to make,” he said. “If I didn’t have those players, it’s a lot tougher call to fly them all the way to California on short notice.”
For now, though, Julien said that he’s started to see more from the fourth line of late. He’s started to see glimpses of what he wants, whether that’s in practice or (less so) in games.
“You can see a lot more plays — I see it in practice — a lot more skill on that line, and getting to know each other, they’re finding each other a little bit better,” Julien said, emphasizing how different Gagne is from Thornton.
“So I think it’s a matter of time. It’s coming. Even the last two games, I’ve used them a little bit more against top lines because they’re starting to be a little bit more reliable and creating off each other a little bit better.”
Gagne acknowledged that he’s still not where he wants to be with his game, even six weeks into his tenure with the Bruins.
He knew this would happen, from previous injuries, from returns. He missed all of last season, and recovering from that has taken time. There was adrenaline at the start, and that got him through the first couple of games.
After that, it was more difficult, even though he had come in with a mind-set different from one he’d had earlier in his career, knowing that goals and assists were not his top priority.
There was a wall. He hit it. He hasn’t really gotten past it.
“Hopefully by this trip — who knows? — things will start to feel close to 100 percent,” Gagne said. “But it’s not quite there. Still feel that I could improve with the puck a little bit, taking my time. Sometimes I’m rushing a little bit too much with the puck instead of keeping it or looking for a better shot.
“Like last game, I had a great chance on the first shift of the game and instead of taking my time and going for a harder shot, I just decided to shoot right away real quick, not really looking at where I could go with it, something that it’s not the way I usually am taking with the puck.
“So, like I said, it’s a long process, it takes some time, but at least I’m feeling better in practice and in games. It’s going in the right direction.”
If it doesn’t continue in the right direction, Julien now has options. Cunningham played center for his first few games back in the AHL after his three-game stint in the NHL earlier in the season, then moved back to the wing. Cunningham did his best to play with more pace, as he put it, to improve his penalty kill, to do “the little things that are going to push me over the top.”
It was noticed.
“He’s a real competitor,” Julien said. “He comes to play every night. He’s got a lot of the – I’m going to say [Patrice Bergeron] personality, as far as he practices hard every day. Once he’s on the ice, it’s all business with him. He’s got a real good attitude, real good approach to the game.”
Now the only question is whether that attitude and approach — combined with the grittiness and work on the penalty kill that Julien mentioned — is enough to get him a spot on the ice.