On Wednesday, Connolly took his recovery a step further.
After taking warmups with the team prior to Tuesday’s 3-2 win over Florida, Connolly took contact during Wednesday’s practice for the first time since sustaining a dislocated right index finger on March 4.
After practice, Julien said he wouldn’t rule out Connolly for Thursday’s pivotal matchup against the Red Wings in Detroit.
“I haven’t heard the doctors give me the OK yet,” Julien said. “We both know that he’s getting pretty close, so I’m not going to write him off for [Thursday], but I’m certainly not going to say that he’s in for sure.”
At the time of his injury — which he suffered after taking a hard shot off his finger in his second practice with Boston after being acquired from Tampa Bay at the trade deadline — Connolly was originally given a timeline of 4-6 weeks to make a full recovery, .
Now, as he approaches the four-week anniversary of the injury, he is happy to be slightly ahead of schedule.
“For myself, I’ve been working hard to get the thing healed a little faster and doing everything I’m supposed to, so it’s encouraging, obviously,” he said. “I felt good today, so it’s Coach’s decision, and we’ll see when I can get in here [for a game].”
Connolly suited up in a burgundy sweater for Wednesday’s practice, joining Max Talbot, Gregory Campbell and Chris Kelly. In total, he has missed 15 games, but he has watched plenty from press level. That, combined with the practice time he has gotten in over the last week or so, has left him feeling ready, whenever he makes his Bruins debut.
“You kind of watch the games, and you learn how hard the guys work, and some of the guys’ tendencies in the defensive and offensive zones,” he said. “So again, for myself, you’ve got to be ready whenever Coach puts you in. Obviously, it’s a very tight-knit group in here, and for myself, it’s been great to be a part of it. Hopefully, we can do some good things going down the stretch, but it’s a really cool group in here, and you just want to come in here and fit in and be a part of it.
“Hopefully that’s sooner rather than later.”
Julien debuted some adjusted lines during Wednesday’s practice, but before anybody could make assumptions about how those changes might translate into games, he quickly cautioned that nobody should read into them too much.
“This is where you get a chance to try things in practice — you move players around and see what it looks like,” Julien said. “It doesn’t mean that’s what you’re going to see [Thursday] in the game, but certainly something to experiment with.”
Connolly’s return could, of course, provoke changes up and down the lineup.
“There’s no doubt that eventually there will be some players coming in and coming back, and we know Connolly’s pretty close, so we may have to move things around,” Julien said.
Most notable during Wednesday’s practice was the fact that David Krejci skated at center for the first time since sustaining a partially torn MCL in his left knee during a game against St. Louis on Feb. 20. Since returning to practice — and, eventually, game action — Krejci has played right wing alongside Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
Julien has emphasized that he wanted to give Krejci time to re-acclimate to the pace of an NHL game before slotting him back in at center. Additionally, the line Krejci had centered before his injury seemed to be clicking with Ryan Spooner in the middle.
“It was just a matter of letting him get the feel of the game here a little bit, and with the [Spooner] line doing well, you didn’t want to break that up right away just for the sake of giving him the opportunity to find his game,” Julien said. “I thought he got better as the game went on [Tuesday], and so again, I go back to what I said here: He played center today, but this is just practice, not necessarily a game. So we’ll see where we go with all of that.”
Krejci has admitted that playing four games thus far at wing has served him well as he has regained his skating legs and his timing. On Wednesday, though — after centering Loui Eriksson and Carl Soderberg at practice — he indicated that he might be ready to move back to his natural position.
“I felt ready yesterday having the puck on my stick,” Krejci said. “I feel more comfortable, so I feel like I’m ready.”
He added that right now, he is in no rush to reunite with former linemates Milan Lucic and David Pastrnak, given the chemistry they have clearly developed with Spooner.
“I liked playing with [Lucic], but the team’s playing well, we’re winning games, and the line’s clicking,” he said. “It’s good.”
Of course, if and when Krejci returns to center, that will require someone else to move to wing, and on Wednesday — for the time being — that was Soderberg. Soderberg has said time and time again that he prefers playing center to wing, but as Julien said after practice, this is a time of year where players need to be able to adapt.
“We have to be able to have our players just commit to whatever we need them to commit to,” Julien said. “David Krejci had no issues with playing on the wing there with Bergy, and still has no issues. If I want to put him back there, it’s not even an issue. So we need Carl to think the same way.
“He’s been a centerman — probably a little more comfortable at center — but when you’ve got a guy like David Krejci in the middle, if you’re going to play with that guy and you’ve still got Loui — who you’ve got good chemistry with — I don’t think it’s a bad situation. So those are the reasons why we’re trying these kinds of things right now, to see how it pans out, and we’ll see what we go with.”
With Krejci centering the third line, winger Reilly Smith moved back up to Bergeron’s right side, where he has spent the bulk of the 2014-15 season.
“It’s definitely a guy that we’re used to playing with, and who creates a lot on the ice,” Bergeron said. “David — he was definitely a player that has a lot of smarts and such great vision. I thought he was great also on the wing.
“I think it’s a good problem to have, when you have so many great guys that can fit in on different lines, so it might some juggling around in the last few games, but I’m sure all the guys would say the same thing — it doesn’t matter who you’re playing with. It’s about just finding chemistry as soon as possible and going on the ice and doing the job.”
Spooner Line Continues to Thrive
Spooner, Pastrnak and Lucic have made it difficult for Julien to contemplate the idea of splitting them up. As they proved during Sunday’s overtime win over Carolina, they have a knack for coming up with the big goal at the most crucial time — and twice on Tuesday, they proved it again.
Lucic beat Roberto Luongo for the tying goal in the third period of the eventual 3-2 win, and Spooner came up with the game-winner with just 1:09 remaining in regulation.
Tuesday’s game was yet another strong one for Spooner, who staked a claim on this spot in the Bruins’ lineup the moment he was recalled from Providence in February, following Krejci’s injury. After getting off to a rough start early in the 2014-15 season, Spooner has continued to impress Julien, and he has continued to make the notion of removing him from the lineup unfathomable.
“He didn’t have a real good camp, and he didn’t have a good beginning of the season in Providence, either,” Julien said. “His game picked up as the year went on, and at one point, we needed a player, and he was [Providence’s] best player. He’s come here, and he’s been called up quite a few times, so a guy like that gets more and more comfortable. At the same time, he probably looks at, how many chances are they going to give me before they give up on me? So he’s really stepped up his game, and he’s brought exactly what we needed.
“We talk about bringing some young legs in, we talk about speed, we talk about skill — he’s been able to bring that. When he was here the first few times, he just brought portions of that. Now, he’s brought it all, and it’s made a big difference in his game. It’s made a big difference in our game.”
Spooner’s line isn’t perfect. It boasts a winning combination of speed, skill and — with Lucic — size, but it still isn’t as defensively sound as Julien would like it to be.
Still, though, its positive attributes are undeniable.
“That line’s been our most productive line in the month of March, so there’s no doubt that you’re not moving a guy like [Spooner] out of your lineup because of what he’s done, and what his line has done,” Julien said. “So again, they’ve been successful because they’ve been put in a position to be successful, and I’ve said that all along since I’ve been here.
“We always try and put people in areas where they can succeed. So we’re not giving him the heavy-duty lines yet because they’re not ready for it, but the rest of the part, they’ve done extremely well and taken advantage of it.”
At this point, the Bruins know all too well — for better and for worse — that everything can change in the span of a week, especially at this stage of the season, and especially when there are so many teams still in the running for a playoff spot.
A little more than a week after being usurped in the standings by Ottawa, the Bruins have gone 3-0-1 to find themselves right back in the thick of the playoff race. They have corrected the mistakes — most notably, a 5-on-5 scoring drought and defensive zone lapses — to put themselves in a position to get the results they want and need. They have continued to get stellar goaltending from Tuukka Rask and, this past Saturday, Niklas Svedberg.
But the defining win came on Tuesday night, when the Bruins came back from a one-goal third-period deficit to beat Florida, a team that entered the game a mere four points behind them in the standings.
“It was an important win, that’s for sure,” said defenseman Adam McQuaid. “Everyone already said it, and it’s been beaten to death that our second period wasn’t very good last game, but it was nice to have the response that we did and come out with a better effort in the third period. Again, [they were] really important points, and to get the win in regulation, too — I guess it’s something to try and carry that momentum going forward.”
Tuesday’s win leaves the Bruins in eighth place in the Eastern Conference, in line for the final wild card berth but just two points behind the Red Wings for third place in the Atlantic Division.
That, of course, renders Thursday night’s matchup at Joe Louis Arena all the more significant.
Still, the Bruins have had high high’s this season, and they have had low low’s. With five games remaining on the schedule — each of which is laden with enormous implications — keeping an even keel has never been more critical.
“At the end of the day, you have to go out and play,” McQuaid said. “When it’s an important game, you can overthink things at times, too, so we have to make sure that we’re just obviously being aware of the importance of each game, but enjoying the process as well.”
Boston’s game still has plenty of room for improvement; everyone in a Spoked B admitted that following Tuesday’s win. After a strong start, they let their collective foot off the gas pedal at the end of the first and throughout most of the second, and they know that cannot happen heading into this final stretch.
A full 60-minute effort is still somewhat elusive, and that is what the Bruins will be looking to achieve on Thursday night in Detroit.
“This is our only option: We have to play the same way shift by shift, night by night, and this is the only way,” Krejci said. “If you take a night off — and we keep talking about it before the playoff every year — it’s hard to turn the switch back on, so you just have to play the same way from when the puck drops till the last second.
“Five games left, you have to. That’s all we have right now.”
Wednesday’s Practice Lineup
Gold Jerseys: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Reilly Smith, Daniel Paille
White Jerseys: Milan Lucic, Ryan Spooner, David Pastrnak
Gray Jerseys: Carl Soderberg, David Krejci, Loui Eriksson
Burgundy Jerseys: Chris Kelly, Gregory Campbell, Max Talbot, Brett Connolly
Defensemen: Zdeno Chara, Zach Trotman, Torey Krug, Dennis Seidenberg, Matt Bartkowski, Adam McQuaid
Goaltenders: Tuukka Rask, Niklas Svedberg