Nick Bonino, hero of Game 1 for the Pittsburgh Penguins, credits his clutch scoring ways to a zen-like mentality. That makes him a deadly assassin.
PITTSBURGH – Penguins center Nick Bonino attracts clutch goals like a human magnet. He entered Game 1 of his first Stanley Cup final with three career overtime winners, including a series-clincher against the Washington Capitals in this year’s Metropolitan Division final. Bonino had four game-winning goals in 48 career post-season contests. And in game No. 49, he puffed up the number to five.
With just 2:33 remaining in a 2-2 game, one in which the San Jose Sharks fought back from a 2-0 deficit after a blowout first period, Bonino added another memorable goal to his expanding collection. He took a gorgeous seeing-eye pass from defenseman Kris Letang, corralled the puck and roofed it past goalie Martin Jones. The Pens held on for a 3-2 win. A look at the goal:
Back to the magnet analogy. It fits, because Bonino doesn’t hunt for the epic moments. They just find him. And he knows exactly why.
“Just the biggest thing for me is to try and stay even keel and not change my game, whether it’s game 1 of the season or the Stanley Cup final,” Bonino said. “That allows me to stay in the moment there.”
The high-stakes situations appear to roll off him. The Penguins and their opponents have grown accustomed to seeing Bonino popping up on the blue ice during a late-game scramble and calmly depositing loose pucks or burying Hail Mary passes like Letang’s.
“ ‘Bones’ may not be known as a goal scorer, but he’s got a heavy stick, he can find pucks, and he’s really slippery,” said Penguins left winger Chris Kunitz. “He does all the things right. He found himself in a great position and capitalized on it. So, any time you’re in the slot, get him the puck. It seems like we find a way to win when he scores.”
It’s fascinating to hear Bones’ teammates describe him exactly the way he describes himself, too. He mentioned the even-keel mentality after Game 1, and coach Mike Sullivan used virtually the same words. He said Bonino’s heartrate never gets too high, that he’s excellent working with Pittsburgh’s young players, and that he’s a generally reassuring presence on and off the ice. He’s the stone-cold hitman you want on your side, the one whose hand does not shake when it’s time to bury the other team in a kill-or-be-killed moment.
Yet a player so seemingly indispensable, the man in the middle of the HBK line with Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, was deemed the opposite of indispensable last summer and the summer before that. Bonino contributed four goals and eight points for the Anaheim Ducks in the 2014 playoffs, and his reward was a ticket to Vancouver as part of the Ryan Kesler trade on draft day. The next off-season, after one year as the Canucks’ No. 2 center: another heave-ho, this time to Pittsburgh in a package for Brandon Sutter. Bonino always seemed to be the throw-in guy in a trade, a pawn teams maneuvered to help them acquire other pieces they preferred for their chessboards.
But that’s changed. Now Bonino looks like a crucial part of his team.
“He’s a terrific player in every aspect of the game,” Sullivan said. “We use him in so many key situations both offensively and defensively. He’s a guy who has a real high hockey IQ and sees the ice really well. He has real good hands, and his awareness defensively and the use of his stick to take passing lanes away is impressive. He’s brave, he blocks shots, he’s one of our better shot blockers, he’s a good faceoff guy, so he’s done so much for this team to help us get to this point. I don’t know what other praise I can shower on him right now.”
That sure sounds like someone who views Bonino as a core piece, not a bargaining chip. Bonino has one year left on his contract at a bargain cap hit of $1.9 million, but he may have found a long-term fit, even if he thinks it’s too soon to officially admit it.
“I don’t know about long term, you never know, especially the last two summers,” he said with a chuckle. “I think I’ve found a home for sure. I enjoy the guys, I enjoy the team, the organization’s first class, so it definitely feels nice to be in the Cup final. Playing with these two guys (Hagelin and Kessel) has been a lot of fun.”
So was winning Game 1. It was an uneven performance for the Penguins, who let the Sharks off the mat in the second period, but Pittsburgh bookended Game 1 with brilliant first and third periods. They blitzed Sharks goalie Martin Jones with 15 shots in the first and 18 more in the third. Pittsburgh finished the game with the edge in shot attempts, 67-58.
Score Round 1 for the black and gold. But this still feels like it’ll be a long series. The Sharks absorbed a vicious early attack, spit the blood in a bucket and counterpunched hard. Now the question is whether the never-ending pressure from the Pens will wear them down like a barrage of body blows.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin