With his right index finger healed, his arsenal of a shot ready to go and his conditioning up, Connolly slotted into his first game in the Spoked-B on Thursday night in Detroit, notching two assists en route to a 3-2 comeback win.
"Obviously being out for so long, it's exciting to get back in and we got a big win, so that was important, too," Connolly said from Ristuccia Arena on Friday, where the team gathered for off-ice workouts prior to Saturday's home matchup against Toronto.
"Detroit's a very good team and they played well the first half of the game and they really took it to us there for a bit, but there's a lot of character in this room," said Connolly. "There's guys that have been there before and won. It was good to come out with the results."
With the victory, the Bruins stayed three points up on the Ottawa Senators and tied the Red Wings in points. Both the Sens and Wings have a game in hand they'll play this Sunday.
Connolly had been anticipating his debut since being acquired by Boston from Tampa before the trade deadline. The only hiccup was the ill-fated injury to his finger that happened in his second practice with the team on March 4, when he took a puck to the hand.
"It was good actually. I didn't feel it," the right winger said of any discomfort with his finger. "I have a good piece of my glove that supports it. Obviously I felt it a couple times, but nothing too serious."
At 22 years old, in his fourth year pro, and now with 135 games of NHL experience, Connolly was not the only one anticipating his first game.
Following the trade deadline, General Manager Peter Chiarelli spoke highly of the shoot-first right-shot forward, who he sees as having very good upside and the potential to be a top-six forward.
Head Coach Claude Julien was looking forward to seeing Connolly in action, as well.
"He was good. I thought for a guy who hadn't played for that long, I thought he got involved in all areas of the game," Julien said after Connolly's debut. "He was physical, he made some plays, so it was good. I think by the end of the game, he looked a little bit tired, which is expected from a guy who hasn't played for that long."
A month out of the lineup didn't slow him down too much in the eyes of his captain.
"He's a player that, he's really smooth, natural, good skater and anytime you have a player like that, who can jump right into the game and use his speed and skating abilities, he's going to adjust fairly quickly," said Zdeno Chara.
"And we saw last night that he was a really big factor for us, especially on the forecheck and some plays he made, especially late in the game, were big and he got rewarded by obviously stepping up in production, too."
Seeing 2:52 of power play time in the win over Detroit, Connolly assisted on Carl Soderberg's goal on the man advantage in the third period that cut the Bruins' deficit to 2-1. He then helped provide the forecheck that led to Zach Trotman's game-winning tally (and the defenseman's first NHL goal).
"Obviously there's going to be rust, just little things, tiny plays that you're used to making that you don't," said Connolly. "I thought it went pretty well. Got to play a little more, and played a lot in the second period when Bergy went down [and needed to get stitched up after a high stick], and coach kept throwing me out there, so that was nice."
"You just try to take advantage of every opportunity you get and I thought it was a good start."
Moving forward, Connolly looks to up his endurance in games, which will come naturally, given his time out of the lineup.
"I think just in terms of my conditioning, when I get into a little bit more games, I can sustain that for a little bit longer in my shifts," he said. "I was obviously a little tired last night, being out for so long, but overall, I think I felt a little better than I thought I was going to feel, so that's a good sign."
"That's a kudos to Whitey [Strength and Conditioning Coach John Whitesides], who's been working me hard for the last three weeks and it was good to get out there and feel as good as I did."
Connolly had 15 games to watch his teammates from afar, up in the press box or on TV. He's glad to be a part of it on the ice, now.
"I've been watching the games and you kind of pick up on some things, but it will become second nature here pretty soon and once that happens, it will be a little be easier to just go out there, know the systems and just play," he said.
Before joining Boston, Connolly put up 12 goals and three assists through 50 games with Tampa this season. Notching two assist in his Bruins' debut was a solid start.
"I would have liked it to go a little better in Tampa but again, I think that everything happens for a reason and I'm here now, so I'm very excited to be here," he said. "[Thursday] night was a lot of fun to play and to play a lot and to be in key situations that I maybe haven't been in in the past, so it's a very good opportunity for myself and I'm looking to embrace it."
Mixing and Matching
With only off-ice work on Friday (apart from Thursday night's scratches Daniel Paille and Max Talbot taking to the ice with Niklas Svedberg and Assistant Coach Doug Jarvis), there wasn't a chance to see line combinations.
Connolly's addition shifted the lineup on Thursday, and he eventually skated with Milan Lucic and Ryan Spooner in the third period after beginning the game with Chris Kelly and Gregory Campbell. Whether that line sticks for Saturday's matchup or not, is yet to be seen. There was also some mixing and matching when Patrice Bergeron was gone for the second period getting stitched up.
Julien had started the game with David Krejci centering Soderberg and Loui Eriksson. That line didn't quite pan out, though the opening frame wasn't the best time to try out a new line for the first time.
"You know, I think that first period wasn't a good period for us to experiment too much more with that, because of the way the game was going," said Julien. "So, I mean, this is what we're up against, as far as having the options to move players around."
"It's a lot better than not having any options at all, I've said that before."
Four to Go
Just four games remain in the Bruins' regular season, starting with the Maple Leafs at TD Garden on Saturday night, before they hit the road for the final three games against the Capitals, Panthers and Lightning.
The intensity can be felt around the group, and a stretch of four straight wins has certainly put them in a good position.
"Every game is big," said Connolly. "Ottawa is winning every single game it seems, so we control our destiny here and we've got to take advantage. Toronto, they've got a lot of talent over there - I don't think their record shows how good they are, so we've got to be ready to go."
While the Bruins picked up two points on Thursday, so did the Senators and Panthers. The Black and Gold have to continue finding ways to win. Recently, they've had an element to their game that they were missing earlier this month.
"Desperation. We're playing with a lot more desperation," said Chara. "We battle hard and we have everybody going, that's the biggest difference from maybe previous months or games."
Chiarelli announced Friday morning that the club had assigned defenseman Joe Morrow back to Providence. Morrow joined Boston on an emergency basis Thursday in Detroit, but did not play in the game against the Red Wings.
Torey Krug did not take part in Thursday's morning skate and had been deemed "probable" for the matchup as he was under the weather, but was ready to go come game time.