By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
The Bruins got Nick Ritchie for a series like this.
Ritchie often looked overmatched in the Bruins’ series against the Carolina Hurricanes, but it was a poor matchup for him to begin with. The Bruins took a stranglehold on the series once they removed Ritchie and defenseman Jeremy Lauzon from the lineup, in favor of Jack Studnicka and Connor Clifton. Their improved speed and skill proved beneficial against the lighter, faster Hurricanes.
The Tampa Bay Lightning are different. They’re the NHL’s most complete team. And most importantly, they still boast much of the same size and heft that smothered the Bruins when they faced each other in the playoffs two years ago – and, for that matter, doomed them against the St. Louis Blues last June. At some point, they’ll need someone with Ritchie’s size and snarl to push back.
His presence alone won’t be enough. In the Bruins’ only loss to Carolina, Ritchie got outmuscled for a puck against the slighter Warren Foegele before getting caught in no-man’s land for a Hurricanes goal. The performance precipitated his removal from the lineup, but now he’s likely to get a fresh opportunity in a more favorable matchup against Tampa. He will also need to be more physically and mentally engaged than he showed in his last appearance.
“I think he’ll certainly contribute for us. Especially if we go deep into the playoffs,” Bruins president Cam Neely said on Ritchie earlier this week. “It was a little different series. That was a fast team that we played in Carolina. Maybe not necessarily as physical. I think we’ll see Nick down the road, for sure.”
Head coach Bruce Cassidy tipped his hand a little bit in a recent press conference, but Sunday’s morning skate will be the true tell. The Bruins are inevitably going to need a bigger, heavier forward to get inside on Tampa’s back-end, where a stable of tall, long blue liners with shutdown acumen await.
Ritchie is and has always been the logical choice, ever since the Bruins swapped Danton Heinen for him at the trade deadline. He looked more like he belonged in the Bruins’ round-robin game against Tampa, but struggled to produce as a second-line winger. Now that David Krejci is humming with linemates Jake DeBrusk and Ondrej Kase, Ritchie will have a chance to settle in and make a bigger impact in a third-line role.
“If it’s Tampa you’re probably going to see Nick,” Cassidy said, before the Bruins knew their opponent. “They’ve got some bigger heavier forwards as well that he could match up well against too, so just a better overall matchup for him. He’ll probably play with [Charlie] Coyle, and then we’d look at the right side who’s the best fit, is it [Anders] Björk, is it Jack. We tried [Sean] Kuraly back over there, we tried that in training camp, didn’t work out that well for us, they didn’t find the chemistry, so probably not a route we’d go unless we were forced to.”
Against Tampa’s third line, Ritchie would ideally be a big-enough frame to limit space for the skilled Yanni Gourde and Blake Coleman. And he should also be able to fight fire with fire against Barclay Goodrow, who drew the ire of Boston when he delivered a dangerous hit to the head area of the Bruins’ Anders Björk.
Most of what’s said for Ritchie can be said for Lauzon. His recent growth spurt gave the Bruins defense an element of size, length, and sturdiness that they’ve missed on the third pairing. Clifton stood out once he entered the lineup against Carolina and it wouldn’t exactly be fair to pull him now, especially since he also brings a physical edge. But for Lauzon, this matchup certainly makes more sense than the last one.
Boston’s last two playoff exits came in large part because heavy, well-structured opposing defenses silenced the No. 1 line. That will once again be the biggest factor in the series against Tampa. But when Ritchie is at his best, he gives the B’s some qualities that they’ve painfully lacked in recent playoff runs. The hope is he provides an instant power boost against a powerful opponent.
Matt Dolloff 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 Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.