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Colby Cave is making the most of his opportunity with the Bruins

Colby Cave (26) picked up his first NHL point Saturday night with an assist in the loss to Detroit.
Colby Cave (26) picked up his first NHL point Saturday night with an assist in the loss to Detroit.(File/Chris Andersen/Getty Images)

The hardest work on Allan Cave’s cattle ranch, in hilly North Battleford, Saskatchewan, is done in the winter — all of it by himself.

Depending on the time of year, the lifelong cattleman tends to a herd of between 300 and 600. In the summer they graze, get branded, and vaccinated. When the temperature plummets far below zero, they must be fed and kept warm, day after frigid day.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s minus-40,” said his wife, Jennifer Cave, referencing the point where the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales meet, conditions not unfamiliar to the area. “You still have to go out and do your job.”

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Their 23-year-old son, Colby, feels grateful — with a twinge of guilt — that his parents have encouraged him to follow his hockey dreams for so long, sparing him the grunt work of the Central Saskatchewan winter. So he returns as soon as he can.

“When he comes home in the summertime, he’s eager to get his hands dirty,” Jennifer Cave said. “He really enjoys it.”

If Colby remains in Boston until late spring, the Caves will happily make do.

Though he was no higher than fourth on the organizational depth chart for center prospects entering the season, the square-jawed redhead earned enough trust to serve as a fill-in for Patrice Bergeron, the Bruins’ injured No. 1 center, for the last two games.

Colby Cave (26) celebrates with Ryan Donato, who scored the winner in a shootout to beat the Islanders on Thursday.
Colby Cave (26) celebrates with Ryan Donato, who scored the winner in a shootout to beat the Islanders on Thursday.(John Tlumacki/Globe Staff)

A two-year captain of WHL Swift Current who signed as an undrafted free agent in April 2015, Cave was leading AHL Providence in scoring (6-12—18) at the time of his Nov. 20 recall.

Cave was twice passed over in the NHL Draft (2013, 2014) and departed from summer camps in San Jose (2013) and Arizona (2014) without employment. He does not take this opportunity lightly.

“If you’d have told me five years ago I’d be playing on the first line in the NHL,” he said, “I’d have told you you were full of it.

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“That’s all in the past now. I feel like I’ve put my foot in the door. Now it’s about getting all the way through.”

Cave, expected to play in his ninth NHL game Tuesday when the Bruins meet the Panthers in Sunrise, Fla., made an impact there during last spring’s three-game stint. His hard, clean hit on Aleksander Barkov left the Florida star with a shoulder injury.

His rugged frame (6 foot 1 inch, 200 pounds) and defensive game were his ticket to the NHL. Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy, who oversaw part of Cave’s development when he coached the P-Bruins, believes he has more to give offensively.

Asked how Cave’s run at the top is going, Cassidy said first-line wingers David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand “know that they’ll have a centerman who will get to the net for them,” he said. “He’s done that very well. It hasn’t shown up on the scoresheet, but he’s going to the net for those guys. It allows them more movement in the O-zone. He’s been reliable defensively. I’d like a longer sample size.

“We’re going to keep it the same,” Cassidy said before Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Detroit, during which Cave picked up his first NHL point, an assist on David Backes’s goal. “Usually if you keep it the same, it’s functioning at least up to what we’re hoping for, for now. We want to see growth, but I think he’s done a good job.”

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He stands in contrast to a younger rookie center, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson. The Bruins, displeased at the yield of competitive juice they’ve squeezed from him so far, sent the former No. 45 overall pick back to the AHL on Sunday.

The Bruins decided Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson needs more seasoning, sending him down to Providence on Sunday.
The Bruins decided Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson needs more seasoning, sending him down to Providence on Sunday.(File/Winslow Townson/AP)

Forsbacka Karlsson was a healthy scratch the last two games, after a nine-game stretch of inconsistent play. It’s far too early in his career to call him a disappointment, but it’s also fair to say “JFK” has not made good on several glowing opportunities: He was handed the No. 3 center job in camp, and had a run there, plus as Marchand and Pastrnak’s pivot, during his recent recall (2-0—2).

A player with his potential and pedigree will get another look. Cave must work harder to prove he’s not a career minor leaguer.

“Some of the habits you have to teach young guys, he had them right away,” Cassidy recalled. “It was just a matter of, ‘Will he have the ability to play, in time?’ I think the jury’s still out on that.”

Cave admitted feeling nervous in camp — when he was a late addition to the Bruins’ China trip with David Krejci being kept home — but no longer.

“I can’t have any excuses anymore,” he said. “I’ve been here 3½ years now. It’s about time I step up and start making an impact.”

Providence general manager John Ferguson Jr. knows him well. As San Jose’s pro scouting director, he noticed a draft-eligible Cave when he was scouting his Swift Current teammate, Jake DeBrusk. When Ferguson joined Boston in 2015, he vouched for Cave as a free agent.

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When Cave got the call to Boston, moving with fiancee Emily Gill into the team’s downtown apartment housing, Ferguson sent him a text.

“I don’t want to see you back here,” it read.

The reply came back quickly:

“Don’t count on it.”


Follow Matt Porter on Twitter at @mattyports.