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Pregame Notebook: Line Chemistry Brewing as Camp Continues

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins

BOSTON — Last year, the Bruins intended to use training camp as an opportunity to play with some new line combinations and see if any chemistry developed. A few key injuries, however, prevented those lineup questions from ever being answered.

This year, with even more new pieces to be integrated into the lineup, the B’s are giving it another shot.

“Chemistry is a big thing,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien following Thursday’s morning skate at TD Garden. “When you start feeling that you’re knowing where the other guy is going, it makes a big difference, and you’ve got to allow that time to happen.”

Thursday marks the first time Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Loui Eriksson will see preseason game action, and it marks the debut of a line some expected to see a couple of years ago, when Eriksson was acquired from the Dallas Stars.

“I think I want to give those guys a chance to see if something can happen, and yet, once everybody finds their game, it becomes pretty easy to flip-flop and move guys around,” Julien said. “But to start with, we’re trying to get a feel for some things, and right now, we’re in our third game. We’ve got four more after tonight, so you could see some changes along the way if we don’t get the results that we’re kind of looking for.”

Marchand has played with a host of right wings over the last couple of years. He has shared the ice with both David Pastrnak and Eriksson, and whichever one of them ends up on his line to start the year, there will be advantages.

“They both have their own strengths and they’re both very, very good players,” Marchand said. “Lou had a very good year last year, and Pasta’s a talented kid. I think Pasta’s more speed and skill, and he makes a lot of really high-end plays. Loui’s a very strong two-way player. He’s great down low with the puck. He makes a lot of good plays around the net. He’s really good at picking pucks up around the net, and he’s strong with the puck in the corners, which really complements my and Bergy’s game.

“So both players are very good, and whoever we end up with, we’re going to be fortunate.”

Jimmy Hayes is entering his first season in Black & Gold, and throughout the duration of training camp, he has had the same linemates: Brett Connolly and Ryan Spooner. The three of them skated together in Boston’s first preseason game on Sept. 20 in Providence, and they will get another shot at it on Thursday.

Thus far, skating with Spooner has eased Hayes’ adjustment to a new system and a new team.

“He’s really talented, and he’s really good on his feet,” Hayes said. “He’s really quick, so it pushes the pace, which is the type of style I know Brett and I like to play — a very north-south, fast-paced game. He can push the pace and he can slow it down with his east-west game as well.

“He’s highly skilled, and he’s a great playmaker, so he’s a great kid to play with.”

The vets aren’t the only ones with something to gain from training camp. It can also serve as a showcase for the young prospects hoping to fill in the holes on the roster.

Ever since rookie camp kicked off two weeks ago, forwards Frank Vatrano and Austin Czarnik have impressed Boston’s staff with their offensive instincts and their chemistry. Turns out, they had a jump on forming it.

Last year, Vatrano joined the Providence Bruins in March, and Czarnik — shortly after signing his entry-level deal with the club — spent a little less than two weeks practicing and playing with the P-Bruins. As soon as Czarnik arrived, he and Vatrano were slotted in together, and even after just three games, the chemistry was evident.

“Chemistry’s a big thing in hockey,” Vatrano said. “I think playing with Austin in Providence last year and playing with him in rookie camp — sometimes, you have that guy that you play with, and you know where they’re going to be at all times. With me and him, I think we have that kind of chemistry, and it’s great to have.”

In two games at the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo earlier this month, Czarnik and Vatrano combined for two goals and three assists. They showcased their speed and their goal-scoring potential in their first Bruins preseason game on Tuesday night.

On Thursday, they will get another shot.

“It’s exciting,” Czarnik said. “Being able to play every single game that I can here is a good opportunity for myself, and I’ve just got to try and make the best of it every single day and see where it takes us.”

This time around, veteran right wing Max Talbot will fill out the line. It is the first time during this camp that either rookie will have skated with a vet in game action.

“It’s very valuable for us,” Vatrano said. “He’s a guy who has played in this league for a very long time. He’s won a Stanley Cup, he’s scored some big goals, so just having him out there, I think it really helps us kind of settle down a little bit. Sometimes, things won’t be going your way on the ice, and he’ll be able to provide that input and help you get through it.”

Julien attended the Prospects Challenge in Buffalo. He had high praise for both Czarnik and Vatrano there, and it has continued into main camp.

“I think [Vatrano] played well enough the other night; he certainly deserves to at least play another game, and we’ll see where it goes from there,” Julien said. “But he was good, and Czarnik’s been good. They were good in rookie camp, and I think last game, they found out it’s a little bit different at this level — but now that they’ve got that feel, let’s see how they react, and let’s see how that goes because those guys — Czarnik and Vatrano, to me, have potential playing in this league, whether it’s this year, next year or the year after. I think they’re showing good promise there.”

Of course, in Buffalo, the rookies competed against their fellow rookies. On Thursday night, the Rangers will deploy a lineup that features veterans such as Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Henrik Lundqvist and more.

Obviously, that might make it a bit tougher on young players like Czarnik and Vatrano.

“If they do have a real great lineup, then it gives the opportunity for the guys fighting for a job to prove they can play against a real good lineup,” Julien said. “A lot of times, you’re playing with half-American League, half-NHL rosters, and you say, ‘Well, they did well, but it’s half American League. How’s he going to do against a full NHL roster?’

“So the better the team on the other side, the better evaluation we can make from our group.”

Still, it certainly adds a boost of confidence when you hear the head coach believes in you.

“It just helps me with my mindset,” Czarnik said. “Obviously, having a chance is a huge thing, and it’s something I’ve looked forward to my whole life, so obviously, it’s a little bit more of a push to try and make sure that you do the right things every single day, and it’s exciting.”

The dream is within reach, but in order to see it come into fruition, the hard work must continue.

“You’ve got to be consistent every day you go on the ice; that’s the biggest thing, is consistency,” Vatrano said. “Me and Austin know what we have to do to make that next level, so I think if we keep doing the things we’re doing now, and work as hard as we can, I think we have a good shot.”

Young Defensemen Knocking

Dennis Seidenberg’s back injury is a disappointment for a blueline in need of stability and veteran leadership. But it is also an opportunity for one of the many AHL-level defensemen hoping to finally break into the NHL.

“We’ll certainly, as a group, talk about what we want, and what we want to keep here,” Julien said. “Whether that’s eight defensemen now that Seids is out, [or] whether that eighth defenseman now becomes a guy that we’d rather see playing in Providence and bringing him up if we need to, or whether we want to keep him here — that’ll be decided at the end.”

Chief among those Providence hopefuls is Joe Morrow. The 22-year-old played in 15 games with the Big B’s last year, and in 33 games with Providence, he tallied three goals and nine assists with a plus-four rating.

Entering this camp, he was expected to push for a spot on the roster. Now, expectations have increased.

“I think he played well enough to be knocking on the door — absolutely,” Julien said. “But he’s got to earn his spot. That goes without saying. But at the same time, he did a lot of good things. I remember complimenting him on being calm and not getting rattled. And yet, as much as that’s a strength, sometimes it can be a weakness, too. You want him to be…not so maybe high-risk at times. But there’s good portions, too, and I think right now, he’s shown us that he’s definitely in the mix.”

Marchand, Miller Getting Up to Speed

Prior to the opening of camp, Marchand announced that he ended the 2014-15 season with torn tendons in his right elbow. This summer, he underwent surgery on the elbow, which limited his offseason training to some degree, but it was worth it in order to start camp at 100 percent.

In practices, he has felt good. The next step, obviously, is game action.

“You go hard in practice,” he said, “but you still don’t battle as much as you do in games, so I’m interested to see how it holds up in a game.”

Marchand played through the injury throughout much of last season. Though Julien said he was aware of the situation, he indicated that Marchand didn’t let himself become substantially limited by it.

“He didn’t complain a lot about it,” Julien said. “I kind of knew about it, but it was not a big deal in his mind, and you’ve got players that play through injuries — they don’t want to make a big deal of it. They don’t want to miss a game. To me, I didn’t think that was an issue, and when you look at the way he produced at the end of the year, it obviously wasn’t that bad.

“But [the surgery] needed to be done in order to be 100 percent. So those aren’t major surgeries; those are minor surgeries that guys go through in the summertime.”

Defenseman Kevan Miller also entered this training camp coming off an injury, albeit a more significant one. Miller underwent season-ending surgery last February after dislocating his shoulder in a game against Buffalo in October. After missing a little over a month, he managed to return to the lineup for 35 games before the shoulder popped out against Calgary in February 16, effectively ending his season.

For Miller, training camp practices have proven invaluable as he works to rediscover his pre-injury form.

“I think we wanted to give him a little more time, here, and get more practices under his belt,” Julien said. “We gave him a game, but he’ll get more, too, moving forward here because he needs to play. He missed half the season [last year]. We have to get him into more game situations.”

Julien liked what he saw from Miller during that 35 game span, particularly in the offensive end. In fact, in some ways, playing through the injury — and seeing the physical side of his game limited — might have helped Miller find other ways to be effective.

“He was making some good plays; I think the offensive part of his game was coming in,” he said. “He was getting better coming into the play more than I had seen. So there was a lot things — using his stick versus getting into big battles. He was wearing a harness at that time that would prevent his arm [from] getting up too high, so he was limited in certain areas, but it didn’t seem to affect his game.

“I think the biggest thing was probably his fighting abilities — stuff like that that he had to think twice before doing that and stuff. But definitely, you can learn a lot from being limited to certain things, where you’ve got to compensate in other ways, and you hope it helps you down the road.”

Projected Lineup vs. Rangers

Brad MarchandPatrice BergeronLoui Eriksson

Jimmy HayesRyan SpoonerBrett Connolly

Frank VatranoAustin CzarnikMax Talbot

Zac RinaldoJoonas KemppainenTyler Randell

Zdeno CharaBrandon Carlo

Matt IrwinColin Miller

Joe MorrowAdam McQuaid

Goaltenders: Jeremy Smith, Zane McIntyre

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