Bruins lining everything up for a final playoff push
WILMINGTON — David Krejci has played four games, all at right wing, since returning from a partially torn MCL in his left knee. Brett Connolly has yet to dress for his new employer because of a broken finger suffered in his second practice with the Bruins.
Both those things could change on Thursday when the Bruins play Detroit.
During Wednesday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena, Krejci shifted to center between Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson. Connolly was one of four forwards practicing on the fourth line, along with Chris Kelly, Max Talbot, and Gregory Campbell.
There’s a good chance both will be in uniform against the Red Wings — Krejci at center, Connolly at right wing — when the puck drops at Joe Louis Arena.
“I feel good enough to go,” said Connolly, who took bumps during battle drills at the end of practice. “I don’t really think the finger can get worse. I think I’m pretty much ready to go.”
This is a good time for the Bruins. They’re riding a three-game winning streak. They are three points ahead of ninth-place Ottawa. With a regulation win, the Bruins could tie the Wings with 93 points, although Detroit, like Ottawa, has a game in hand.
Also, Claude Julien’s toolbox is approaching full capacity.
The Bruins remain without Dougie Hamilton because of an undisclosed injury. But Thursday could mark the first time they’ll have their full complement of up-front firepower. Connolly, once feared lost for the regular season after breaking his finger March 4, will be exactly four weeks out from his surgery on Thursday.
The Bruins have two objectives in their remaining five regular-season games: qualify for the playoffs and figure out their postseason lineup. Thursday will be an important marker in that process.
In his first three games, Krejci’s legs had not caught up to his hands. The Bruins expected that. It’s one reason they brought him back with training wheels last Thursday against Anaheim.
At right wing, Krejci didn’t have to skate as much, especially in the defensive zone. He didn’t have to take faceoffs. He could merge back onto the NHL highway with Patrice Bergeron serving as his pace car.
By Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Florida, Krejci felt the best he’s had since returning. Krejci played 20:39, the most he’d logged in the four games. He landed three shots on Roberto Luongo. He led all players with nine shot attempts. He won the only draw he took.
“I felt the best I’ve felt since I came back,” Krejci said. “I was pretty happy about my game. We didn’t put the puck in the net. But we created lots of chances.”
Krejci may not have been comfortable at right wing. But he understood his bosses’ thinking. In hindsight, he wasn’t ready for heavy lifting right away.
“One hundred percent,” Krejci said of his support for their decision. “It would be tough. Even faceoffs are so tough. I didn’t take much. I took one [Tuesday]. I took one in Carolina. In Carolina, I didn’t want to take any more faceoffs after that.”
Krejci is ready to return to center. It’s his natural position. He creates offense from the middle of the ice by using his vision and creativity. Julien trusts Krejci defensively too, enough to tab him for occasional penalty-killing duty.
By shifting Krejci to the middle, Julien will ask Soderberg to move to left wing. Like Krejci, Soderberg is a natural center. He’s not as effective on the wing, where he’s stopping and starting more than free-flowing through the ice. But Soderberg remains linemates with Eriksson. That chemistry, plus Krejci’s playmaking presence, should keep Soderberg’s offensive game going.
“David Krejci had no issues playing the wing with Bergy. He still has no issues if I want to put him back there. It’s not even an issue with him,” Julien said. “We need Carl to think the same way. He’s been a centerman. Probably a little more comfortable at center. But when you’ve got a guy like David Krejci in the middle, if you’re going to play with that guy — and you’ve still got Loui, who you’ve got chemistry with — it’s not a bad situation.”
Eventually, Krejci could be reunited with Milan Lucic. Connolly could be their right wing. He brings a shoot-first approach that has worked before with Jarome Iginla and Nathan Horton. The Bruins projected him to be a top-six forward when they acquired the former first-rounder from the Lightning for a pair of second-rounders.
But for now, the Bruins will ease Connolly into the lineup on the fourth line, perhaps with Kelly and Talbot. He could see time on the No. 2 power-play unit, where he shared reps with David Pastrnak in practice.
Like Krejci, Connolly will need time to find his NHL legs. He hasn’t played since March 1, when he logged 11:21 of ice time for the Lightning. A month is a big segment to miss, especially when the league has ramped up to pre-playoff ferocity.
The Bruins remain in a dogfight to qualify for the postseason. Connolly can’t be a fourth-line passenger. This is the moment where Connolly has to prove he’s reliable. It’s a hard time for a player to adjust to a new team. But it’s also quite exciting.