For 15 years, the Boston Bruins had the luxury of relying on one of the best enforcers in the game: a giant on skates named Zdeno Chara. Although Chara had lost a step in his final few years in Boston, his physical presence made even the toughest opponents have second thoughts about battling on the boards or dropping the gloves with him.
In this young season, three players have already begun to solidify their roles as the Bruins’ resident tough guys: Kevan Miller, Nick Ritchie, and Craig Smith.
Miller leads the team with 13 hits, making his presence known immediately after a long journey back from injury.
We noted before the season that Miller was finally healthy and primed to return to a prominent role in the Bruins’ defense, and he is certainly living up to those expectations so far.
The two forwards, Ritchie and Smith, have added some much-needed firepower and toughness to the middle of the lineup.
Ritchie has two goals and three assists through five games. He looks comfortable on the Bruins’ top power play unit, irritating opponents and developing some chemistry with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. Marchand assisted on Ritchie’s first goal, and Bergeron assisted on the second.
Smith scored his first goal in a Bruins’ uniform in the team’s 6-1 drubbing of the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday night. He and line mates Charlie Coyle and Trent Frederic were all in sync, scoring five total points in the game.
So much for the “Bruins can’t score without David Pastrnak” narrative.
Making Impacts That Don’t Show Up on the Stat Sheet
There are other ways in which Miller, Ritchie and Smith have made positive impacts for the Bruins.
Since I have no life, I have watched almost every minute of the Bruins’ season so far. I can’t help but notice the same three faces after almost every stoppage of play.
Ritchie always seems to be jawing with opponents after the whistle, and he is certainly not shy about fighting. He was known for this in Anaheim, and it seems that he has embraced that role in Boston, even rivaling Marchand in getting under opponents’ skins on the power play.
Smith is less vocal, but he brings some grit and intensity that was extremely lacking on the third line. He has a very wild playing style, and his speed as a skater is hard to miss. He always seemed to be in the right place during Saturday’s game and got rewarded for it with his first goal.
Miller is also consistently standing guard to Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, giving a jab (or more) to anyone who gets too close to the Bruins’ goaltenders.
This is expected of all NHL defensemen, but it is refreshing to see Miller leading the Boston defense on that account. For all the skill that Charlie McAvoy and Matt Grzelcyk bring to the table, they can still learn a thing or two from Miller.
Toughness Is Key Ingredient to Deep Playoff Run
With all this talk of toughness and physicality, some Bruins fans can’t help but have flashbacks of the heartbreaking 2019 Stanley Cup Final. Boston outmatched the St. Louis Blues in virtually every offensive category, but the Blues won the war on the boards, and thus, won the Cup.
Sure, the offensive firepower is nice, but late in the playoffs when everyone is gassed, mental and physical toughness become the deciding factors.
Ritchie and Smith can provide that toughness on the second and third lines. Miller, who missed out on that 2019 run, will look to add some physicality on the boards that was missing against St. Louis.
It was unclear where that toughness would come from on a relatively young defense and lackluster middle lines, but Kevan Miller, Nick Ritchie and Craig Smith have filled that void in a big way so far this season.
I cover the Boston Bruins for The Hockey Writers. Fan of all things New England sports.