BOSTON – It’s important to keep in mind that it’s just two games into the experiment, but maybe, just maybe, rookie Peter Cehlarik is the answer to Boston’s season-long question of who can suitably play on David Krejci’s wing.
The strapping winger, 23, had himself another strong game Thursday night in a 5-2 win over the St. Louis Blues with an assist and a number of strong, detail-oriented plays that led to good things happening for Cehlarik, Krejci and Jake DeBrusk.
Certainly, the secondary assist on the first goal was good for the stat sheet, but it was his winning a battle along the boards in the second period that led to David Backes’ tying goal. He didn’t get any points out of it as both Krejci and Zdeno Chara touched the puck before Backes tipped it home while battling in front of the net, but none of that happens without the 6-foot-2 Cehlarik throwing his weight around.
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It’s the size and strength as a power forward that really separates him as a prospect from Ryan Donato, Anders Bjork and Danton Heinen, and it’s those same qualities that really make him a suitable fit for Krejci’s playmaking style. Combine that with the skill to put together a two-goal game as he did in his season debut Wednesday night in Philly, and the Bruins have an intriguing player to audition in the coming weeks and months as their missing top-6 winger.
“He’s done what we’ve asked and more," said Bruce Cassidy. "He finished the other night, a couple times, so we know he’s capable of offense. I just think he’s winning [battles] – even the Backes goal. It’s a 50/50 puck against a big body. He gets there first. Ties up, Krech [David Krejci] follows, and so now you’re winning puck battles. It’s a big part of hockey, to me. You can go through all of the X’s and O’s of every team and every system, but when you win puck battles, assuming you have good players, which we do, you’re going to make plays when you have it more.
“I give him a lot of credit for that. He’s at the top of the crease when that shot comes from Zee [Zdeno Chara]. We’ve been trying to instill some of those habits into some of our younger guys for a long time, to get there and stay there.
“He’s a bigger body and little more mature, so he can hold his ground, I guess, for a better term. Ryan Donato is trying to get there. He’s just not as strong on his skates as Peter right now, so we’re trying to encourage [Danton] Heinen when he’s in that role to get there. Jake [DeBrusk] gets there all the time with his foot speed. He’s got so much speed that sometimes he doesn’t stop there, like his tip chance.
Those are all things we’re trying to encourage. Those are power forward qualities, and [Anders] Bjork and them are not 6-3 guys, but that’s the new NHL. We’re trying to get them to hang around there as much as possible. Peter has that, scored from the top of the crease [against the Flyers] in that spot winning pucks, so he’s done a real nice job for us. It’s two games, so you try to temper it, but he’s done [well], he’s hit all those checklists, and he’s rewarding us offensively. It’s real nice to see.”
It was an interesting spot for Cehlarik on Thursday against the Blues on the second night of a back-to-back and a real challenge to his efforts at gaining consistency in the NHL. He was also head-to-head with one of the names, Brayden Schenn, that the Bruins will be in the market for at the trade deadline. Schenn wasn’t too shabby either. He led all players with seven registered hits and picked up an assist on one shift where he and Jaden Schwartz dominated Boston’s top line before setting up a Carl Gunnarsson goal.
But the deadline will play itself out more than a month from now one way or the other and Boston’s needs could change dramatically if they find an internal solution to their season-long top-6 forward problem. Cehlarik isn’t mean per se as a possible NHL power forward, but he is big, strong, offensively skilled and seems to be willing to do some of the dirty work that his fellow young B’s prospects aren’t quite able to do at this point.
Now, it’s about finding that consistency where he can contribute something every night as he’s done in each of his first two games, and help make Boston’s second line a nightly offensive threat that the Bruins will need against the good teams.
“I’ve been having fun out there. [I just want to] keep working out so I can stick around and be an NHL player,” said Cehlarik, who was actually skating the left wing with DeBrusk switching over to the right Thursday in what may become a set thing moving forward. “I’ve been feeling good. It’s a lot of fun to play with such great players, fun to play on the puck, and make good plays, and take care of our end as well. But I think we did that for the most part and [need to keep] burying the chances.
“[Doing the little things] is a huge part of it. And winning the battles is the first thing you have to do to be able to I guess stay and get the pucks and then try to make a play. If you want a puck, you have to win it.”
The Bruins have to hope that Cehlarik keeps having fun and keeps helping make the second line go after the organization ran through all kinds of options without a viable solution through the first half of the season. It’s way too early to anoint Cehlarik as another young player success story for the Bruins, but the early returns have been very good for a clearly defined need for the Black and Gold.
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