Having skated between games and practices as an added bonus of growing up the son of a Bruins player, Ryan Donato has scored dozens of “goals” on TD Garden — or rather, Fleet Center — ice. While playing college hockey locally at Harvard, Donato had the opportunity to score a few more — in a more official setting.
Even so, none of those previous goals will live to be as special as his second-period tally for the Bruins on Monday night. Making his NHL debut, Donato did not look like a kid playing pickup during the after-hours at the Garden. Nor did he look like someone who had been playing college hockey just three nights prior.
Going from an ECAC semifinal contest against Clarkson University to an NHL tilt against the red-hot Columbus Blue Jackets is no easy task. Donato, however, made it look simple. That was evident from his first shift, the entire process leading up to his first career NHL goal, and all the way through his final shift in three-on-three overtime.
“He’s on the puck, as advertised, in terms of his compete. [He] wanted to shoot the puck, and I think early [on] he was trying to make some plays and then realized, ‘Just listen, play to your strengths,'” head coach Bruce Cassidy said of his brand new forward. “[Ryan] did a real good job, I didn’t notice anything away from the puck…I’m sure there [were] a few teaching moments once you go over the game tape and go from there.”
Donato showed promising signs of being NHL-ready thanks to a stellar season with Harvard (43 points off 26 goals and 17 assists) and an equally impressive performance for Team USA at the Winter Olympics (a team-high six points off five goals and an assist). All in all, the time was ripe for him to make the jump to professional hockey — and, in turn, complete a life-long dream.
“It is a dream come true even going out there. It just doesn’t seem real yet,” Donato said after Monday’s morning skate, just one day after signing his two-year entry-level contract. “It is something to get used to…I just want to play well and do whatever I can to help the team.”
A moment that has surely played in his head over and over again as a 21-year-old Massachusetts native, Monday’s performance is one Donato will never forget.
“You obviously never expect to go into your first NHL game and have chances,” he said postgame. “For me, I was just going in with a positive attitude, and no matter what role they had me in I was trying to do my best…I was fortunate to get a couple of bounces, and it almost went in a couple of times. Obviously, one went in, too, and that was great.”
Even taking his goal out of the equation, Donato was still impressive. His first-period display proved the perfect glimpse into what the Bruins see in the young rookie, and why he chose to leave after three years at Harvard.
The most eye-popping parts of Donato’s game were his net-front presence on the power play and his shoot-first mentality. The 21-year-old center had no issues filling the injured Rick Nash’s role on the Bruins’ first line power play unit as a net-front player.
When the puck found his stick, Donato did what he does best: shoot. He had a team-high four shots on goal in the opening frame.
As for his positioning on the power play, Donato doesn’t have the body type that screams “get me to the net” in a man-advantage situation; however, in Monday night’s contest, he made up for it with his heart and hockey IQ.
“Well, I asked him [about his power play positioning]. He said he played half wall; if he wasn’t at the half wall, he was net-front. So what did we do? We put him at the bumper this morning,” Cassidy recalled with a laugh. “That was basically out of wanting to get him on a unit, and that was the available spot.”
Other than a frantic bullet of a pass that linemate David Krejci couldn’t handle in a two-on-one, Donato did not show many nerves. The lights weren’t too bright for Donato — at least in this instance.
“I mean, for me, I was just staying focused, kind of keeping the head between the glass,” Donato said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a crazy experience, no matter how the game goes for me. I just wanted to stay focused and…remain in the game and not get too crazy.”
Playing on a line with the youngster was certainly a different feel for his vastly more experienced teammate, Krejci. The veteran centerman admitted that aside from a few of Donato’s Olympic games, he hadn’t heard or seen much of him.
“I [hadn’t] heard much, but watched some games at the Olympics. So I knew he had a good shot. I only saw a few games he played for Team USA,” Krejci admitted.
Yet that lack of familiarity didn’t stop the 31-year-old from being impressed with what he saw from Donato on Monday night.
“He was playing well, he was battling down low, he was making some plays. So like I said, good game for him,” Krejci assessed. “For [a] first NHL game, you can’t really ask for anything better than he did. Good game, and hopefully he can keep it up.”
The rookie finished the night with a goal, two assists, six shots, and 19:40 of ice time.
Donato’s goal came off help from Torey Krug and Danton Heinen, two fellow NCAA alums who found success at their respective schools. Both Heinen and Donato were initially drafted by the Bruins in 2014.
That put Donato with Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Sean Kuraly, Matt Grzelcyk, Peter Cehlarik, and Anders Bjork as the eighth Bruin who have netted their first career NHL goals this season.
Even though his days of playing for the Crimson are in the rearview mirror, Donato still has one more collegiate honor he hopes to check off his list. The now-former Harvard standout is a finalist for the Hobey Baker award, given to the top men’s hockey player in the NCAA.
The last Hobey Baker winner to make his NHL debut before winning the accolade? Matt Carle in 2006. Twelve years later, Donato hopes to become the latest answer to the Hobey Baker/NHL debut trivia question.