Boston Bruins

By Ty Anderson, 985TheSportsHub.com

If you’re expecting Bruins winger Ryan Donato to slide back into the lineup and be a dominating force in tonight’s borderline must-win Game 4 against the Lightning at TD Garden, you’re probably going to be disappointed.

For a team that needs every forward and defenseman to play much better than they have in the last 120 minutes (something Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy flat out admitted after Friday’s optional morning skate in Brighton), it’s not on just the 22-year-old Donato to keep the B’s from getting pushed to the brink of elimination.

But there’s most definitely ways for the Black and Gold to maximize what Donato can do in this game.

First of all, I’m completely willing to read into Thursday’s practice at Warrior Ice Arena.

You do not waste an hour-long practice — heavy on finding new ways to get through Tampa Bay’s relentless forecheck and defensive pressure — with Donato skating to the left of David Krejci and Rick Nash if you don’t have some sort of intention of playing him with that combination tonight. Yes, it’s worth noting that the line’s normal left winger (Jake DeBrusk) was off the ice due to a maintenance day and you needed somebody there. But Cassidy easily could have done something like throwing Tommy Wingels there to let Donato instead skate with his expected linemates. After all, Cassidy definitely went into Thursday’s practice knowing that he was going to play Donato in Game 4.

Consider the fact that Donato played 75 percent of his even-strength action on a line with Krejci in the regular season (Donato played with Krejci for 106:57 and just 34:51 without him), and this is the most natural fit. Consider how the Bruins utilized the Donato-Krejci combo in the regular season, too, with heavy offensive-zone action in an at times sheltered role and what they need in this series (more legitimate scoring chances) and it’s his optimal fit.

You’re simply not going to get the best out of Donato if he’s on a third line with Riley Nash or Noel Acciari at center (they rotated during Thursday’s practice and Nash took part in the optional skate, meaning he could be out tonight) and Backes on the right. And given how infrequently that line begins in the o-zone, it simply makes no sense.

But assuming DeBrusk is well enough to play (Cassidy called him a game-time decision while DeBrusk himself believes that he’ll be good to go tonight), Donato taking his spot on the second line would leave him without a home.

Until you see what the Bruins need just below their second line.

In what has been a downright disastrous third line this round (the Bruins have been outshot 16-to-4 with the Danton Heinen-Riley Nash-David Backes combo on the ice), Cassidy can no longer ignore the fact that it needs to change up.

And moving the all-effort, all-the-time DeBrusk down to the third line would not be the demotion it appears on the surface. You could make the case that it would almost be a reward of sorts, as it would be Cassidy asking the fresh-faced rookie to pick up that third line and lead by example. The Bruins have also seen enough of DeBrusk’s game this postseason to realize that he’s not going to simply stop trying because he’s not with Krejci and Nash on line two, and Cassidy even tinkered with DeBrusk skating on line three with Riley Nash late in their Game 3 loss, too.

If there’s a jolt of life to be given to that Acciari/Nash-Backes combo, it would be with DeBrusk’s puck-hounding style.

These slight tweaks also do not force Cassidy to simply marry any of his potential combinations; Rick Nash is able to slide down to the third line with Riley Nash and Backes if the B’s want (they have prior experience together), or they can even consider moving DeBrusk up to reunite the late-season trio of DeBrusk-Krejci-Donato if they get desperate.

No matter how it’s sliced by Cassidy, it’s a move that will undoubtedly bolster the overall even-strength scoring punch of your middle two lines, which has been among the Bruins’ biggest issues in their last three games.

Donato can and should make an impact beyond five-on-five play, too.

Despite the fact that the Bruins have gone 2-for-5 on the man advantage in this series (and come into tonight’s game with a playoff-best 34.6 percent success rate on the power play this spring), it feels that there’s something more that can be done with this group. That’s where you can make a simple-but-effective flip of sorts, moving Donato back into Rick Nash’s spot as the net-front guy on the first unit, and move Nash down to the second unit as the net-front guy.

In 12 games with Donato on the ice as the net-front presence on the B’s first unit, the Bruins scored nine goals in 28 power-play minutes. Donato, basically asked to be Nash, had direct involvement in four of those nine goals.

Moving Nash down to the second unit, while seemingly unconventional given his resume, would work for a multitude of reasons. One? It would take Backes, who has been a rough watch in the attacking zone this postseason, off that unit. Two? It would theoretically put Nash back with DeBrusk and Krejci, and with the chance for these players to get back on the same page with some results, even if they’re at five-on-four play instead of five-on-five.

Cassidy will find the offensive balance he seeks with Donato in action.

But it’s on everybody — from Cassidy to Donato to his linemates and beyond — to make sure they maximize it.

Ty Anderson is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Ty? Follow him on Twitter @_TyAnderson.