Just when the Bruins needed him the most, a fourth-liner’s dream came true
Sean Kuraly can do a lot of things, most of them usually 10-12 paragraphs short of a headline, which is the life of fourth-line forwards. Card-carrying members of the fourth-line brotherhood of hockey anonymity punch in for duty, all smiles and elbows and sandpaper, and don’t dare flirt with the dream of being the night’s hero.
Dreams are for the big boys, the guys with the fat paychecks, and usually with the big numbers — goals and assists — on their curriculum vitaes. Fourth-liners dream of getting through the night without their names being called out in the following morning’s video session, when boo-boos are captured on replay, rolled back for excruciating seconds looks, the coach’s red laser marker the bullwhip across their back.
Kuraly, 26, raced full bore into the hero’s role Tuesday night at TD Garden, ripping home a rising wrister 2:40 in the third period, and ultimately proving to be the jawbreaker that sent the Bruins high-stepping into Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Sean Kuraly, fourth-line wrecking ball turned sharpshooter, a Columbus homeboy whose snap from high in the left circle delivered the Bruins into the next round against his hometown Blue Jackets.
“I saw it all along,” said No. 1 center Patrice Bergeron, whose standard reserve dissolved into excitement when recounting Kuraly’s strike. “I was like, ‘Man, he’s got it!’ That was an amazing shot. I saw the hole there . . . and for some reason, I thought he was going to do it, and he got it done. Great play by him, and at a clutch time.”
Particularly poignant because the Bruins, after forging a 2-0 lead late in the first period, lost their energy level in the second, giving up half their lead and looking vulnerable when the third period began. Then came a John Tavares forced turnover at center ice, a feed from fellow fourth-liner Noel Acciari, and Kuraly’s extra-large road runner tear into the offensive zone.
He blew by the first defenseman, Ron Hainsey, and then had only No. 1 Leafs backliner Morgan Rielly impeding his path to the net. With Rielly backing up, Kuraly closed to the top edge of the circle and snapped off his light, rising wrister to the top right corner.
Bruins, 3-1. All that traction the Leafs gained in the second period instantly transformed.
“Tonight, that goal from Sean, I think that was crucial,” said Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. “Again, I give a lot of credit to Toronto — they battled hard, it was a tough series. They had a good team, great players, good system, well coached. Very much one of the best up-and-coming young teams.”
But up-and-comers turned into over-and-outers with the sizzling wrister off Kuraly’s stick.
“After we scored that goal,” continued Chara, “we sensed it was kind of . . . the image was kind of deflating from that point for them. I thought they battled hard, but that goal, I think, sealed it.”
“Huge goal,” added Tuukka Rask, who like Bergeron said he knew Kuraly was going to score before the puck was off his stick. “You need that. I thought [Kuraly’s] line was great today — they were bringing energy on the forecheck and winning puck battles in the offensive zone and then got rewarded with that nice goal.”
Kuraly exited the lineup in mid-March when a shot in New Jersey fractured a bone in his hand. Surgery the next day kept him out of the final eight games of the season and he sat for four more before coach Bruce Cassidy suited him up for Game 5.
“In Game 6, he had a couple of those looks,” said Cassidy, “so I think he was baiting the hook a little bit. He snapped one tonight. Sean has a quick release. It’s not a heavy shot — at least I don’t think it is. Because he releases it in full stride, I think he caught [goalie Frederik Andersen] a little bit off guard. A huge goal for us.”
Another of Kuraly’s fourth-line running buddies, Joakim Nordstrom, opened the scoring and also picked up the second assist on Kuraly’s strike. It was Kuraly who added the second helper on Nordstrom’s party-starter. Acciari, who made a key play on Nordstrom’s goal, turning back Toronto’s attempt to get out of its zone, picked up his assist on Kuraly’s goal.
Combined work of the fourth line: 2-3—5. The entire Leafs roster went 1-1—2. Their star free agent, Tavares, finished the round with two goals, precisely as many as Nordstrom.
Rask, sitting next to Kuraly at the postgame podium, eagerly chimed in that he agreed with Bergeron’s take that Kuraly was destined to score.
Kuraly, proud member of the fourth-line brotherhood, typically underplayed the moment.
“I wish that I felt that way,” he said, musing over the confidence Rask and Bergeron felt for him in that moment. “I think when I am thinking the least amount is kind of when I find myself making good plays. It’s like I don’t really know what’s going on at the time. I was just playing and found myself close to the net and figured I’d put it on net, really.
“I think most guys are thinking, when you’re making big plays, there’s not much going through your head.”
It’s what fourth-liners do. Get to the game on time, roll over the boards when ordered, bring the energy, provide support. Kuraly, Nordstrom, and Acciari brought it by the boatload and the Bruins sailed into Round 2.
“They don’t usually go in for me,” said Kuraly. “But that was a good one and a big one — I think you can see by the way I reacted how I felt about it. So if you want to know how I felt, you can just watch it again, I think.”