BOSTON – On paper, Nathan Horton and Michael Ryder seem an unlikely pair of wingers for playmaking center Marc Savard.
Both Horton and Ryder are natural right wingers, they rely most of all on their wicked shots for success and have a tendency to fluctuate game to game in the intensity department. Throughout this season, head coach Claude Julien has tried to balance a line by placing speedster Tyler Seguin, banger Milan Lucic or finesse forward Blake Wheeler opposite Ryder and Wheeler on separate lines.
After an injury to Lucic, however, Julien decided to give a new-look trio a shot. He shifted Ryder over to left wing and placed him and Horton on the same line around Savard last Tuesday.
Like Jed Clampett striking gold, Julien might’ve hit it rich somewhat by accident. He might’ve found a top line that can carry Boston through the stretch run – if the recently formed threesome can find a way to turn immense effort into more production.
After recording a goal in Boston’s 3-2 loss to Pittsburgh today at TD Garden, Ryder has scored in consecutive games on the heels of a seven-game goal-less drought. Now it’s Horton’s turn to find his groove, as he has no goals in three straight to run extend his struggles to just four goals in his last 25. Savard recorded an assist on Ryder’s goal, his second assist in as many games after four straight point-less contests.
If trying is the first step to succeeding, then the Savard line might be on the cusp of a huge run. Today they finished with a combined 17 shots on Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. You add in wide shots and attempts blocked and Boston’s No. 1 line combined for 24 attempts to score. But they had just one goal to show for it in a game Boston lost by that many.
“We’re getting opportunities, obviously. And we’re having fun. It’s just it’d be – funner’s not a word, but it will be if we can get it going here,” said Savard.
Fun definitely isn’t an issue. Even though he has suffered through his share of struggles this season, Horton’s Cheshire Cat-like grin still seems like it’s a permanent tattoo across the lower portion of his face. Maybe that’s the key to staying sane when you’re missing big goals by mere inches. Today Horton might’ve tied the game had he not had his stick slashed out of his hands in pursuit of his own rebound with less than four minutes remaining in regulation.
Horton has not only kept his spirits up, but has picked up his other areas of his game. While most of Horton’s shifts aren’t ending in goals, they’re at least highlighted by shots from prime scoring areas, hits along the wall and battles in front of the opposition’s net. Those non-scoring contributions were only sporadically part of Horton’s game in the weeks before he got together with Savard and Ryder.
“I would obviously like to help the team out a little bit more,” said Horton after the game. “I’m trying to have fun still, and we’re winning still. But that’s the main thing. And I just want to do as much as I can to help the team, whether I’m not scoring I just want to backcheck, finish my checks and just play a hard game. Hopefully that comes because I’m still trying hard.”
Horton can take solace in the way his linemates have resurrected their games of late when wondering if the goals are ever going to come his way again. In the 21 games since his return from post-concussion syndrome, Savard twice made major gaffes with the pucks that led to opposition game-winning goals and twice he was benched for large chunks of even-strength, third-period time. With Ryder and Horton at his sides, Savard has started to look a bit more like his old self – mixing up his saucer passes with his slap shot to keep teams on their heels and generate scoring chances.
While Savard has fought to shake off the rust of his injury absence, Ryder has aimed to erase the bitter memories of last winter’s disappointing 18-goal campaign. For the most part, he has done that. The seven-game goal drought he recently ended was his longest of more than four games this year. And he now has 13 goals on the season. Even though he has changed lines and centermen several times, Ryder has kept his feet moving and been in on the forecheck more in 44 games this season than the entirety of his 2009-10 campaign.
“I feel good,” said Ryder. “Ever since the first part of the season, I wanted to get off to a good start. I have a tendency to start off slow and this year I came into camp wanting to do that. I feel like so far I’ve done that I’ve got to make sure I just stay consistent for the whole season.”
With Savard and Horton matching his intensity level over the last week, Ryder seems even more dangerous on the attack. A bounce here or there over the next couple games and the Ryder-Savard-Horton line will be impossible to break up.
The Bruins are eagerly anticipating Lucic’s imminent return to the lineup, but his absence created a top line for them that might provide the type of firepower they need to claim a high seed in the Eastern Conference.