BOSTON - Frank Vatrano has always been a goal scorer. His elite shot has been the bane of many a goalies' existence at every level.
In his last 38 games in the American Hockey League, Vatrano has 38 goals. Vatrano scored in his first career NHL game and potted a hat trick against the mighty Pittsburgh Penguins as a rookie.
Goals, however, have not been as easy to come by of late. Vatrano is without a point in seven games this season and has found himself playing a bottom-six role.
But there are signs that Vatrano's game is rounding into form. The 23-year-old native of East Longmeadow has fired six shots on goal over the past two games - including a team-high four against San Jose on Thursday - after landing just four shots over his first five games.
"When I move my feet like I did last night, I created turnovers and chances for my teammates," said Vatrano, who came close to beating Sharks goalie Martin Jones on more than one occasion. "And in the D-zone you have more confidence to make the extra play instead of hammering it up the glass or whatever. I felt confidence yesterday and I thought my game was good."
Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy has seen a noticeable uptick in Vatrano's energy on the puck and has been encouraged by the recent play of the UMass product.
"He's got good straight-line speed, he's using it more effectively now to create loose pucks situations," said Cassidy, who has positioned Vatrano alongside Kenny Agostino and Riley Nash. "He's hanging on to it longer in the offensive zone, and as a result some pucks are finding him, just because it's on our sticks a little more, him and his line mates. He's been pretty good in terms of not hurting us away from the puck.
"He's trying to be more of a student of the game, which we've asked him to do. If he's not gonna see a lot of special teams time, he's got to stay in it and keep his energy level up. That's not easy for a young guy, so I give him credit."
Vatrano's improved play has led to him gaining more confidence from the coaching staff and, in turn, more ice time.
"I think I've been doing a good job in earning trust with [Cassidy] and more and more shifts," said Vatrano. "The more shifts I get, the more confident I get. I'm feeling the puck more, making the plays that I'm used to making. I think I just gotta go out there and not think…just play the game I know how to play."
At the same time, Vatrano has tried to expand his game given his current position. While offense is still expected, Vatrano must also provide energy and a strong all-around game when playing in less of a skilled role.
"I'm trying to, not reevaluate my game or recreate, but since I haven't been scoring, kind of playing in a shutdown, fourth-line energy role," said Vatrano. "I've been focusing on that and that's when the goals come. I've always put up points and scored goals. For me, obviously defensively is where I had to be a little bit better."
After a game in which the Bruins surrendered two three-goal leads, Boston made sure to tighten things up defensively against the Sharks. Leading the charge was Anton Khudobin, who picked up his third win of the year while making 36 saves. It was likely Khudobin's last start before the return of Tuukka Rask, who Cassidy expects to be back between the pipes on Saturday night.
"Very good, very good," Cassidy said of Khudobin's performance. "Dobby is always going to have a bit of energy, for lack of a better word, in there and [more] movement than most, but I thought he was very composed and under control for his game. Puck play was solid, very focused, seemed like he was taking care of the little details in terms of positioning.
"He's not your typical technically robotic goaltender, but I thought it was a very good bounce-back game. Got us points again, every start he's had his points."
Video: Khudobin talks about 36-save performance vs. Sharks
The Los Angeles Kings have been off to a stifling start, with an 8-1-1 record that has them second in the NHL with 17 points. L.A. is coming off two straight wins, including a 4-0 victory over Montreal on Thursday night. Veteran center Anze Kopitar is 10th in the league in scoring with 12 points (7 goals, 5 assists) in 10 games.
"They've been a heavy and skilled team for years now, nothing's changed in that regard," said Rask. "They'll be a good challenge, but if we play the same style of hockey as yesterday…I think we'll be all set."
Wait, There's More
Krejci Unlikely: David Krejci had already been ruled out for Saturday's game with Los Angeles, but Cassidy said after Friday's practice that the center is also "highly unlikely" for Monday's game in Columbus.
Stick to It: Noel Acciari, out with a broken finger, has been skating on his own for the better part of a week - but without a stick. That changed on Friday morning as the burly forward took the ice before practice for some work with skating coach Kim Brandvold with a stick in his hand.