For Jake DeBrusk, a push from healthy competition and a triumphant return
Forced by injury to hit the pause button on his outstanding rookie season, Jake DeBrusk waited eight long games to get back on NHL ice, watching and working until his recovery was complete. While he was gone, his Bruins teammates took a ride on the stick of a new rookie winger fresh from the college ranks, and took over first place in the conference and the division, even if forced to give it back after one idle day.
So here DeBrusk came Saturday, ready to return to the ice, eager to join forces with fellow upstart Ryan Donato and continue what has become an increasingly impressive Bruins’ sprint toward the regular-season finish line. With first place back in their sights, DeBrusk and Donato traded in that baton they’d handed off to each other — DeBrusk last played March 13 and Donato first played March 19 — to line up side by side instead. With veteran center David Krejci between them on Boston’s second line, the two 21-year-olds helped propel the Bruins to a 5-1 matinee win over the overmatched Panthers, their combined 5 points pushing Boston back atop the conference standings.
But it was DeBrusk’s day, his two goals and one assist in the first game back from an upper-body injury allaying any concern he wouldn’t return to the form that saw him contribute 14 goals and 25 assists before the injury, answering any notion he was ready to concede rookie star status to Donato.
Share? Sure, no problem. But if good teams thrive on the type of depth the Bruins have stockpiled this season, great ones rise when that depth fosters the type of healthy competition that makes every one of them better.
“There’s a little bit of that, that’s just nature, but at the same time, when you see a guy step in out of college and do well, it’s pretty exciting to see,” DeBrusk said after his two-goal, one-assist afternoon. “I’m confident in my game no matter where I’m playing right now. I think we’ve had guys, depth guys, even come in from the trade deadline and bring that healthy competition. I know there’s guys that could be playing on any other team in the league that aren’t playing tonight and I know when I’m in it’s something you don’t take for granted. I’m just trying to play my game. I believe when I’m playing well, moving my feet, I can do things in this league, even if it doesn’t go in I feel like I can help my team win.”
The first one of DeBrusk’s that went in came thanks to the work of Donato, and did the final work in erasing an early 1-0 deficit. When it was the second line that gave up a goal on its very first shift, there was an extra determination to atone for the error of getting outworked in front of their own net. Once Nick Holden tied the game midway through the first period, Donato would take advantage of a Florida whiff behind the goal, snaring the puck and eyeing DeBrusk in front.
“I got lucky coming behind the net,” he said. “The puck popped right out, I saw him, and he had a good stick in a good position and I got it to him as quick as I could. He had a nice shot and scored.”
After a swing through the Olympics that was similarly lauded for the play of young stars, Donato ultimately decided to forgo his senior year at Harvard and join the Bruins for the playoff run. He crashed the party something good, scoring a goal with two assists in his debut. But with DeBrusk now back, with trade deadline acquisition Rick Nash also eyeing a return from injury, the battle for ice time is sure to be fierce. For Donato, that might mean playing on the opposite side of his natural position, which he did Saturday. For the Bruins, that means lots of talent on the ice at any given time.
From DeBrusk, a first-round pick in 2015, to Donato, a second-rounder in 2014, from injury-idled Charlie McAvoy, a 2016 first-rounder, to star winger David Pastrnak, the 2014 first-round pick ahead of Donato, this team is loaded both for the present and for the future. When practices can be tougher than games, you know things are looking up. Healthy competition lifts all ships.
“I think it has, again early in the year, put [Anders] Bjork in that equation, I think they all kind of pushed each other,” coach Bruce Cassidy said. “There’s only so many spots, so I think they want their spot. So yes, that’s a bit of what we tried to create here, healthy competition among the young guys and the more established guys to keep their spots in the lineup or compete for power play or extra minutes. So I think it’s worked out well, front end and back end.
“It’s been a real nice environment that way without it affecting what’s going on in the locker room. Guys still play hard for one another. Even though you’re getting pushed by a guy and you want to outplay him, you’re happy for his success. I think I said that five months ago. Guys are truly happy for each other’s success and that’s what makes a special team. Where it takes us I don’t know but it’s taken us to a good place so far.”
So here was DeBrusk late in the second period Saturday, his left arm barely touching the sky inside TD Garden as he finished off an emphatic windmill celebration for that second goal, when Florida goalie James Reimer skated by him and off the ice, head hung heavy in defeat. DeBrusk had sent Reimer to the bench early, but even better, would send his Bruins to yet another postgame party, this time making sure to hang onto his own invitation.