By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy had just spent some time with Ryan Donato before and during the rookie’s first NHL morning skate Monday, and the bench boss was being asked about how Donato’s experiences at the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea could help the player in his debut at the sport’s highest level.
Cassidy cut off his questioner and said that he saw Donato score five goals at the Games, so he’d like to see more of that.
As has often happened with Cassidy during this gloriously successful Bruins season, the coach asked and his wish was granted.
It took Donato just until 5:41 into the second period to score his first NHL goal, which became part of a three-point night in the Bruins’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets at TD Garden.
“I mean it was fun,” Donato said. “Obviously it ended tough but at the end of the day I was excited and I think it all went well, personally. But I’d say it’s still bitter because of the loss.”
Bitterness from losses – especially overtime defeats that come with a loser point in the standings – dissipate easily around the Bruins these days. The second-place Bruins still gained ground on the idle Tampa Bay Lightning (three points ahead of Boston) and added to their lead on Toronto (six points behind) in the Atlantic Division. The Bruins’ luxurious place in the standings has allowed them the chance to experiment, to fine-tune their game and to give a 21-year-old three days removed from college hockey a chance to factor in the playoff race for other teams.
So despite the result on the scoreboard, it was a triumphant premier for the Scituate native and son of former Bruins forward Ted Donato. It wasn’t without its bumps along the way.
The “whirlwind” Donato experienced the past four days began with Harvard losing to Clarkson in the ECAC Hockey semifinals Friday. Donato signed a two-year entry-level contract with the Bruins on Sunday and was on the ice Monday morning at Warrior Ice Arena. He practiced on left wing on a line with Noel Acciari at center and Olympic teammate Brian Gionta on right wing. After the formal part of practice Donato chatted with center Patrice Bergeron, who participated in a morning skate for the first time since fracturing his foot a couple of weeks ago, about how to do a particular drill.
Donato was looking forward to the comforts of playing with Gionta, a player with whom he built some chemistry at the Olympics, but by late afternoon his first NHL adversity arrived in the form of Rick Nash’s upper-body injury, which had been nagging him since Saturday. With Nash out of the lineup, Cassidy cast Donato in a more prominent role as the left wing on the Bruins’ second line with center David Krejci and right wing Danton Heinen.
It took one shift for that adversity to be conquered. Donato landed a backhand shot on Columbus goalie Joonas Korpisalo, the first of four shots he’d land in the period and six shots he would get on net (second on the Bruins only to Brad Marchand’s eight shots on net) in the game.
Donato didn’t enjoy completely smooth sailing throughout the night. There was the partial breakaway he had, but he could barely get off a significant shot. And what was he doing standing in front of the Columbus net watching a scrum between Marchand and several Blue Jackets rather than joining the fray during a second-period power play?
One could forgive the 2014 second-round pick if he got caught watching in awe a little bit considering he was living a dream come true. And his own awe-inspiring play made up for any minor missteps he made in his inaugural appearance for the Bruins. He scored the goal with a snipe from the faceoff dot after a perfect pass from Torey Krug on a 3-on-2. He assisted on Riley Nash’s power-play goal later in the second by jamming at a rebound. He set up Krejci’s game-tying goal with a drive to the net and a backhand pass to the streaking center.
“He was making plays,” Krejci said succinctly.
The fairy tale ending proved elusive, as Donato and overtime superhero Marchand failed to secure the two points in the extra session and instead Columbus’ Cam Atkinson got to celebrate the game-winning goal.
Donato, however, proved that his decision to leave school early was a wise one for him and the Bruins. And he proved his sage teammate Gionta prophetic.
“Obviously it’s a little different on the bigger ice, but I think his skill set, obviously composure with the puck, he can make plays, got a great release on the shot, so all that’s going to translate well to this level as well,” Gionta said about Donato’s game after the morning skate.
The Bruins have 11 games remaining in the regular season, and then there will be playoffs. There’s no telling how Donato will hold up as his whirlwind gets more difficult, no way to predict how injuries and matchups will affect the Bruins’ lineup.
With a game well worth building upon in his debut, though, Donato proved he could provide just what his coach and the organization wants from him, and what the Bruins might need for a long run in the postseason.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.