The Bruins were without three veteran forwards in Sunday’s 5-2 win over the Leafs in Toronto, and as injuries test the organization’s depth, the team needs consistent scoring contributions from its role players to maintain its lead in the Eastern Conference standings until the roster is fully healthy again.
Chris Kelly will be out four-to-six weeks with a broken fibula, Loui Eriksson is out indefinitely with his second concussion of the season and Shawn Thornton is suspended pending a hearing with the NHL.
As a result of these injuries and other lineup challenges, two players who will become more important parts of the team’s offensive success are Reilly Smith and Carl Soderberg, who combined for one goal, two assists and five shots against Toronto.
The Bruins’ third line was abysmal last season, but through the first 30 games of the 2013-14 campaign, an argument could be made that this trio has been one of the team’s greatest strengths, and this is largely because of the Smith/Soderberg duo.
Soderberg broke a five-game scoring drought on Sunday with his fourth multi-point game of the year, which included the B’s first goal of the game and a primary assist on Kevan Miller‘s game-winner. The 28-year-old winger was playing a physical game, battling hard in front of the net to win loose pucks and screen the goaltender, and was aggressive in the attacking zone by taking shots whenever a lane was open.
Another valuable skill he brought was his ability to take faceoffs, and without Kelly in the lineup to take draws on the third line, Soderberg could see his faceoff total rise substantially in the coming weeks. Recent call up Ryan Spooner struggled in the dot against the Leafs, going 0-for-4 on the night, which prompted head coach Claude Julien to give Soderberg the role of faceoff man for the third line. He won just 4-of-14 draws, but it was a faceoff win from Soderberg that directly set up Miller’s goal in the second period.
As an incredibly skilled player who protects the puck well and shows impressive offensive awareness, Soderberg will play a key part in Boston’s ability to score goals at even strength and the power play while injuries hurt the team’s forward depth. His adjustment from the fast-paced Swedish Elite League to a more physical NHL is complete, and we should start to see him produce offensively on a more consistent basis as a result.
As for Smith, he has been the best part of the Tyler Seguin trade for Boston to this point. He became the third Bruins player to reach the 20-point mark this season on his beautiful pass to Soderberg on the power-play that evened the score 1-1 in the second period against Toronto. In fact, this duo has shown some impressive chemistry on the man advantage this year.
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Smith is a fantastic playmaker, and his high hockey IQ helps him slow the play down and survey the ice to see which pass should be made. The 22-year-old winger shows great patience with the puck and makes accurate passes that allow the receiver to get a quality shot off, and that was evident when he found Zdeno Chara for the game-winning goal in the final minute of Saturday’s victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
One of the most impressive aspects of Smith’s season thus far has been his consistency despite having just 40 games of NHL experience prior to joining the Bruins. He’s tallied a point in seven of the last 11 games, and has three separate point streaks of four or more games. Smith has also tallied the same amount of points per 60 minutes at even strength (2.42) as NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby. Consistent offensive production was a major issue on the third line last season, especially in the playoffs, but Smith has corrected this problem mostly by himself.
With the Bruins missing three important forwards, combined with top-six guys such as Jarome Iginla and Brad Marchand failing to score on a consistent basis, the importance of Soderberg and Smith providing scoring depth has grown quite a bit.
But as the Bruins begin their annual road trip to Western Canada, Julien should be confident that Smith and Soderberg will continue to provide consistent offense based on their performance through 30 games, the chemistry they have developed playing on the third line and the impressive two-way skill set each player brings to the ice.
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