OTTAWA — Something neat is happening to Ryan Spooner. The fourth-year pro is figuring out how good he can be.
This isn't the growth curve the Bruins initially projected for the 23-year-old pivot. The Bruins picked Spooner with one of their two second-round selections in 2010. That fall, they were so stunned by his performance in training camp that they considered keeping him up top.
The dazzle of Spooner's initial impression has been offset by three pro seasons of tantalizing talent mixed in with defensive indifference. The Bruins never had any questions about Spooner's speed, quickness, shot, or creativity. His repeated misplays away from the puck, however, made them wonder if he would ever get it.
He's getting it.
"I thought he played really well tonight," coach Claude Julien said after the Bruins' 2-1 overtime loss to Ottawa on Saturday. "I thought he skated well. I don't know how many times I saw him make a real great backcheck. Both sides of the puck, he was good. He made good plays, good decisions. A lot of good things happening with Ryan tonight. I thought it was one of his better games."
Spooner didn't score in 17:08 of ice time against the Senators. He did just about everything else.
He and fellow center Patrice Bergeron landed a team-high six pucks on Craig Anderson. One of those shots was a Grade-A chance in the second period.
Linemate Matt Beleskey carried the puck through the neutral zone with speed and chipped it ahead to Spooner. The center thought he had beaten Anderson. But the goalie stuffed Spooner's short-range bid to keep it a 1-1 game.
"For the most part, I didn't feel bad," Spooner said. "I wish I could have that one back on the breakaway. But he made a good save. I thought it was a goal."
Spooner won 8 of 11 draws, including all five in the defensive zone. He played with a strong stick, both when he was carrying the puck and when he was trying to get it off his opponents' blades. Spooner, Beleskey, and Loui Eriksson played sound, structured, and up-tempo hockey. As their center, Spooner was responsible for initiating the line's energy.
"It's been fun," Spooner said of Beleskey, his left wing for the last five games. "I just try to give him the puck. He's got a great shot. It's what I've been trying to do."
Spooner hasn't been Beleskey's regular center. Mostly, Beleskey has been riding with David Krejci. That blew up Dec. 27 when Krejci thumped his right arm into Ottawa's Bobby Ryan. He exited early and hasn't been on the ice since.
Losing Krejci could have been a wallop to the Bruins' chances. As Julien has often said, the Bruins go as Krejci goes. The center's groin and knee injuries were the primary culprits in the Bruins' failure to make the playoffs last year. In 2010, Mike Richards broke Krejci's wrist with an open-ice crunch. It was no coincidence the Bruins dropped four straight to the Flyers without their No. 2 center.
So far, the Bruins are not floundering during Krejci's absence. They are 2-2-1. Spooner, elevated to the second line, has not withered in Krejci's spot.
Spooner has a 1-5—6 line during the segment. But it hasn't been just about his points. He has played a professional 200-foot game, similar to what the Bruins have always gotten from Krejci.
Earlier this season, Spooner did not play with such three-zone presence. He started the year as the third-line center between Jimmy Hayes and Brett Connolly. The line was a defensive nightmare. Once opponents carried the puck into the Bruins' zone, the third-liners could do nothing to get it out and head the other way. They were finished as soon as they ceded possession.
The line was such a black hole that Julien had to bump Chris Kelly up to No. 3 left wing to give Spooner defensive support. At first, Kelly helped to stabilize the line. But that ended Nov. 3 when he broke his leg.
In contrast, Spooner was excellent on the power play as the half-wall fulcrum on the right side. He worked especially well with Bergeron. But his defensive play was so unreliable that Julien used him as a five-on-four specialist. Spooner did not see much of the ice late in games during even-strength play.
It's not clear why Spooner's reliability has, in relative terms, gone through the roof. He has played in 96 NHL games, which is a good threshold for a player to figure out who he is and what he can do. He is learning what he's asked to do in the defensive zone. He's discovering that if he's quick to backcheck and strong with his stick, he can burn past most players on the counterattack. He's playing with enough offensive confidence that he's just as quick to shoot as he is to dish.
Spooner now has nine goals and 19 assists for 28 points, fourth-most behind Bergeron, Eriksson, and Krejci. His employers have always said the points would come if he took care of business away from the puck. They were right.