Then again, any player who gets called up from the American Hockey League feels the same way.
“I think every guy who gets called up wants to stay here all the time,” Khokhlachev said following an optional skate at TD Garden on Wednesday in preparation for a matchup against Pittsburgh. “I’m starting to get more comfortable at this level, and I know I start playing better and better every game.”
Khokhlachev — who was recalled on Wednesday morning in the place of Zac Rinaldo, who was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday — will begin his second stint with Boston this season. In early November, he received his first recall of the year, skating in two games with the Bruins before being optioned back to Providence, where he promptly broke his hand in his first game back with the P-Bruins and was forced to miss nine games.
“Any guy who gets injured is not happy with that,” he said. “It’s just part of the game, and I wasn’t out for a long time. I healed, and I’m ready to play right now.”
Now, Khokhlachev is back up to speed. His 14 assists still rank first among the P-Bruins, as do his 20 points. In the 17 games he has spent with Providence this year, the natural center has become accustomed to playing the wing, and he is eager for another chance to showcase his skills for the big club.
“I’m pretty sure if I play really good, they’ll keep me,” he said. “So it’s all about me — how I will play.
“I haven’t played in the NHL a lot of games, and it’s the best league in the world, so I’ll try to do my best. I’m pretty sure if I play really good, they will keep me. So that’s how I will play.”
If there is anyone who knows what Khokhlachev is capable of, it is Frank Vatrano, who was Khokhlachev’s linemate for a handful of games before Vatrano himself was recalled by Boston back on Nov. 6.
“He’s a player that works hard,” Vatrano said. “He makes the game a lot easier with the players he’s playing with. For me, he’s a really good playmaker — he would always get to the areas for me and put the puck on my stick, so playing with him was awesome. He works really hard and makes plays.”
Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien hasn’t seen a whole lot of Khokhlachev over the last few years — in total, the 22-year-old Moscow native has skated in six games with Boston over the last three seasons — but from what he hears, Khokhlachev is game for the challenge at hand.
“[He’s] a player that’s playing well in Providence,” Julien said. “I don’t get to see him much, so it’s hard for me to start elaborating on a player that I don’t see much. But the few games that he played here, I thought he competed hard, worked hard. According to the people that have been keeping an eye on him, he’s certainly deserving of being here.”
Though Khokhlachev has been adjusting to life on the wing, he is a natural playmaker who often looks to pass first. That, Vatrano said, suited the two of them to each other back when they were linemates in Providence: Khokhlachev likes to pass first, and Vatrano likes to shoot first.
“We worked well together,” Vatrano said. “I think the first game of the season, we didn’t play together, then after that, I think we played [together] the rest of the time I was down there. We contributed offensively, and we were good defensively, too. I think that’s kind of what kept us together, is I think we both play a different style of game, and I think it goes well together.”
Khokhlachev is certainly hoping that this time around, he gets an extended look with the big club, but that will depend on a number of factors — most importantly, his play at this level. Throughout his first two seasons in Providence, Khokhlachev has proven he can excel at the AHL ranks. His next task is proving he can do the same thing in the NHL.
Vatrano has spent a month proving he can succeed here, and he is confident his former Providence linemate can do the same.
“Every transition you make is obviously difficult, especially making the jump to the NHL — it’s the highest level of hockey,” Vatrano said. “He has experience up here, and I know he’s going to do well with the opportunity he’s getting.
“He’s a confident player, and I think he’s going to do just fine out there.”
First of Two vs. Pittsburgh
The Penguins may be missing Kris Letang, Beau Bennett and Marc-Andre Fleury. Sidney Crosby may have just six goals in 29 games. They may reside in 11th place in the Eastern Conference standings.
But none of that matters on Wednesday night. On Wednesday night, the Penguins are simply a team with a stacked offensive lineup that is capable of thwarting Boston’s bid to bounce back from an overtime loss against Edmonton.
“There’s no good times to catch teams,” Julien said. “It always looks great, I guess, on paper, but I’ve seen a lot of teams with a bunch of injuries come and play their hearts out, and that really doesn’t matter. So it’s a dangerous thing to even think that way, in my mind. So we need to kind of battle back here after a tough loss against Edmonton and get ourselves back in the winning column.
“[We] really need to focus on our game and not so much what [the Penguins] have or don’t have — a new coach and different situations. I think our focus has to really be on us, and how well we want to play.”
Two nights ago, the Bruins fired 49 shots on Oilers goalie Cam Talbot and only found the back of the net twice. They are confident that if they put forth the same type of effort against Penguins goalie Jeff Zatkoff, they will get the results they want.
But they will have to put just as much focus on making sure to keep Pittsburgh’s stars — the Crosbys, the Malkins, the Kessels — off the scoresheet.
“Obviously, their lineup is pretty scary — those three forwards, they’re [some] of the best in the league, so pretty scary,” said Bruins forward David Krejci. “But other than that, we just worry about our team.”
Once the Bruins are done battling the Pens at home on Wednesday night, their focus will remain on Pittsburgh: These two teams will face off again two nights from now at the Consol Energy Center.
Home-and-homes are not incredibly common in the NHL, but Julien enjoys the playoff-esque atmosphere they evoke.
“It’s always good to win the first one; obviously, you get that momentum,” Julien said. “But when the first one is at home, you don’t want the other team to come in here and steal one, and then you have to go in their building. But I like back-to-backs because there’s a little bit of a competition that builds up throughout the game, and a lot of times carries into the next one.”
This particular home-and-home carries significant implications in the standings: It comes with a four-point swing. As it stands, the Penguins sit three points behind the Bruins, who currently hold the second wild card spot in the East.
Four points will obviously do a lot for the Bruins. But those points could do just as much for the Penguins, and that is something Boston must be wary of.
“They’re huge,” Krejci said of those four points. “Sometimes, this is a good thing; we can get four points. But on the other hand, they can get four points on us. So we have to make sure we’re ready for tonight, and adjust our game for the next one, and hopefully, we can get four points.”
Rinaldo on IR; Pastrnak Still Skating
On Tuesday afternoon, the Bruins announced that forward Zac Rinaldo had been placed on injured reserve with an upper-body injury. Originally, Julien chalked up Rinaldo’s absence from Tuesday’s practice to maintenance, but on Wednesday, he clarified that “circumstances changed during the day.”
“He was maintenance until later on in the day,” Julien said.
Rinaldo saw just under nine minutes of ice time during Monday’s game against the Oilers, in which he squared off in a first-period fight against Edmonton’s Matt Hendricks.
While the Bruins did not hold a full skate on Wednesday, there were seven forwards on the ice, including David Pastrnak, who remains on IR after fracturing his foot on Oct. 27.
Julien did not offer an updated recovery timeline for Pastrnak.
Projected Lineup Wednesday vs. Pittsburgh
Brad Marchand — Patrice Bergeron — Brett Connolly
Matt Beleskey — David Krejci — Loui Eriksson
Frank Vatrano — Ryan Spooner — Jimmy Hayes
Alex Khokhlachev — Max Talbot — Landon Ferraro
Zdeno Chara — Adam McQuaid
Dennis Seidenberg — Colin Miller
Torey Krug — Kevan Miller
Starting Goalie: Tuukka Rask // Backup: Jonas Gustavsson
Projected Scratches: Joe Morrow, Zach Trotman, Tyler Randell