BOSTON -- When the Boston Bruins were protecting a two-goal lead on the road against the Ottawa Senators on March 10, coach Claude Julien joined left wing Milan Lucic with veteran forwards Gregory Campbell and Maxime Talbot for the last three minutes of a crucial 3-1 victory.
Center - BOS
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 6 | PTS: 9
SOG: 30 | +/-: 1
The switch left young forwards Ryan Spooner
, who scored two goals, and David Pastrnak
, who assisted on Spooner's second goal, on the bench for the end of the game.
Two nights later in a 3-2 shootout win against the Tampa Bay Lightning at TD Garden, Julien didn't shorten his bench with the score tied in regulation or overtime. The Bruins' two offensively gifted rookies got to take their regular shift with Lucic in regulation and were a pair during a stretch of 3-on-3 play in overtime.
Such is the development process for two players who went from part of the Bruins' future to key components of their present. As they've attempted to secure a spot in the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Bruins have relied on Spooner and Pastrnak more in the past three weeks than they ever would have imagined when the season started.
Julien has been instrumental in the development from prospects to stalwarts of Lucic, Brad Marchand, David Krejci and others during his eight seasons. The coach has been doing his best to make sure 23-year-old Spooner and 18-year-old Pastrnak are cast in the best roles for success whenever possible.
Spooner and Pastrnak will be key parts of the lineup again when the Bruins visit the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center on Sunday (7:30 p.m.; NBCSN).
"To me it was a matter of making sure I put them against proper lines," Julien said. "As you've seen, I kind of tried to do my best to keep them away from top lines. I don't think they have enough experience right now to do that, but they certainly have enough skill to play against other lines and they've been producing, so I've been able to keep them together for this long. There may come a time where I don't have a choice and I have to break them up. But so far it's worked out well."
Spooner and Pastrnak have made strides defensively. However they have been known more for their offense, and their production on the attack has been their biggest contribution to the Bruins' recent run of success. With an assist on a Pastrnak goal Thursday, Spooner had a seven-game scoring streak (it ended Saturday in a 2-0 win against the Pittsburgh Penguins
). He had three goals and eight points during the longest scoring streak by a Bruins rookie since Brad Boyes
' seven games in 2006.
Pastrnak's goal against the Lightning was his ninth of the season; he has three goals and eight points in his past eight games. Lucic has three goals and six points in the past eight games.
"When young guys come into the lineup you hope that they bring some sort of excitement and obviously young legs, skating legs and stuff like that ... you want to feed off their excitement of being up here in the NHL, and it's good to see them playing with that and gaining more confidence as they're playing more games," Lucic said.
The contributions from Spooner and Pastrnak couldn't have come at a better time. Krejci tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee Feb. 20 against the St. Louis Blues and has been sidelined since. That loss capped an 0-4-2 stretch that put the Bruins' hopes for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in jeopardy. But since losing Krejci, the Bruins are 8-1-1.
With Krejci out and center Carl Soderberg in a 21-game goal drought, Spooner and Pastrnak stepped into the void. Spooner (5-foot-11, 181 pounds) has put his speed and elusiveness to use and complemented his excellent playmaking skills by using his elusive shot that's difficult to predict but somehow lands on goal from different angles.
Pastrnak (6-foot, 167) has overcome his weight disadvantage with powerful skating strides, creativity and fearlessness in the face of an opponent's physicality. Each player has provided the Bruins with elements they lacked for most of this season.
Not long ago Marchand was the upstart trying to spark older players. Now he's getting a jolt.
"These guys that are up right now, they're playing hard, they're playing for spots and they're looking really good," said Marchand, who has five goals in the past seven games and leads the Bruins with 22. "And we need that youthful energy. It gets the guys excited. It gets the older guys going. It gets them more into the game. And we feed off that energy and we've needed it and it definitely helps us right now."
The Bruins selected Pastrnak with the 25th pick of the 2014 NHL Draft. He spent 24 games with Providence of the American Hockey League (he had 27 points) and played for Czech Republic at the 2015 IIHF World Junior Championship before settling in with Boston. He has 18 points in 31 games.
The Bruins waited longer for Spooner to make an impact. They picked him in the second round (No. 45) of the 2010 draft and he turned pro for the 2012-13 season. He spent most of his time in the AHL, but in 27 NHL games before this season he had 11 assists. He started this season in Boston, but after five games without a point he was sent back to Providence. He struggled there with a brief shift to left wing and some injuries. He got hot in February, with three goals and nine points in seven games before he was called up to replace Krejci.
Right Wing - BOS
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 19
SOG: 72 | +/-: 12
With a couple of other lines working well, Julien decided to plug in Spooner between Lucic and Pastrnak rather than split them or give them a better two-way linemate, Chris Kelly
or Loui Eriksson
, to keep the line honest. Julien has been forced to make in-game changes based on situations, but when an offense has ranked in the bottom third of the NHL most of the season and an eighth straight playoff berth is hanging in the balance, a coach and an organization have to be willing to tolerate some blemishes when the added firepower is such a benefit.
"It's a normal work in progress," Julien said. "I think some of those guys get caught in their own end and are still not quite comfortable at doing the thing. But nonetheless, I think right now the offense has been outweighing the defense. They're only going to get better with time, so you've got to live with those situations at times."
If the Bruins can continue to succeed the way they've been lately, they'll definitely be able to live with those situations.