By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — When the movie is made about this Bruins season — and inevitably it will be made because we all know Bruce Cassidy is going to lead them to the ultimate prize — Johnny Knoxville will have a part.
And if Drew Stafford, who’s the spitting image of the actor, continues to play the way he did in his Bruins debut Saturday, Knoxville will have a leading role.
Stafford set a season-high with seven shots on net, was credited with four hits and, most importantly, set up linemate Ryan Spooner for the game-winning goal 8:18 into the third period in a 3-2 win against the New Jersey Devils at TD Garden.
“Couldn’t ask for much more than that,” Stafford said. “Big win with the boys. Was able to get settled in here for a day and a half or so. It was still kind of a quick turnaround to kind of jump in, but the boys have been great, very supportive, the coaching staff, everybody. So it made it easy, just had to go play, get back to kind of how I know I can play. I’ve got an opportunity to kind of get back to the rhythm and the routine of the minutes and making plays.”
Many people have wanted to escape Winnipeg. Few have succeeded. Stafford, who had just four goals in 40 games this season with the Jets, was released when the Jets sent Stafford to Boston on Wednesday for a conditional sixth-round pick in the 2018 NHL Draft. Stafford is just one season removed from scoring 21 goals in a Jets sweater.
Stafford arrived in Boston on Thursday and then took part in an optional practice Friday. His first full practice was the morning skate Saturday, but you never would’ve known Stafford, Spooner and Frank Vatrano hadn’t been linemates for months by the way they played. It wasn’t just the winning goal because the trio had chances from the drop of the puck. Stafford landed his first shot on goal two minutes into the game.
A video review overturned what would’ve been Stafford’s first Bruins goal in the second period because of goaltender interference. But even that questionable call couldn’t ruin a special night. And with the pesky Devils even with the Bruins 2-2 in the third period, Stafford’s line was rewarded.
First Vatrano decked defenseman Damon Severson behind the Devils net and stripped the puck away. Vatrano hit Stafford with a pass at the left hash mark and Stafford fed Spooner to the right of the slot for a flip-in just before goaltender Cory Schneider could dive back into position.
“[Spooner’s] a great player, same with Frankie. We get in on the forecheck and make little plays underneath sticks and stuff like that,” Stafford said. ‘I like hanging on to the puck and making those kind of plays myself, so it was a great start. But we got a lot of work to do to keep getting better and take it day by day here.”
With one assist, Stafford already has 1/5 the production Jimmy Hayes, the previous resident of that right-wing spot, had in 49 games this season. Stafford had seven shots in one game; Hayes had five shots in his last eight games combined. General manager Don Sweeney made the minor trade for Stafford, but Cassidy picked the line for the left-shot wing. And like everything else Cassidy has done since he took over for Claude Julien on Feb. 7, the placement of Stafford worked to perfection.
It all started with a brief consultation between Stafford, Cassidy and the coaching staff.
“I said ‘listen Drew you’ve been a good pro in this league. You’ve brought offense and [been] a good solid player so let’s get back to that player,’” said Cassidy now 8-2-0 as head coach. “And mostly what we asked is ‘are you more comfortable on the right wing or the left wing?’ and we’d slot him in accordingly. Our plan was to put him in with Spooner and Vatrano, see how that fit, maybe mix him around. … I thought he responded well and did the things that we expected. When the puck was on his stick, he was dangerous tonight and that’s what we want from our offensive guys while still playing that 200-foot game. Like I said, he checked all the boxes tonight in terms of being a successful night for him.”
Every time you expect this Bruins fairy tale to end, it just gets juicier and more characters enter the mix. Stafford was the star of the latest chapter. We’ll see if he can continue to help the Bruins to a move-worthy ending.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @TheBruinsBlog.