BOSTON - Ryan Spooner has never been considered the most physical player on the ice. And he probably never will be.
But this preseason, the 25-year-old center is making a concerted effort to be more engaged without the puck. Chicago's Tanner Kero found that out the hard way during the Bruins' 4-2 preseason victory over the Blackhawks on Monday night.
Playing with David Pastrnak and Matt Beleskey, Spooner set the tone during the game's opening minute by dropping Kero with a heavy hit in front of the Bruins bench. The check separated Kero from the puck and jumpstarted Boston's charge up the ice.
Spooner then drifted toward the middle of the neutral zone where he received a pass from Pastrnak, before floating a backhander to Matt Beleskey. Beleskey then found Pastrnak, who cruised toward the Chicago net and roofed one by Corey Crawford for a 1-0 Bruins lead.
It was the exact type of shift Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy has been looking for from the former second-round pick.
"He was a crusher on that one - buried a guy," said Cassidy. "I don't know if physicality is the proper term. What I want to see is compete. We've talked about that. I don't expect Ryan Spooner to lead our team in hits. But he has to win his share of pucks. How you do that, hard on your stick, sometimes it is body position, sometimes it is knocking a guy off the puck. It was good to see."
Video: CHI@BOS: Pastrnak wires in wrister from tough angle
Spooner has made being quicker to the puck one of his top priorities.
"We've talked about it before and I think the thing with me is I kind of get in there and I'm gliding a little bit," said Spooner, who was credited with two hits in 16 minutes, 32 seconds of ice time against Chicago.
"I think [Cassidy] wants me to get in there and take some strides and just close because all the players are good here. If you give them time and space, they're going to make plays, so as a center, I've just got to try to be a bit quicker."
The Bruins have several young players competing for spots up front, including centers Austin Czarnik, Jakob Forsbacka Karlsson, and Sean Kuraly. And with the likes of Kuraly, Tim Schaller, Noel Acciari, David Backes, and Riley Nash having the ability to play both wing and center, Spooner knows he must do everything he can to separate himself from the others and earn a spot on the roster.
His strong skills on the power play work in his favor (he led the Bruins with 4:18 of power-play time against the Blackhawks). But his success at the faceoff dot needs to improve. Spooner won just 39 percent of his draws last season and was 6 of 14 against Chicago.
"Then the third period, specifically, [I] put him out for a D-zone faceoff and he won one, he won maybe both," said Cassidy. "Just some situations that he knows he has to be harder in. I think the rest of his game will take care of itself. But I thought he was good in that area of the game tonight."
Blue Line Battle
With Torey Krug sidelined for at least a couple more weeks with a jaw fracture, a spot has opened up on the left side of the Bruins' back end. Among those angling for the spot are Rob O'Gara (he was on the Opening Night roster a year ago), Matt Grzelcyk (he played two NHL games last season), and Jeremy Lauzon (he's a first-year pro) - all of whom are left shots.
All three candidates suited up against the Blackhawks on Monday night and performed well. O'Gara led the team with 22 minutes, 28 seconds of ice time, while Grzelcyk (plus-1, one shot) was second among defensemen with 1:46 of ice time on the power play. Lauzon, meanwhile, potted his first goal of the preseason with a seeing-eye wrister from the point and landed three shots on goal.
"I know they push me and push the older guys," the 24-year-old O'Gara said of the young talent. "It fosters a real competitive nature and it pushes everyone to be the best player they can be, and that's exactly what you want going into a season. I think that's the biggest thing to take from kind of coming up in a big group of young guys…pushing each other.
"And you know you're not the only ones going through this stuff. So you have guys to lean on besides the vets who are awesome."
Video: O'Gara speaks after Bruins preseason win over Chicago
Matt Beleskey's preseason did not start off the way he would have liked. After a year in which he played just 49 games as he battled through injury, the winger began this training camp with a foot injury suffered in the first exhibition contest against Montreal.
It was a setback, for sure, but Beleskey has returned to the ice and is contending with Boston's youngsters for one of the B's open wing positions. The 29-year-old, who Cassidy said came into camp "lighter" and in "better shape," had an assist on David Pastrnak's goal in Boston's 4-2 win over Chicago on Monday night.
"I think he understood that the way the game is going, lighter is generally better for every athlete now in hockey," said Cassidy. "You certainly need some corner weight, for certain guys who play that way. He's one of those guys that has some grit, tenacity to his game. There would be a certain level of compromise there, but I thought he skated well, competed hard, worked hard in practice, no complaints.
"It's just there's a lot of competition this year, some of these young kids that can skate - the way the game is going, they are really pushing."
10 More Days
With 10 days remaining until Opening Night (Oct. 5 against Nashville), the Bruins have reached the dog days of training camp. While Cassidy believes the team is prepared to get things started for real, he also knows there is still plenty to work on.
"I think once you're this far, you always want to get going," said Cassidy. "A, because you don't want to have any injuries. But then once the games start you realize, 'Hey, we need to work on some things.' We saw that [Monday night]. We had a great start, and it gets away from us a bit. There's always fixes. But we are getting closer."