Mobbed by reporters after the morning skate on Tuesday, Ryan Spooner walked into the spotlight. David Krejci would be missing at least a month of action due to an MCL tear in his knee and with the Bruins tenuously holding on to a playoff spot, wins were of the utmost importance.
Spooner, who has now appeared in 34 NHL games spread over three seasons, was well aware of the stakes.
“I kinda just thought, 'this is my last chance here, so go out and have fun,' " he said. "Well, maybe not the last chance, but I've been up and down, up and down, so for now I just want to play well.”
He's never had a better opportunity in the NHL, though on the flip side, he's never had so much pressure. Spooner has been centering Boston's second line with Milan Lucic and David Pastrnak, a line that is expected to produce offense. In his first game action since being recalled from AHL Providence, Spooner notched an assist in Boston's surprise 6-2 win over Chicago, which also snapped a six-game losing streak.
“ 'Spoons' came in and did a nice job," said coach Claude Julien. "He's capable of it and he has gained more confidence every time he has come up. He just has to grow and have more confidence at this level. He hasn't scored because he hasn't taken the puck to the net. Last game I didn't see him shy away from anything.”
That night against Vancouver, Spooner couldn't get his line on track and the Bruins went down 2-1 to the Canucks, who got a nice 40-save performance from goalie Eddie Lack. Boston still has ownership of the final wild card playoff spot in the East, but only because it has become a turtle race: The Bruins are 2-6-2 in their past 10 games while Florida is right behind them at 3-4-3 and Philly is 4-2-4.
Spooner, who comes in at 5-foot-11, 181 pounds, is most effective when he is using his speed and the youngster acknowledged that when he doesn't utilize that skill, his game suffers dramatically. He's also a much better center than he is a winger, so his place in the lineup is pretty much locked in as a scoring-line pivot, since his defense is also a work in progress. But at least it's on his radar.
“For me right now, I'm going to focus on my own end," Spooner said. "And if I play well there it will translate to the offensive side of things.”
In terms of possession numbers, Spooner hasn't put up great digits this season, though the sample size is just seven games – not that Spooner is expected to carry the load on his line. Julien actually believes the veteran power forward Lucic will be the key and the Chicago game was a great example of that.
"He played heavy, he was very involved and he went to the net," Julien said. "It's important for 'Looch' to take control of that line for now and lead with his experience."
Lucic showed flashes of that in the loss against Vancouver, though a lot of the good vibes were killed in the second when he took a hooking penalty on Jannik Hansen. Nonetheless, that line needs to get going fast.
Boston has winnable games coming up against opponents such as New Jersey and Arizona, though tougher squads such as Detroit, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh are lurking beyond that. The trade deadline could make a big difference, but GM Peter Chiarelli is in a tough spot: The Bruins do not look like one of the best teams in the East right now, so mortgaging the future for another Stanley Cup run doesn't look prudent. On the other hand, what if they miss the playoffs altogether because of Krejci's absence?
Spooner has a very short window in which to prove himself, since the trade deadline is Monday. Either he's the answer or, quite possibly, the trade bait himself. At the least, his teammates still believe in the 23-year-old's upside.
“He's very fast and he can get to places quick," said left winger Brad Marchand. "When he plays with confidence and moves the puck the way he can, he's a good player so hopefully he can continue to play that way.”
Does Bruins management share that opinion? We'll know the answer soon enough.