Ryder has put game in high gear
What a difference a year makes.
Deemed not good enough to suit up for every game last season in Montreal's opening-round playoff series against the Bruins, Michael Ryder changed sweaters in the offseason, and so far has drastically changed his fortunes.
Ryder continued his torrid playoff stretch last night, assisting on the Bruins' first goal and scoring the game-breaking third goal in a 4-1 win over Carolina in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
"Playoff time is always the funnest time of the year," Ryder said. "In order to win, you have to battle hard every night, and that's what we're trying to do. Me, I just have to skate and shoot the puck and try and create room."
He did all that against the Hurricanes, a continuation of his effort in the playoffs that's seen him score a team-high five goals in five games, all Boston wins. The first four goals and wins came against Montreal, the team that selected him in the eighth round of the 1998 draft, making the series win even sweeter. Ryder scored twice in the clinching game, in Montreal.
The 29-year-old spent four seasons with the Canadiens, scoring 25, 30, and 30 goals his first three seasons. But his total fell off last season (14 goals), one of the reasons Montreal deemed Ryder expendable. The Canadiens didn't offer the right wing a contract, and the Bruins made him a target on the first day of the NHL's free agency period last July, signing the Newfoundland native to a three-year, $12 million contract.
He may have switched sides in one of hockey's fiercest rivalries, but the transition was seamless. He and Bruins coach Claude Julien have a history, with Ryder playing on three previous teams under Julien, including Montreal.
"I just wanted to come in and help," Ryder said. "I know my strengths. The way these guys welcomed me in, it doesn't even feel like I wasn't here last year. The guys and the coaching staff have done a great job making me feel comfortable. I knew if I play my game I could help this team."
That's been evident all season. Ryder scored 27 goals in the regular season - second on the team to Phil Kessel's 36 - and added 26 assists.
His offensive strengths were on display in Game 1. Roughly 90 seconds in, Ryder sent a pass to Aaron Ward, who rifled a shot that was tipped in by David Krejci for an early jolt. The Bruins may have been forced to cool off for eight days after their sweep of the Canadiens, but their hot play picked right back up.
Ryder saved his best move for the second period, five minutes after Marc Savard had given the Bruins a 2-1 lead. Just entering the game on a line change, Ryder stole a lazy cross-ice pass by Tuomo Ruutu at the Hurricane blue line, creating a two-on-one opportunity with Blake Wheeler to his right. Ryder eyed an opening, and fired the puck past Cam Ward high on his glove side. The goal pushed the Bruins' lead to 3-1 with 7:19 left in the period, and signaled the unofficial beginning of the Game 1 celebration.
"I stepped in and it came right on my stick," Ryder said. "[Wheeler] was driving, he gave me a little more time, and I wanted to get a quick shot on net."
Said Milan Lucic: "He's been a key to our success, especially the type of goal he scored - being in the right position in the neutral zone, clogging it up, making the turnover. He was able to come and rip it like we've seen him do a lot of times this year."
Five playoff games, five goals, four assists. The Bruins made an investment in Ryder, and are enjoying the returns. But, as Lucic repeated after the win, it's only a start. New Jersey handed Carolina a 4-1 loss in Game 1 of the last series; the Hurricanes won in seven games.
"There's little things we have to work on, areas we weren't as sharp," Ryder said. "Maybe it was the delay that had us a little sluggish or a little off, but I think we've done a good job."
Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org