Whether he can keep it up, or whether coach Bruce Cassidy will even give him a chance to find a groove, will be questions answered over the next several weeks, but there’s no doubt that he’s shown in his past two games he can be a useful player for a Boston team that some nights could use some extra bulk.
“I thought he did a good job. Even in the first period he was in a couple times,” Cassidy told the media after the game in reference to Ritchie’s forechecking.
The Brooklyn conquest was nice, but the oft-sleepy-skating right wing’s awakening really began in Nashville last Tuesday when he was first put on a line with Coyle and Danton Heinen. He’d sat out six of the Bruins’ previous 10 games before he had his legs against the Predators and two hits, an assist and a screen on a Heinen goal in just 8:10 of ice time.
“What he did well the other night was get in on the forecheck and separate on time to create a loose puck situation,” Cassidy said the next morning after the Bruins beats Nashville 6-2. “And then our next guy was on time to get the puck and now we can start making plays. So it was a forecheck with a purpose. Sometimes you’re in there, you’re just banging bodies and maybe you’re not in sync as a trio, and then the D are pinching sometimes. So that was different for that line.”
“And then when he did that, he got to the front of the net next, knowing that the other two guys were going to recover the puck, so he create some anxiety for [goalie Pekka> Rinne and the D.”
If you missed it, these are probably the first complimentary things Cassidy has said about Ritchie since the start of the season, a product of the coach getting to know the free-agent acquisition out of Dallas and the 26-year-old’s poor play.
There have been extenuating circumstances that have contribute to Ritchie looking lost most nights. He’s missed 16 games because of injury and infection and Cassidy has scratched him five other times. But we all know there’s little excuse for the 6-foot-4, 220-pound mass of humanity to not make up for any production problems with the type of bone-rattling hits that would endear him to the Garden faithful even if he never scored a goal (and for the record he has two).
Is Ritchie the answer to the Bruins’ top-six hole? Or if Anders Bjork is in the top six, Boston’s top-nine shortage of forwards? Absolutely not.
However, he could be helpful. It’s no shock that Ritchie’s past two games have been strong performances against the Predators and Islanders, two heavy teams that play a playoff style. Had he been more engaged against Washington when the Capitals were running around a little bit a couple nights before Christmas, Ritchie might’ve prevented Cassidy from turning to David Backes in his place, regardless of whether the Bruins’ moms were watching.
A more regular spot in the Bruins’ lineup, at least until general manager Don Sweeney makes a trade, and just against heavy teams, could be in Ritchie’s future. Consider what Cassidy had to say about Bjork’s shortened ice time against the Islanders and consider what the coach is looking for from his forwards against teams that feature the likes of Leo Komarov, Casey Cizikas and Austin Watson.
"To be honest with you, I thought he was light,” Cassidy said of Bjork. “He was light in this type of game. If you want to play playoff hockey, these are measuring-stick games for you."
Ritchie seems to be taking that to heart and could at least be a momentum-changer against a heavy team down the stretch or even in the postseason. It’s worth noting that on Jan. 12 a year ago Patrick Maroon had just four goals, but he finished the regular season with 10 and was an intimidating presence all the way until the night St. Louis raised the Cup.
Ritchie could be to the 2020 Bruins run what Maroon was for the 2019 Blues (best-case scenario) or he could be what Backes was to the 2019 Bruins (slightly-less-best-case scenario).
First he’s got to turn the two-game sample size into something bigger. Games against Philadelphia and Columbus, weighty teams if there ever were any, remain on this road trip, which is now doubling as Ritchie’s big audition.