BOSTON – It was a pretty unheralded signing for the Boston Bruins at the open of NHL free agency, but bringing Walpole native Chris Wagner to Boston has been arguably the best move Don Sweeney made in the offseason.
Certainly an argument can be made for bringing in goalie Jaroslav Halak, who was ace at the start of the season when Tuukka Rask struggled and has pushed Rask to one of his best seasons in recent memory. But Wagner has served as a pair of jumper cables to a B’s fourth line that was pretty good last season with Noel Acciari, Sean Kuraly and Tim Schaller, but has gone to a different, higher level since Wagner was brought into the fold.
The hard-hitting winger scored his 11th goal of the season to tie the game in Boston’s 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday night at TD Garden, and did it during 4-on-4 play while getting some shifts with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Needless to say Wagner was pumped at the chance and showed his excitement by tipping home a Torey Krug point shot after winning a battle for net-front position against 6-foot-7 D-man Ben Harpur.
“I think he was over top of me for a little bit there, and then I saw Torey [Krug] kind of looking at me and I kind of knew he was going to shoot it,” said Wagner. “So I was just trying to get my stick free and, you know, I was turning around to see if there was a rebound, but you know, it trickled in.
“I was just trying not to screw up. Didn’t really make a couple good plays on the wall, but yeah, it’s an honor to play with them. Just shuffling things around, trying to make things work. So, yeah, it was awesome.”
That’s good, old-fashioned blue-collar Bruins hockey, and that’s what Wagner has been about for the Black and Gold all season.
“That line was a little off, so we gave them a guy to go to the net. I just thought we had to do a little more of that, getting to the top of the crease. Wags will definitely do that, and the second part of [him playing with Bergeron and Marchand] is that he’s played well, Wags. He’s earned some extra minutes, so he got them,” said Bruce Cassidy. “And it’s a good message for the rest of the group. I mean, who doesn’t want to play with those two? I’d put my stuff on and go out and play with them if I could.
“Who knows tomorrow what any guy on the bench is thinking: hey, if I’m going maybe Coach will move me up there and get rewarded. So, there’s a little bit of that involved too, to give them some motivation. Especially when you play 82 games, and the regular winger is out. We know who it is. We know who’s going back in there when he’s healthy. Right now, we’ve tried different guys, and Danton’s done a good job, but maybe throw a bone to someone else. It keeps guys kind of emotionally invested in these types of games that late in the year sometimes you’re not as focused on.”
As far as Wagner goes, he’s got a career-high 11 goals and has totaled 17 points while being the foremost hitter for the Bruins and showing off some surprising offensive skill. He’s got the speed and tenacity of a Daniel Paille type-fourth line player, but Wagner also has the ability to finish off his share of plays as well with a pretty decent pair of hands.
BRUINS 3, SENATORS 2
All of that has made him an upgrade on a fourth line that could really be a weapon for the Black and Gold come playoff time.
“The way he’s dancing out there right now, it’s a lot of fun to watch. I mean, he’s playing very good hockey right now,” said Brad Marchand of Wagner. “He’s hard on the puck, he gets to the net, he’s making good plays and he’s dangling everybody.
“Their line right now is 1A, we’re 1B, so he got demoted [playing with Bergeron and Marchand] tonight. But it was fun to play with him for a bit.”
Put all of that together with a straight-line player that’s making just $1.25 million per season, and Wagner is one of the biggest free bargains out there from last summer. His contract and his impact on Boston’s fourth line make him Don Sweeney’s best signing in a free agent class that was low on star power, but pretty high in the bang for their buck department.
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