By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — A funny thing happened while Ryan Spooner was missing 19 of the first 29 Bruins games this season with a groin injury.
He graduated from one of the young, up-and-coming players to a veteran who’s looked at for guidance.
Well, Spooner’s ascension didn’t happen on his own. He just happened to get healthy just as David Krejci was leaving the lineup with a mysterious upper-body injury. Coach Bruce Cassidy didn’t want to mess with the chemistry of the Brad Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-David Pastrnak and Danton Heinen-Riley Nash-David Backes lines, so the coach entrusted Spooner to fill Krejci’s spot between two rookies, Anders Bjork and Jake DeBrusk.
The line with the 25-year-old Spooner centering the two first-year wings continued to impress in the Bruins’ 5-1 romp of Ottawa on Wednesday at TD Garden.
“Yeah, it’s fine. I’ve been trying to stay back and I’ve just kind of told them, I’ve said ‘when we’re forechecking I’ll just be the third guy and they can go. Just make sure that I’m back,’” explained Spooner after the Bruins extended their winning streak to five games with a win against the Senators. “They have tons of skill and speed and all that kind of stuff. So it’s been easy for me, it’s been fun, so it’s good.”
Spooner and Bjork actually picked up their points against Ottawa in the midst of line changes. Bjork wound up setting up Riley Nash’s second goal. Spooner got an assist on Danton Heinen’s score, but regardless of the recipient of Spooner’s pass, it was encouraging to see Spooner make a move in the direction of the opposing net and make a play.
For years, including this season, Spooner has been babysat on his line by stronger two-way centers like Nash and David Backes or placed out of position on the wing. Piling all the responsibilities of a center on him while he was trying to work his way back from injury and deal with inexperience on his wings could’ve been a disaster. But Spooner’s line has produced, has only been broken up for a shift here or there in the four games it has been together, and has been trusted at some crucial points of games, including with a one-goal lead against Detroit in the third period last Saturday.
Although he missed the Dec. 21 win against Winnipeg because of illness, Spooner has been healthy and has five assists in his past five games. He has also (miraculously?) won 65 percent (21 of 32) faceoffs, a bugaboo that’s held him back the past several years.
Earlier it looked like Spooner’s season was going to go to waste. He had one point in his first five games, then the groin injury kept him out for a month, then he couldn’t stay in the lineup every time he thought he was healthy. While Spooner was trying to get right, the Bruins were right as could be. His position on the team was somewhat in doubt.
“You kind of think that, yeah,” Spooner said. “But I was hurt there for a bit and missed six or seven weeks, so that’s kind of what happens. I was happy that we won all those games and that’s the most important thing, right? So I just have to make sure that when I’m in the lineup and I help the team win.”
What was supposed to be the season Spooner harnessed the motivation of his one-year contract and established his place as a legitimate top-six forward worthy of a multi-year contract was nearly a lost year. Fortuitously, Krejci’s absence opened up a spot for Spooner and he’s thrived in it. He’s never had as much speed on his wings as DeBrusk and Bjork have provided. He also hasn’t been this empowered to drive a line since that short stint he had with Milan Lucic and David Pastrnak back in 2015.
“I kind of want to show that I can play there and they can trust me,” Spooner said. “I think that’s the next step for me and I said it at the beginning of the year, I’m on a one-year deal here and we’ve talked and they want to see more consistency and more compete and that’s what I’ve been trying to do. Hopefully that helps out again. I just want to help out the team. I just want to win here and that’s the main thing for me here.”
By playing a stronger game and taking a couple of rookies under his wing, Spooner may be salvaging his career, or at least extending his stay in Boston. Depending on how long Krejci’s out, Spooner may also be helping to save the Bruins’ season.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter@MattKalman.