It’s gone almost as easy as rebooting a computer.
After a regular season that could politely be described as ineffective, Bruins winger Michael Ryder has truly reset his two-way play and retreated all the way back to last spring to become one of Boston’s most dangerous forwards during the first four games of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with Buffalo.
For a team that entered the playoffs wondering where its offense was going to come from, especially in light of facing Vezina Trophy favorite Ryan Miller in net for the Sabres, Ryder’s 180-degree turnaround has been a reward for the faith the Bruins showed in him even when he seemed completely disinterested in receiving a pass, let alone using his wicked shot from around the net or carrying the puck to make a play like he did on Miro Satan’s Game 4 game-winner Wednesday night.
“It definitely was a tough year and not one you want to remember,” Ryder said in the aftermath of Boston’s dramatic Game 4 win that put the Bruins ahead, 3-1, in the best-of-seven series. “It just shows that they still have confidence in me, even though they took me off the power play. I just wanted to keep working hard and try and get back on there. In playoff time, everything to can do to help the team win, you try and do. And I have the confidence back now.”
While Ryder’s goal total fell from 27 to 18 (including two goals in what amounted to an exhibition game in Washington on the season’s last day), head coach Claude Julien stuck with the sniper he has coached at every level of the sport. Ryder played in all 82 games (one of two Bruins to do that) and managed to post a plus-3 rating, while skating on lines centered by David Krejci, Marc Savard and, finally, Vladimir Sobotka.
The hot streak that Ryder and everyone was expecting to push his goal total up to the vicinity the Bruins projected at the outset of the season never came. Ryder was switched to different lines, was on and off the power play over different stages of the season, and even found himself on the fourth line at one point. The 2009-10 hockey year looked like a total waste for Ryder, who the Bruins have signed for one more year at this.
Maybe it has been the extra-excitable play of linemates Sobotka and Blake Wheeler, maybe it has been the buzz of the playoffs, maybe those two goals against the Capitals were a magic elixir or maybe it has been a combination of all these factors, but Ryder is now brimming with confidence. And the Bruins suddenly have someone they can turn to at even strength or on the man-advantage to fire a puck through to the net or make a key feed.
“It’s like all goal-scorers. When you score a couple goals, you get your confidence back,” Julien said recently. “He scored a couple there in Washington and that seemed to get him going. But also, when he gets going and gets his confidence, other things come out of his game.”
A couple of those other things are an ability to use his upper body strength to knock over opposing puck-carriers and also keep the puck on his own stick as though it’s glued there while waiting for something positive to develop.
While the Bruins’ Game 2 win over Buffalo was highlighted by Ryder’s two goals, it was punctuated by a hit late in the game on Andrej Sekera that helped keep Buffalo from going on the attack in search of the equalizing goal. Some players slump offensively but keep other areas of their game going until the goals come. For better or worse, Ryder just doesn’t seem to work that way. As Julien said: “He seems to be one of those guys that works the opposite way – ‘I score a couple goals, I’m going to get the rest of my game going as well.’”
That’s why those two goals against Washington might be the most meaningful (or even only meaningful) actions taken on that Sunday afternoon. Not only has the return of his scoring touch brought back Ryder’s physicality, we’ve also witnessed the return of his ability to carry the puck, end to end, and act as a quasi-point guard in the Bruins’ offense when necessary. Once the Bruins put the finishing touches on the Sabres in this series, Ryder’s leap to avoid Mike Grier’s check en route to setting up Satan’s score will find its place in Bruins’ folklore.
Wheeler has spent the bulk of his two-season NHL career on left wing opposite Ryder. He knows firsthand the benefit of Ryder using his stick blade like a magnet to control the puck.
“Well last year, that’s what he did. He lugged the puck and no one could take it from him,” said Wheeler. “I think he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now, so he feels like when he has the puck he makes something happen with it.
“When he’s playing with confidence, that’s what he does. It’s something that comes from within him. How many times last year did you see him, he’d have the puck for 15 seconds on his stick without passing or anything? No one could take it from him. So it’s something that when he’s playing with confidence he does really well. He’s a guy that you want the puck on his stick because he can pretty much score from anywhere. So it’s a lot of fun to see him playing like that.”
It’s difficult to know if any off-ice issues contributed to Ryder’s on-ice ineptitude. Obviously, the situation with his brother Dan Ryder, who was recently deemed unfit to stand trial on this winter’s armed robbery charge, would’ve been a distraction to even the most locked-in athlete. All the elder Ryder will cop to right now is letting his struggles on the ice consume him at and away from the rink.
Once he decided to no longer allow the negatives eat away at him, he finally found some positives coming his way.
“When you’re looked at to score, and the team struggled to score all season, when you’re a guy that’s looked at to score and you’re not doing that, it kind of takes a toll on you and I put a lot of pressure on myself,” he said. “I just kind of said there at the end of the year, last couple games, I just said ‘all right, just relax and just play and don’t think about it too much.’ And everything just worked out.”
The Bruins can raise their arms in praise of Ryder now that everything’s working out in their favor.