David Krejci carried the load early on. So did Brad Marchand. Then, it was Loui Eriksson for a while.
For the last couple of games, however, the scoring has been coming from a different source.
Forward Ryan Spooner, who is in the midst of his first full NHL season, has six points in his last two games, including four assists in Friday night’s 6-2 win over the Penguins. Rookie Frank Vatrano, in just 17 games, has already recorded the first hat trick of his professional career, which also came in Friday’s win.
“A night like last night, you see Frankie having a great game — that’s awesome to watch, and that’s what you need if you’re a good team,” said forward Matt Beleskey following Saturday’s brief practice at TD Garden. “You need contributions from everyone.”
Earlier this year, when the Bruins struggled out of the gates, Head Coach Claude Julien often repeated a familiar refrain: He said the younger, inexperienced players needed to step up. He said they needed to be a presence, a factor, in order for the B’s to have success.
Lately, those players have been just that.
“You want to expect that from them; whether it happens or not, it depends on the players,” Julien said. “But when I say we want them [to step up], it’s more that we need them to step up and play here and say, ‘Listen, if I’m here, I’m good enough to play here. If I do certain things well, then I should be able to do those same things well here.”
The Bruins were clicking on Friday night against a struggling Pittsburgh team. But it was Vatrano’s final two goals — both of which came in the final eight minutes of regulation, and both of which were assisted by Spooner — that put the game out of reach for the Penguins.
“Ryan Spooner’s a guy who can make plays, who can score goals; Frankie Vatrano proved it in the American League, in that short stint he was down there for,” Julien said. “He did it again last night. It’s just about having the confidence and understanding that you want to be part of this team. You don’t want to be dragging along behind certain guys.
“You want to be [a] part, and you want to be able to help this team win games and get better, and they should feel good about themselves and want to be those kind of players.”
Early on this year, the bulk of Spooner’s success came on Boston’s league-leading power play. Lately, though, he has proven his worth in other areas. He has been putting the puck in the net at full strength. He has asserted himself on the ice, particularly in the second period on Friday night, when he dropped his gloves after teammate Dennis Seidenberg took a hit from Patric Hornqvist. Spooner didn’t get to fight, and he drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
But no one on the Bruins, it seemed, took any issue with that penalty.
“It’s really nice to see,” Seidenberg said. “They’ve been playing great, contributing offensively regularly, and it’s nice for them to take the next step and just helping this team win. That’s what we need.”
For the last few weeks, there has been a common thread as the Bruins have slowly but surely worked their way up the standings: The secondary scoring has been there. Spooner and his line have been contributing, as has the fourth line.
“When those guys are going like that, I think it adds a whole other element to our team,” said defenseman Adam McQuaid. “You obviously have your guys that you know produce offensively on a regular basis, but when teams are worrying about shutting them down, and you have other guys that are producing like that, and it can be difficult. I can imagine it would be difficult as a defenseman; you’re constantly on your toes regardless, but I just thought it was important for our team and a big reason for the win last night.”
Spooner may be young, but he knows he can’t hang his hat on his last two games. He knows this type of production must continue in order for the success — his, and his team’s — to continue.
“The top six — for the first 25 games or so, they were scoring most of the time,” he said. “It’s a long season for them. They play like 20 minutes a game, which is tough. To have the scoring from the third and fourth lines is important. I think it takes a team from being good to being great, so it’s been good to see.”
Moving On Up
The Bruins were pleased with what they saw in the standings on Saturday morning: With Friday’s win, they have moved into second place in the Atlantic Division, just three points behind Montreal.
Given the way the Canadiens started the season — and with the way the Bruins started their own — it was difficult to imagine the gap closing this much, this quickly. But the fact that they have done it has certainly provided the Bruins with some validation.
“We’re back in the mix, and we know that — three points behind [Montreal],” Julien said. “It’s not like we’re oblivious to it, or we don’t pay attention to it. But at the same time, I don’t want us to look at that and think of that versus thinking about what we need to do to get there.
“The things that you can control is what you should be focusing on, and that’s our plan.”
This is a Bruins team that is, fortunately, smart enough to know how quickly the picture can change.
“We’ve made some progress, I think, and obviously I think we’re feeling better about our game,” McQuaid said. “There’s always things we’re looking to improve upon, but we’re just kind of taking it one game at a time and realizing the standings are so tight, and it looks like that’s how it’s going to be all year, so everyone’s kind of right there with one another.
“Every game is important, and you feel that. And it’s exciting in that way, too.”
The four points the Bruins earned over the course of two days against Pittsburgh were crucial. Now, the B’s have gained some separation over teams like the Pens, like the Devils, like the Lightning.
But it’s not going to stay that way unless the Bruins work for it.
“At the beginning of the year, we lost the first three, then we’d win four and lose three,” Spooner said. “That’s not really what you want to do as a team. So we’ve been a lot more, I guess you could say, consistent lately, which is good to see.
“I think we’ve been good. I think it’s important, though, that we shouldn’t take that for granted. We can’t really get too high on ourselves. We need to continue to play well, and if we do that, we should be fine.”
A cursory look at Boston’s recent schedule paints the picture of a team in a much different position than it was in six weeks ago. The Bruins currently sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference. They are 10-1-3 over their last 14 games. Their goaltending has been stellar, and their defense has been much improved. They have been scoring regularly, all over the lineup.
But to simply expect that to continue would be foolish, the Bruins know that. It only gets harder from here.
“At the beginning of the season, I don’t think anyone in here thought this was going to be a losing season,” Beleskey said. “We were determined to be good and to be where we are, and now, we’re just building. We’ve just got to keep building on that and keep moving forward.
“Now, we see what we’re capable of, and it’s going to get even tougher down the road. So this is just the start.”
Uptick on the Back End
Boston’s improvement on defense has been obvious over the last month or so, and necessary. No one in the Bruins’ dressing room has made any bones about it: If not for the uptick on the back end — and the ripple effect that has caused throughout the lineup — this team wouldn’t be where it is in the standings.
“If the forwards play good D — if they support and communicate with us — it makes life a lot easier,” Seidenberg said. “There are breakdowns here and there, but for the most part, we’re able to cover it up and have our layers, and that’s why it’s been working out.”
Julien put it bluntly: This is who the Bruins have expected to be all year. At this stage, they seem to be living up to their own standards.
“Obviously, [Zdeno Chara] and Adam have done a great job together shutting down some big lines,” he said. “I’m pretty pleased with that. Having said that, I think Dennis Seidenberg’s game has really come along lately; he’s starting to resemble the player he was, and that’s another plus for us on the back end. But the other guys — they just keep competing hard. Our back end takes a lot of pride in that — the defensive part of the game, trying to keep pucks out. So I think that identity that we said we had to find again is starting to come, and I think that’s been the biggest difference right now.”
The EPIX Effect
The first episode of EPIX’ “Road to the Winter Classic” — which chronicles the Bruins and the Canadiens as they prepare to face off at Gillette Stadium on Jan. 1 — aired last week, and so far, Julien has liked what he has seen from the show.
The show has surprised him for the better, he said, admitting he was skeptical early on about the impact it might have and the picture it might paint.
“To be honest with you, I think it was really something that worried us all at the beginning — that’s just being honest,” Julien said. “We’re a group here that likes to be a little bit more private, and we don’t like more or less secrets to come out, but when you look at the situation, they’ve been great. They’ve really done everything they can to kind of stay out of our way, and at some point, you accept that it’s there and it’s there for the fans and for the growth of the game, so you’ve got to live with it.
“To be honest with you, I had an opportunity to watch the first episode. I think they did a great job, from our end, anyway. They did a great job of producing that. So I guess you want the show to be realistic, and you want it to show the real colors; you just don’t want it to necessarily show things that are going to tarnish an organization or a player or anybody, for that matter. I think that’s the goal that they have in mind, and I thought they did a great job of making it realistic and not necessarily hiding anything, but making it interesting for people to watch.”
Julien did add that he does not intend to follow the show closely as it continues. He watched the first episode to get a taste of what it is all about, but one taste was enough.
He also doesn’t plan on changing anything about his approach or his coaching style just because there are cameras, and often microphones, tracking his every move.
For him, it will be business as usual from here on out.
“I’ve got to go in there and do my job the same way I would normally,” he said. “I haven’t changed; that’s just me, and hopefully it shows a good picture to people versus an ugly one, but that’s just me being me in between periods.”
Khokhlachev Assigned; Pastrnak to Providence
Following Saturday’s practice, Julien announced that forward Alex Khokhlachev —who was not on the ice — has been reassigned to Providence.
Khokhlachev played in two games for the Bruins, both on the fourth line, since being recalled for the second time this season on Dec. 16.
Julien also announced that forward David Pastrnak, who continues to progress from a fractured foot sustained on Oct. 27, will play for the Providence Bruins on Saturday night against Springfield. After that, Julien said, the club will make a decision as to whether Pastrnak will be loaned to his native Czech Republic for World Juniors, slated to begin after Christmas.
Saturday’s Practice Lineup
White Jerseys: Matt Beleskey, David Krejci, Loui Eriksson
Gold Jerseys: Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, Brett Connolly
Gray Jerseys: Frank Vatrano, Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Hayes
Red Jerseys: Landon Ferraro, Max Talbot, Tyler Randell
Defensemen: Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg, Colin Miller, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller, Joe Morrow, Zach Trotman
Goalies: Tuukka Rask, Jonas Gustavsson