BOSTON - Ryan Donato is set to embark on his first NHL road trip on Tuesday morning. Four hockey games are on the horizon for the 21-year-old, but it won't be just his hockey equipment that he hauls along with him during the Western Conference swing.
Donato, just two days removed from signing a two-year, entry-level deal with his hometown Bruins, will have his backpack slung over his shoulder, too. Despite forgoing his senior season with the Harvard Crimson, the Hobey Baker finalist will continue towards his degree in sociology, meaning his books and binders will also be in tow.
"I plan on finishing this semester academically," Donato said Monday morning, prior to his NHL debut. "Obviously it's gonna be difficult, but for me it was a dream to graduate from Harvard. Obviously I'm putting that off a little bit, but for me I need to finish this semester to have that opportunity and not put it off an extra couple years."
While he still may have some of the responsibilities of a college student, Donato looked anything but during his first game in Black & Gold on Monday night.
The 2014 second-round pick dazzled the TD Garden crowd, potting his first career goal to go along with two assists in what ended as a disappointing 5-4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Nevertheless, it was a special night for the Scituate native, whose family - including his father and former Bruin, Ted - was in attendance. As a youngster, Donato skated with the likes of Patrice Bergeron and Joe Thornton, while Ted played for the Black & Gold, and on Monday night he was back on the TD Garden ice to fulfill his lifelong dream.
"I mean during warmups actually I was kind of taken away," said Donato. "I mean it kind of felt like a dream and I really didn't even get that warmed up because I was too focused on everything else and just kind of the whole situation. At the end of the day it was an unbelievable experience and it was a blessing tonight."
Video: Donato reacts after 3-point debut
Donato, who landed six shots on goal in 19:40 of ice time, wasted little time getting on the board. After taking a feed from Danton Heinen through the neutral zone, Donato pulled up at the top of the right circle and fed a trailing Torey Krug, who immediately zipped a pass back to Donato. The rookie ripped a laser one-timer for career goal No. 1, which tied the game 1-1 at 5:41 of the second.
"Obviously you're never really going to expect to play in your first NHL game and have chances," said Donato, who had 26 goals in 29 games for Harvard this season. "For me, I was just going in with a positive attitude and no matter what role they had me in I was going to try and do it to my best and I was fortunate to get a couple bounces and it almost went in a couple times and obviously one went in and that was great too."
The 6-foot, 181-pound left shot became the eighth Bruin this season to notch his first career goal, joining Anders Bjork, Peter Cehlarik, Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk, Heinen, Sean Kuraly, and Charlie McAvoy. He is also the first Bruins to have a multi-point game in his NHL debut since Jarno Kultanen had three assists in 2000.
"He's on the puck, as advertised, in terms of his compete," said Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. "Wanted to shoot the puck. I think early he was trying to make some plays and then realized, just play to your strength. Did a real good job. I didn't notice anything away from the puck.
"I'm sure there's a few teaching moments once you go back over the game tape and go from there. But I liked him a lot, and I'm sure Krech did, as well. They seemed to have some good chemistry."
Video: CBJ@BOS: Donato scores, adds two assists in NHL debut
Donato began the day on the left wing with Noel Acciari and Brian Gionta - his U.S. teammate at the 2018 Winter Olympics - during the morning skate, but with Rick Nash a late scratch because of an upper-body injury he slid up to the second line with David Krejci and Heinen. It turned out to be a seamless fit, as the line combined for two goals and four assists.
"I mean when you play with good players, it's not too hard," said Donato. "Obviously [Krejci's] a tremendous player and I think when you play with tremendous guys like that, it's not too hard to feel good."
The duo connected on a beautiful give-and-go for Boston's tying goal with 8:10 to play in regulation. Donato helped free a puck along the boards, before smacking a backhand pass to Krejci, who collected his 17th goal of the season to knot the game 4-4 just 20 seconds after Columbus had taken the lead.
"He was playing well," said Krejci. "He was battling along the walls, he was making some good plays. It was a good game for him. For a first NHL game, you can't really ask for anything better than he did. So it was a good game and hopefully he can keep it up.
"We will see with the injuries, but we thought we had some good stuff so hopefully we can carry that to the next game."
Video: CBJ@BOS: Krecji nets Donato's feed in front
The stellar debut also included nearly five minutes of power play time. With Donato planted at the net front or as the bumper for much of the night, he picked up his first career assist when Brad Marchand's shot deflected off his foot and over to Riley Nash, who cashed in with his 15th goal of the season to give the Bruins a 3-1 lead late in the second.
"I think what makes him attractive is his compete for loose pucks, to keep pucks alive and to make plays," Cassidy said of employing Donato on his top power-play unit. "We will probably use him in different spots, but guys that are hungry for the puck anywhere around the front of the net, especially a shooting power play that gets some rebounds, and we've started to become a little more of that."
In the end, it was not the storybook conclusion that the Bruins faithful were hoping for - though Donato did just miss on a breakaway attempt late in the third that would have given Boston the lead - but it was nonetheless a memorable night for the local boy.
"I mean it was fun," said Donato. "Obviously it ended tough but at the end of the day I was excited and I think it all went well personally but I'd say it's still bitter because of the loss."
Video: BOS Recap: Donato scores in debut, but B's fall in OT
No Call in OT
Marchand had a breakaway attempt early in the overtime session, somehow managing to get a shot off despite appearing to be held and hooked by Columbus forward Pierre-Luc Dubois. There was no penalty called on the play.
"Listen, they make their calls," said Cassidy. "We got our power-play opportunities; we were able to covert on one of them…hopefully the next time we're in overtime, a call goes our way. It's just the way it is."
Rick Nash was a late scratch due to an upper-body injury suffered against Tampa Bay on Saturday night. Nash participated in the morning skate without issue, but it was determined prior to puck drop that he would be unable to play. Anton Blidh was recalled from Providence on an emergency basis and had three hits in 10:23.
"He got hit in Tampa, so we thought he was fine," said Cassidy. "He had an upper-body injury. This morning - pregame skate - we thought he'd be fine, and it turned out after pregame skate, early afternoon, he wasn't, so, you know, we had to make a call for Anton Blidh."
Krug Sets Mark
Krug assisted on Donato's goal, giving him a career-high 52 points this season (13 goals, 39 assists).
Video: CBJ@BOS: Donato nets first goal in NHL debut