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Spooner Channeling Pressure into On-Ice Resurgence

by Jess Isner / Boston Bruins — When Ryan Spooner got called up to the Bruins on Feb. 21, he knew that this time had to be different.

There had been call-ups before — last season, and even at the beginning of this season, which he began in Boston — but it didn’t go well. Spooner knew that, and Head Coach Claude Julien had said as much, more than once. Spooner had a tough training camp, and once the regular season began, he had trouble establishing consistency. He struggled to play his game. He couldn’t find his way onto the scoresheet, particularly in the goals column — during this year's recall or last year's. There were times that he showed flashes of excellence offensively, but he had trouble showing the same proficiency in his own end, and for him, that was often the dagger.

Five games with Boston was all Spooner got at the beginning of the 2014-15 season before being sent down to Providence, and that is where he remained.

Until Feb. 21, that is. Spooner viewed that call-up, he said, as his last chance of sorts with this organization.

“It was in the back of my mind,” Spooner said. “I mean, I hadn’t scored, and I think it was like 30 games at that time. When I got called up, I just wanted to come up here and try to play well. I heard some stuff about me getting traded and all that kind of stuff, so I just wanted to come up here and just play well and just show that I can stay here and just play here.

“I think I’ve done that so far.”

Spooner got started proving himself in his first game of that recall, against Chicago, the day after he joined the team for the final outing of a five-game road trip in which the Bruins had gone 0-2-2.

That game against Chicago was a turning point for Spooner, who was called upon following an injury to center David Krejci that would keep him out of the lineup for 15 games. Spooner slotted into Krejci’s usual spot in between Milan Lucic and David Pastrnak, and in that first game, he assisted on Lucic’s goal, which would give the Bruins a 3-1 lead en route to a 6-1 victory.

For a month and a half after that, it seemed that Spooner’s line didn’t look back — though he didn’t necessarily see it that way.

“I think the first five games I was here, I know I scored, but I think as a line, we kind of had some times where we didn’t really know where each other was going to be and stuff like that,” he said. “It takes time when you get [put] with a new line. I think we’ve had our ups and our downs, and we’re young, I guess you could say, as a line, so I think we’ve got to keep at it and just try and get pucks to the net, and I think we should be good.”

That line, of course, did prove to be good — more than good. It was so good together — the chemistry was so electric — that even after Krejci returned from his injury, Julien would not contemplate slotting him back into what had become his customary spot between Lucic and Pastrnak.

“That line’s been our most productive line in the month of March,” Julien said on April 1. “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.”

There was one game in particular, though, when things seemed to click.

There was a moment during an eventual 2-1 shootout loss to Buffalo on March 17 when Spooner knew he and his line had to be better.

It helped that Lucic gave him and Pastrnak the hint.

“We weren’t hemmed in our end, but we weren’t doing the things we had to,” Spooner recalled. “We were staying on the outside a lot, and weren’t getting the puck to the net, and [Lucic] just told us — he was like, ‘If you want to score goals in this league, you have to get the puck to the net, and we have to get to the net.’ And then I think the following game, we actually scored a goal in front of the net.”

When Spooner joined the team in February, he had been made well aware that he had to alter his style of play if he wanted to be successful with Boston. He got the memo, he put in the grunt work, and when he returned for his current stay with the B’s, he had altered his game. He was willing to go to the net. He was willing to get his nose dirty. He had changed his approach, and it has shown — both on the scoresheet, and in the fact that he is still in Boston rather than in Providence.

“He’s definitely gotten to be a better player,” Julien said in March. “First few times he came here, all [his] shots were from perimeters, and he had some assists — no goals. Right now, he’s certainly been a lot more productive.”

In 21 games with Boston since Feb. 21, Spooner has registered eight goals and 10 assists for 18 points and a plus-five rating. He has, at this point, cemented his spot in Boston’s lineup, whether that is with Lucic and Pastrnak or elsewhere. He has worked his way onto the first power play unit and has stayed there, even as mainstays like Krejci have returned to the lineup. He has grown into a bona fide NHL player.

It took time — parts of four seasons with Providence — for him to get there, but he did.

“I think [it’s] just confidence,” said forward Brett Connolly, who said his former teammate has grown exponentially since they played together five years ago in tournaments in Canada. “I think for him, he went a little while without scoring his first goal, and kind of once you start feeling good about yourself — once you realize that you can do good things in the league — your confidence is high. When you have confidence, you can make plays and do the things you want to do, and I think right now, he’s playing with a lot of confidence.”

Of course, it took just as long for the confidence to come as it took for the on-ice consistency to develop.

Particularly in the first half of this season, Spooner has had to become a pro at tuning out the outside voices saying he would never become a key cog in Boston’s lineup. He had to tune out the voices saying he didn’t have the two-way game necessary to become a mainstay in Boston. He had to tune it all out.

“I pay attention to [the criticism] somewhat,” Spooner said. “I have friends and stuff that will tell me about it, but my mom told me you have to have a thick skin to play this sport, and I try not to really think about it. I just go out and I play, and I do the best that I can, and if it’s not good enough, then it’s not good enough. But if I can look in the mirror at the end of the day and know that I did all that I could, then that’s all that matters.”

Spooner has grown just as much off the ice as he has grown on it. That’s part of what playing with Pastrnak has afforded him: the opportunity to take on more of a leadership role, which is something that he honed last season in Providence as one of the team’s most experienced veterans.

“[Pastrnak] is four years younger than me, so we’ve played pretty much the same amount of games here, but I’ve played pro for [three full] seasons now,” Spooner said. “He does some things, too — like his skill and his speed kind of make me try to keep up on the ice, and all that kind of stuff. So he’s said some things to me, and I’ve said some things to him, and I guess we just try to motivate each other on the ice and just go with it like that.

“I think it’s been good so far — that we can both talk to each other. That’s a key when you play with each other, is you’ve got to talk, and if you don’t, then it doesn’t usually work.”

According to Pastrnak, having Spooner as a linemate has worked out just fine. He, too, has watched Spooner’s confidence grow over the last eight-plus months, and he has seen that translate into a more explosive player.

“He’s getting more experience,” Pastrnak said. “He’s been here now for a while, he’s got a big role on the team and on the power play, so he’s picking up a little bit of experience and it’s good for him.

“He’s a speedy forward, and he can really skate. I think he’s a playmaker — when he gets his chance, he scores, and he can also find me in good positions. So I just kind of play my game, and try to make him find me.”

Spooner is well aware that he — just like any other Bruin on the roster — has plenty of room to grow. For him, most of his areas of improvement lie in his own end. The offense is there — he has proven that he can be a threat with the puck — but he knows he needs to be more of a threat without it.

“I still have a lot of strides [to make], and a lot of things that I could do to make myself a better player, so that’s kind of where I’m at right now,” he said. “I guess I’ve showed for a short span that I can score and get some chances and all that kind of stuff, but a big part for me right now is just to show that I can play well in my own end.”

Though Spooner is quick to say that he still needs to develop more consistency in bringing each facet of his game to the ice every single night, Julien has already seen that from him in the last month and a half. Julien has seen him become a more well-rounded, more focused player, and one that is deserving of a spot in an NHL lineup, night in and night out.

“He’s been called up quite a few times, so a guy like that gets more and more comfortable,” Julien said. “At the same time, he probably [thinks], ‘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.”

When Spooner thinks back on his mindset coming into that first game in February — when he thinks about his mindset as he made that flight from Wilkes-Barre, where the P-Bruins were stationed at the time, to Chicago — he has to be impressed with himself.

But he’s not that impressed. And that, perhaps, is one of the biggest reasons for his success this time around.

“At the end of the day, I just want the team to do well,” Spooner said. “I just want to go out there and play, and just do the best that I can and have fun with it.”

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