Lee Stempniak signed: Former Dartmouth star has been practicing with the team since training camp.
We will all find out by 3 p.m. this afternoon how much Bruins’ GM Don Sweeney can improve his team’s chances of competing against the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Tampa Bay Lightning on paper.
In reality, the B’s themselves are looking pretty darn good after earning nine of a possible 10 points on their five-game road trip. They got goals in the high-scoring games, defense in the low-scoring ones and timely saves in both.
That’s not to say that they couldn’t use a little more help from Sweeney. On the contrary, it means that this team is exhibiting the character of a team that deserves all the help it can get — within reason, mind you — whether that’s the biggest fish in the bowl like Mark Stone or a less expensive option such as Wayne Simmonds.
Sweeney did make a move on Sunday, signing veteran right-shot wing Lee Stempniak to the league minimum $650,000 for the rest of the season. The 36-year-old Stempniak, a Dartmouth grad, has been practicing with the Bruins since training camp and his signing, akin to the B’s adding Brian Gionta for depth just before the trade deadline last year, seemed like a fait accompli when he joined the Providence Bruins on a tryout deal a couple of weeks ago.
Stempniak is on his second tour with the B’s, having been a deadline acquisition in 2015-16 that cost the B’s a ‘16 fourth-round pick and ‘17 second-round pick. He had 3-7-10 totals in 13 games and the B’s fell just short of the playoffs. He was placed on waivers Sunday with the purpose of assignment to Providence.
Whether Sweeney does anything else remains to be seen, but the Stempniak signing should not preclude the GM from adding another impact forward for his team that’s coming off what is thus far a season-defining road trip.
The B’s most impressive game on the trip might have been the only one they lost. On Saturday in St. Louis, the B’s looked like a team that was running on fumes in the first period, which can tend to happen at the end of a long road trip. They were down 1-0 after 20 minutes and it could have been worse. But instead of being happy with winning the first four games, the B’s impressively snapped out of it, carrying the play for the most part in the second and third periods before finally losing the coin flip known as the shootout.
“We talked about it after the first that we needed to be better,” said Tuukka Rask. “I don’t think we started off great in the second, but we hung in there. We’ve showed that all year long that we’re a resilient group. We were able to find our legs and got out heads into the game and took the play to them for most part. So it was a big point.”
The goaltending is as good as it’s been all season, with both Rask and Jaroslav Halak finding their games at the same time. Rask has not suffered a regulation loss Dec. 22 (12-0-3). He was very good in St. Louis, especially in overtime when he stopped all six shots he faced.
“He was excellent,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “Listen, we’re getting used to that. Our guys have been rock solid in there every night for a long time. Obviously, they’d want a couple back, like every other goalie in the league. But we’re really fortunate with either goalie, and Tuukka’s really stepped it up.”
It appears as though Sweeney has already done right by the team with the acquisition of Charlie Coyle to center the third line. On several shifts in his Bruin debut, he showed off his strength by holding off defenders as he circled the offensive zone with the puck. He didn’t attempt a shot, which could be a sticking point if it continues, but he created scoring chances for his linemates, especially David Backes.
“Charlie’s a big body who’s a smart player with a quick first step,” said Backes, who tied a season high for shots on net with five. “So even if I’m in battle and all of a sudden I feel like the puck’s getting pushed out of there, he’s right on the spot getting it back and creating some plays. He’s another body in front who can create some havoc and now the D has a couple of guys to worry about.... We’d like to get that goal back that we gave up (in the first period). You live and you learn. But I think he was excellent. If we produce and play like that and get those same chances, we’re not getting stopped every night. I liked the way it looked most of the night.”
Coyle felt it was a work in progress for him.
“Playing a new system is a little different, but my linemates helped me out a lot in talking, which is huge. I think I adjusted decently but I’ll learn as we go here,” said Coyle, saying he needs to adapt more to his new defensive zone coverages.
If you’d like to jump ahead a month and half to the playoffs — and don’t we all — it appears that only a major shift in fortunes for either Boston or Toronto would prevent another Bruins-Leafs first-round matchup. The B’s took the season series, 3-1, but by no means would they be a lock against the Leafs. The series went seven games last year and you could argue that home ice decided Game 7. And there is probably nothing that Sweeney could do today that would make them a favorite against the stacked Lightning.
But with the way this team is going, it’s worth a try.