Entering Game 5 against the Maple Leafs, the Bruins hoped to improve at winning puck battles and breaking out of their zone, then protecting it in the offensive zone.
Sean Kuraly, busted hand or not, is capable in all those categories.
“A bit undervalued on paper,” coach Bruce Cassidy said before puck drop of the fast, physical fourth-liner, who made his series debut at TD Garden on Friday.
Kuraly knocked Joakim Nordstrom out of the lineup, slotting back in his usual spot to the left of center Noel Acciari and right wing Chris Wagner.
He had two shots on goal, two hits, and a blocked shot in 14:22 of ice time in the Bruins’ 2-1 loss Friday night in Game 5.
“I felt alright,” Kuraly said. “Obviously you want to contribute more when you lose and be better when you lose. That’ll be the plan for next game.”
He skated more than five Bruins forwards: Danton Heinen (13:01), Marcus Johansson (12:44), Acciari (9:55), Wagner (9:20), and David Backes (4:36), who didn’t seem to have a place in a fast-paced game.
Kuraly hadn’t played since March 21, when he picked up perhaps the most painful assist of his career. He stepped in front of a teed-up slapper by New Jersey defenseman Steven Santini that cracked his right thumb. The puck bounced to Heinen, who sped the other way and roofed one over Cory Schneider.
Kuraly, who had three screws implanted the next day, missed 12 games in total: the final eight of the regular season and the first four games of this series. He wore a splint on his top (stick-controlling) hand Friday, but didn’t expect anything but his usual self in Game 5.
“If it’s painful, it’s painful,” he said.
Kuraly has caused a lot of pain for others in playoff first rounds. Two years ago as a rookie, he ended a potential elimination Game 5 against Ottawa in double overtime, after tying the game with a second-period goal and nearly scoring twice in the first OT. Against Toronto last year, he produced a 2-2—4 line in Boston’s seven-game win, despite averaging just a shade over 10 minutes of ice time.
He was a Leaf killer on Jan. 12, his most recent game against the Blue and White. Kuraly, who had back-to-back game-winners Dec. 29 in Buffalo (in overtime) and Jan. 1 at the Winter Classic, factored in all three goals in a 3-2 win at Toronto. He jammed on the brakes to feed David Krejci for the opening goal and pounced on a turnover by Nikita Zaitsev and set up David Pastrnak for another. He also took a dish from partner-in-grime Wagner to score his fifth of the season.
A fourth-liner, yes, but Kuraly has shown in his three seasons he’s something of a big-game player. Even if his hand hampers him, the Bruins hope his legs add a jolt to a unit that has struggled this series, matched up against Toronto’s big (Frederik Gauthier), quick (Tyler Ennis), and hard-working (Trevor Moore) fourth-liners.
“He can separate,” Wagner said. “Especially against a quicker team, that’s key for us. And we played together for three or four months. Hopefully we still have the same chemistry we had.”
Kuraly produced a career year (8-13—21 in 71 games) despite wearing a bubble shield for a month, the result of a broken nose from a fight with Ottawa skyscraper Ben Harpur.
At his best, his wheels and strength help his line tilt the ice for more-skilled teammates. It could be a significant upgrade to a unit that was a big part of Boston’s midseason rise to No. 2 in the East.
“He’s up to speed in two strides, because he’s just fast,” Cassidy said. “He’s certainly a hard guy to get the puck from when he’s on.”
He also won a career-high 53.8 percent of his draws, and is a lefthanded faceoff option on a line with two righties (Wagner, Acciari).
“His speed and forechecking is always noticeable when he’s on the ice,” Jake DeBrusk said. “I’m looking forward to seeing him out there. I think he might have a couple toe-picks like he usually does, but in saying that, it’ll be all heart and all effort. That’s what we need at this time of year.”
DeBrusk, without a goal in the series, described his second year of playoffs as “awkward” so far.
In Game 1, he gave Mitch Marner a penalty shot and crashed into the end boards. In Game 2, his battle with Nazem Kadri ended in a cross-check to his face and a series-long suspension for the Leafs agitator.
Since then, he said, “I’ve kind of gone quiet.”
Part of that was by choice. DeBrusk, at the center of controversy in hockey-mad Toronto, said he turned off notifications on his phone and deleted his Twitter and his Instagram apps.
“It was getting a bit hectic,” he said. “It was getting a little intense, and getting to family members as well.
“That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned this playoffs — try to eliminate distractions.”
DeBrusk, who was booed every time he touched the puck in Games 3 and 4 in Toronto, hopes to reemerge.
“I need to find my game,” he said. “Not necessarily find it, just tweak it — go to the hard areas, do the things I need to do to be successful personally, focus in the moment.
“I’ve had some zeros and some 100s in there. I’ve got to find some consistency.”
Former Bruins assist machine Marc Savard, forced to retire after the 2011 season because of concussions, returned to TD Garden as the ceremonial banner-waver. Savard, 41, lives in Peterborough, Ontario, and talks hockey on Sportsnet 590 The Fan in Toronto. Coming back to the Garden had him choked up.
“It took everything for me not to cry,” Savard said.
Cassidy has seen Toronto running a lot of low-to-high action in the offensive zone. That has led to more blocked shots (a series-high 25 in Game 4). Part of the reason, Cassidy said, is the Bruins’ internal data shows they’re good at closing off the slot area . . . Toronto committed 51 giveaways through four games, third-most of the 16 playoff teams. They had a series-low 5 on Friday . . . Nordstrom’s empty-netter in Game 4 was his first career playoff point . . . Krejci’s goal tied him for seventh (34 goals) in Bruins playoff history, with Ken Hodge and Don Marcotte. He also broke a tie with Patrice Bergeron for sixth in points (90), 2 behind fifth-place Bobby Orr . . . Bergeron went 21-for-29 (72 percent) at the dot. The Bruins were 65 percent as a team.