Rick Middleton

Bruins' Ryan Donato caps perfect return with game-winning goal in shootout

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Bruins' Ryan Donato caps perfect return with game-winning goal in shootout

BOSTON -- It was clear in Ryan Donato’s voice that it was important for him to get called back up to Boston and play against the Islanders on the night Rick Middleton’s No. 16 jersey was retired. Nifty was, after all, the favorite player of Donato’s father Ted, an ex-Bruin himself, and was at least part of the reason that the younger Donato had always wanted to wear the same No. 16.

So it must have been the work of the hockey gods that Ryan Donato returned from Providence for Thursday night's game and scored the game-winner in Boston’s 2-1 shootout win over the Isles at TD Garden. It was a beautiful double-move that allowed Donato, the fourth shooter for the B's, to slide a backhanded bid around the leg pad of Robin Lehner.

“That’s awesome." said Donato. "[My] dad was showing me some YouTube highlights of Nifty; he was his favorite player. So I knew if it was my dad’s favorite player that it meant a lot to him that I was able to play in this game. It was really cool to be a part of that."

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The shootout move was a great example of Donato’s one-on-one skills with the puck and his overall offensive acumen, but it was the young winger’s two-way game that impressed Bruce Cassidy.

“It was big<" said Donato. "You want to make sure that you have an immediate impact on the game, show the coaches and the staff that you developed in your time [in the minors] and I tried to do that to the best of my abilities. And hopefully I proved that to them today.”

“He was clean,” said Cassidy. “He wanted to get pucks to the net, wanted to manage his game, his shift length, his details, and I thought he did that. I don’t think I ever got him in a rhythm during the game. We shortened the bench at times. It was nothing to do with his play; it was just in those tight games we want to make sure that we managed it well. The time he did get I thought he used to his advantage.

“He’s going to have to play defense if he’s going to play here. Especially right now (with the Bruins shorthanded because of a raft of injuries), we’re winning a lot of close games, so that’s fine. We’re not trying to coach the skill out of him, by any means, but we just want to make sure that it’s okay if he airs on the side of caution right now. I think his natural instincts will take over offensively. I’m not concerned about that. He’ll find his way in that part of it.”

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It was a good start for Donato, with four shot attempts in 10:41 of ice time and some aggressive offensive action even before he scored the shootout game-winner. Now he just needs to build on that high-impact return and start scoring with a little more regularity for a Bruins team that needs all the offense it can muster right about now. 

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WATCH: Rick Middleton's Bruins No. 16 raised to the TD Garden rafters

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WATCH: Rick Middleton's Bruins No. 16 raised to the TD Garden rafters

Bruins legend Rick Middleton, the man known as Nifty, saw his No. 16 retired and raised to the rafters at TD Garden, joining the other B's greats, before the game against the Islanders.

Members of Middleton's family did the honors as he watched:

A skilled offensive player who was dominant for the Bruins in a five-year stretch from 1979-84, Middleton averaged 46 goals and 98 points per season in that stretch, won the Lady Byng in 1981-82 and finished with 402 goals and 898 points in 881 games for the Bruins in his 12 years with the organization (1976-88). 

Middleton spoke before the game to reporters about the honor:

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Rick Middleton 'still in shock' that Boston Bruins are retiring his number 16

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Rick Middleton 'still in shock' that Boston Bruins are retiring his number 16

It’s been a long wait for Rick Middleton to get the honors he so richly earned over his distinguished NHL career, but the first will come on Thursday night when his No. 16 is raised to the rafters at TD Garden before the Bruins-New York Islanders game.

Nifty, now 64, hasn't yet gotten the much-deserved call to the Hockey Hall of Fame -- his career numbers over his 1,005 NHL games, played mostly with the Bruins, are certainly Hall-worthy -- but the honor of having his number retired by the B's is one he’s going to cherish no matter what happens with the Hall.  

“It knocked me off the chair," Middleton said of his reaction when team president (and ex-teammate) Cam Neely informed him of the honor last summer. "It certainly was not something I expected from a call in July, to hear something like that.

"I can’t lie: I’ve certainly thought about it many times, especially with no one wearing the No. 16 in a few years. It’s been in the back of my mind, but you never know when these things happen or if they’re ever going to happen.

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“So when it hit me, it was like a sledgehammer. I’m still in shock. It’s such a great day for me. I don’t compare it to the Hall of Fame. It’s a special, special honor to me to be included with the other 10 people that are up there. A very special group of hockey players that date back to the beginning of the Boston Bruins, and to be included on that last I can’t even explain what kind of an honor that is.”

The pregame ceremony will run from 6:30-7 p.m. and will push puck drop back to 8:08 p.m. for the Bruins/Islanders game, but it will be well worth it to recognize a wonderfully skilled offensive player who was downright dominant for the Bruins in a five-year stretch from 1979-84. Middleton averaged 46 goals and 98 points per season during that stretch, won the Lady Byng in 1981-82 and finished with 402 goals and 898 points in 881 games for the Bruins over his 12 years with the organization. As good as Middleton was in his era, he’d probably be even better now as a 5-foot-11, 170-pound right wing with a game based on skill, creativity and speed, and with the kind of breakaway moves that would have made him a bona-fide weapon in the shootout.

The Bruins organization has always been known for their big, bruising forwards in the mold of Neely, Phil Esposito, Joe Thornton and Milan Lucic, but Middleton was the player that the B’s always seem to searching for. Middleton was the kind of player who could put the puck in the net, break games wide open and do it with elite hockey skill rather than brute force.

Prepare to hear a lot about that skill and what a quality person Middleton is when he’s rightfully honored by the Bruins organization on Thursday night. Let’s hope the Hockey Hall of Fame shows him the same kind of deserved post-career love that’s going to be out on the ice when Middleton’s No. 16 joins the other greats in the rafters.  

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