Line change puts a jump into Ryder and Wheeler
WILMINGTON — Of all the culprits involved in making the Bruins’ offense the worst in the league during the regular season, there were few more culpable than Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler.
Until a 2-spot against Washington in the regular-season finale, Ryder had netted just one goal in 22 games. Wheeler, his partner in crime, had just one goal and one assist in the last 14 games. Their efforts were at their worst in a 1-0 home loss to Florida April 1 when they were the only forwards not to put a single puck on net.
They were struggling so much — playing a soft, east-west style instead of straight-line hockey — that coach Claude Julien had no choice but to yank them away from David Krejci, dumping them with Vladimir Sobotka.
Turns out that Sobotka was exactly what Wheeler and Ryder needed to bring some bark to their games.
“It’s kind of strange a little bit,’’ said Julien, whose team will try to close out its first-round series against the Sabres when they meet tonight in Buffalo for Game 5. “You move those guys off the line because you felt David, at one point, was the player that was playing the best on that line. You needed to give him a little bit of a different look. You move those guys around, and now those guys are playing some of their best hockey ever with Vladi.’’
For most of last season, when Krejci centered Wheeler and Ryder, the threesome gave the Bruins fearsome offensive depth. At times, when Patrice Bergeron was still looking for his offensive touch, Krejci & Co. served as the No. 2 line behind Milan Lucic, Marc Savard, and Phil Kessel.
But for some reason, that chemistry rarely existed this season. They were too soft. They were careless with the puck. They floated instead of driving to the net. Now, with Sobotka leading the charge (and earning punches and cross-checks from Sabres who have taken exception to his belligerence), Wheeler and Ryder are playing up to their beefy frames.
“Both those guys had been good with David. Right now, both those guys are great with Vladi,’’ Julien said. “Vladi is one of those guys, right now, that I really like the way he’s driving the net once we get across the blue line. If he hasn’t got the puck, he’s driving the net.
“He’s a force out there. I think that’s created room for those guys. With a straight-line approach with Vladi, there’s less criss-crossing with those guys, which was probably happening a little too much there with Krech at one point when that line went stale.’’
Now, as the No. 3 line, Wheeler, Sobotka, and Ryder are giving the Bruins the three-line offensive clout they once had. Ryder, replacing Lucic on the No. 2 power-play unit, set up Miroslav Satan for the winning goal in double overtime Wednesday night, securing a 3-2 victory in Game 4 and a three-games-to-one lead in the series.
After taking a pass from Tuukka Rask, Ryder carried the puck up the ice, blew past Mike Grier, and looked for his options once he entered the offensive zone. Because of how strong Ryder has been on the puck, he faced little resistance while setting up Satan.
“Last year, that’s what he did,’’ Wheeler said. “He’d lug the puck and nobody could take it from him. I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. So when he has the puck, he feels like he can make something happen with it.
“On Miro’s goal, he went through a guy and made a [heck] of a pass. I haven’t seen Rydes make a pass like that. That was a great, great play. When he’s playing with confidence, that’s what he does. It’s something that comes from within him.
“How many times did we see last year, when he had the puck on his stick for 15 seconds and nobody could take it away from him? It’s something that, when he’s playing with confidence, he does really well.’’
Approximately five minutes into overtime, Wheeler had a chance to end the night. While Bergeron was serving a tripping penalty, Krejci opened up Wheeler for a shorthanded breakaway. At first, Wheeler thought he had enough time to deke Ryan Miller. But Jason Pominville, applying serious back pressure, forced Wheeler to hurry his shot, which thudded into Miller’s pads.
While Wheeler didn’t score on the shorthanded chance, he logged 1:49 of time on the penalty kill, second among forwards to Krejci (1:57). Buffalo went 0 for 2 on the power play and didn’t land a single man-advantage shot.
For Wheeler, a healthy scratch by the end of last year’s second round, a chance to contribute at either end is an opportunity he appreciates.
“I was up in the press box watching these games last year,’’ Wheeler said. “It’s a terrible feeling, having to watch your team battle and you’re not out there.
“To be out there, doing everything you can to contribute, is a great feeling. Especially contributing to wins is a huge feeling.
“I guess that’s kind of getting the hang of things. You learn your lesson and try to apply it.’’