MONTREAL — Frank Vatrano has played in this rivalry before. The setting was less grandiose, the crowd a little smaller. But still, he put himself here when he was a child.
“Playing mini hockey growing up, you always [said], ‘Well, I’m going to be the Bruins and my friend’s going to be the Canadiens,’ ” he said, smiling. “It’s something I definitely have done playing mini hockey and in the driveway. Now, to be here, I can’t put it into words.”
So, really it’s just as he imagined. He’s on the Bruins. He’s playing the Canadiens. He’s scoring a goal.
Maybe that last part would have been too much to expect for anyone, though it happened, setting off high-fives between his father and his uncle and a Canadiens fan in the stands at the Bell Centre.
“It was an awesome feeling,” Vatrano said after the 4-2 loss. “I didn’t really know if I got it or Loui [Eriksson] tipped it in front. I find out it was me, it was an awesome feeling. But wish we got the 2 points instead tonight.”
The goal came at 8:51 of the second period. Had he and his new teammates been able to hold their 2-1 lead at that moment, Vatrano would have also been credit with the game-winner
“He played well,” coach Claude Julien said. “I thought he competed hard. He scored a goal because he shoots the puck so well, but he’s reliable along the walls. He competed. He was physical. He wasn’t intimidated. I thought he played a real solid game for us.”
Vatrano, who had three shots on net and was credited with four hits, had gotten the word around noon Friday, while getting ready for a Providence Bruins trip to Utica, N.Y. Instead, he hopped on an Air Canada flight to Montreal.
It has been a bit of a whirlwind for Vatrano, the undrafted former UMass player who only signed as a free agent with the Bruins in March.
He had a good camp with the team, was sent down, and had an even better start to his AHL season, putting up 10 goals in 10 games along with two assists. He is leading the AHL in goals, while doing his best to keep his game simple, he said.
“Obviously he’s had a good start in the American League,” Julien said. “We know he shoots the puck well. He’s a straight-line forward, so he’s got an opportunity here with the great start that he’s had in Providence to come in here and see if he can help us.”
It has been a process to get to this point for Vatrano, something he took as a personal challenge. Asked to slim down after signing with the Bruins, Vatrano took off about 15 pounds from his 5-foot-9-inch frame, to 201 pounds, allowing him to get quicker and utilize his release. His commitment and determination received significant praise from the Bruins.
“I got to where I wanted to be, and now I know how to maintain that,” Vatrano said. “It’s all about being a good pro and knowing what to put in your body to be the best you can be on that ice. At this point, I think I’ve reached what I wanted to reach.”
Julien emphasized the decision to bring up Vatrano was not a condemnation of Alex Khokhlachev, who was sent down after two games. Khokhlachev had a few good shifts, but mostly disappeared against Dallas and Washington.
“There’s nothing bad to say about Koko. We’re looking at different things here from young players and there’s a lot of guys that can fit that position — Koko was one of them,” Julien said. “[Seth Griffith] is another one that’s just started playing, and also Frankie Vatrano, who’s got a goal per game.’’
“Our upper management wants to see those guys and I want to see them as well and see how they do, so there’s nothing negative about Koko. We shouldn’t look for anything negative, because he competed hard. It’s a matter of bringing another player up and see what difference that’ll make.”
Rask is ready
The Bruins turned to Jonas Gustavsson over Tuukka Rask in Montreal. Rask is expected to take the second half of the back-to-back games Sunday against the Islanders.
Gustavsson had a solid game, giving up three goals on 32 shots, with two coming on power plays.
Rask’s regular-season record against the Canadiens is 3-14-3 with a 2.74 goals-against average and .906 save percentage in 21 games.
Gustavsson entered with a career 5-3-1 mark with a 2.51 GAA and .905 save percentage in 10 games against Montreal.
“He’s been good,” Julien said of Gustavsson, who came into the game with a 3-0 record, 2.00 GAA, and a .914 save percentage this season. “He’s given us exactly what we’ve asked from him, and he’s ready to play any time we ask him to. No complaints about that. You need a backup goaltender that can go in there and do a job and he’s done just that.”
Rask, who struggled against Dallas but played well against Washington, said the decision did not bother him.
“I think when coach looked at the rotation, I think certain games just fall into other guys,” Rask said. “I don’t mind that. I’ll play whenever I get called upon. I’ve played two games, lost two games, so I think it’s just right that he gets the start tonight.”
Despite the absences of at least one noted antagonist in the Boston-Montreal rivalry — that would be you, Milan Lucic — there remained the sense that nothing would be different. As Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty put it, “They’re still a team we don’t like and they don’t like us.” Said Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban, “A lot has changed, but it’s not about the players, it’s about the uniform. It doesn’t matter who is wearing the uniform as long as the uniforms are still around, there’s going to be that rivalry.” . . . Zach Trotman returned to the lineup for the first time since the season opener, having been a healthy scratch the last 11 games. He played 15:19 and was not on the ice for any of the Montreal goals. Defenseman Joe Morrow was a healthy scratch . . . Montreal’s Nathan Beaulieu received a match penalty with 17 seconds left for a cross-check to Zac Rinaldo’s face.