BOSTON — Lee Stempniak had been awaiting a return to the NHL for a fair amount time.
The veteran winger, now 36-years-old, skated on a PTO during Boston Bruins training camp this fall, but was unable to crack the roster. Instead of signing a minor league deal elsewhere, he elected to just keep skating with the Bruins (without a contract) when they practiced in Boston, waiting for his chance.
That chance, in one respect, came last month when he was signed by the Bruins to a deal for the rest of the season. He immediately was sent down to the AHL for the purpose of conditioning with the Providence Bruins, seeing as he hadn’t played in a game since the preseason.
It never was clear when, or if, Stempniak would get the call back up to the NHL. But after sending Karson Kuhlman down Friday, the B’s called up Stempniak on an emergency basis ahead of Saturday’s 3-2 comeback win over the Ottawa Senators.
Stempniak — who on Saturday recorded his 910th career NHL game and previously had played 19 contests with the Bruins in 2016 after getting sent to Boston at the trade deadline — immediately slotted in on the second-line right wing opposite Joakim Nordstrom and with David Krejci between them.
It’s expected Stempniak will play Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but his role and future with the big club the rest of the season remain to be seen. But given how long it’s taken him to get back to the NHL, Stempniak isn’t taking anything for granted.
“Great. It’s nice to be playing games, especially in the NHL,” Stempniak said after Saturday’s win. “You never take it for granted but going so long between games you cherish it a little bit more. It was nice to get back out there and be a part of a win. I felt like I was moving my feet and played pretty well.”
Stempniak, who spent the last two seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes, logged a team-low nine shifts, good for 7:46 ice time. His only two shot attempts were blocked, but he was responsible for three takeaways and a pair of hits, though he did have one giveaway.
So did it go better than he thought?
“No, not really,” Stempniak said. “For me, all year skating, I’ve been working on skating during the summer, during the season with (Skating and skills coach Kim Brandvold) and then it felt good playing in Providence playing games and then skating so obviously you don’t know exactly how it’s going to translate. For me the focus was getting the puck and skating with it and trying to make plays. It went pretty well it would have been nice to get a few more shots in and contribute a little more on offense but in the whole, it felt good and it’s something to build on.”
The run Stempniak spent with the Bruins was one Boston fans probably would like to forget. The team collapsed down the stretch, but all they needed to do to make the postseason on the final day of the regular season was get a point against the Senators. Instead, they got their doors blown off on home ice and the season was over.
That said, Stempniak is experiencing two pretty different teams. He shared his assessment on the current squad, which now is on a 19-game point streak.
“Yeah, the guys are pretty relaxed, they are pretty loose,” Stempniak said. “That comes from winning, not to say it’s easy or anything. I think as you win games and you’re a good team, you get that confidence that you know you’re in the game no matter what and to me that’s the thing that jumped out. Tied going into the third and going down, not a lot of panic. They just played their game and when you’re on a good team you have the right to have that confidence. This team certainly has it.”