BOSTON -- Maybe Claude Julien is clairvoyant, but it’s hard to believe anybody could have seen Matt Fraser’s overtime game-winning goal coming.
Perhaps there were signs, though.
While Fraser’s whirlwind journey from Chipotle, to a frozen yogurt stand, to Montreal is now part of Boston sports lore, his hockey journey from undrafted free agent to skating at the Bell Centre in Game 4 took a less direct path. Still, Julien saw enough in Fraser to place him in the heat of the Bruins’ second-round Stanley Cup playoff series.
Julien could have looked all the way back to the 23-year-old's career in the Western Hockey League, when he scored 17 goals in 19 games for the Kootenay Ice in the 2011 playoffs. There’s a more recent example of Fraser’s postseason prowess, as the Red Deer, Alberta, native scored an overtime game-winner in the Providence Bruins’ American Hockey League playoff series against the Springfield Falcons.
But, ultimately, what compelled Julien to insert Fraser on the Bruins’ third line beside Carl Soderberg and Loui Eriksson was simple familiarity.
“Because they have played together before,” Julien said after Friday’s team skate at TD Garden. “When Matt Fraser was up [earlier in the season], he played with Soderberg on that line, so it’s not like it was a new thing for him. There was a little bit of, I shouldn’t say chemistry, but knowledge of playing with those guys. So he knew him fairly well and, to me, Carl and Loui seem to have real good chemistry and I thought Matt fit in really well.”
Aside from providing Game 4’s only goal and other scoring chances, the third unit provided quality minutes for the Bruins, as both Soderberg (18:32) and Eriksson (19:32) logged more time on ice than first-line wingers Jarome Iginla (17:42) and Milan Lucic (18:18).
The calculus of the third line came into formation during Fraser’s 14 regular-season games, in which he scored two goals and had an even plus-minus rating. During that stint, Fraser gained familiarity playing on Soderberg’s wing.
That, in turn, gave Julien a trusted line as the Bruins’ top line continued its struggles.
“That line, when it does well, it supports each other,” Julien said of his third line. “Every time it has the puck, there is close support and that really helps. [Fraser] has just seemed to fit in well and I just thought that was the right place and the right spot for him.”
As for the first line, only Lucic participated in the optional team skate on Friday.
In this series against the Canadiens, the Bruins’ top line has a combined 5 points and is a cumulative minus-4. David Krejci, the NHL’s regular-season plus-minus rating champion (+39), stands at minus-3 for the postseason.
Despite a flurry of pregame tinkering with line combinations, Julien remained true with his top-line trio for Game 4. He maintains his faith that they’ll turn the corner.
“They just have to find their rhythm again,” he said Friday. “I think right now they’re working hard, it’s just a matter of time here. Certainly, we have seen them at their best, and a little bit of adversity is what they’re facing now. They’ve been as steady as we could have asked this year, so to me it’s just a matter of time and they will find their groove again.”
For now, Fraser’s insertion gave his team a temporary lift, fitting in with the organization’s belief in depth and a next-man-up mentality -- and in the process, creating another viable line for the Bruins.
“They’re fantastic,” Fraser said of his linemates. “I think you can go with any player on this team, and everybody’s so good here, everyone buys into the system, this is a team that’s built for the playoffs. These are guys that know how to win. They know how to work together and they know their roles.”
That’s coming from a player who worked his way there, seizing the opportunity after being included as part of a six-player offseason trade that sent Tyler Seguin to Dallas.
“For myself, you want to be a guy that wants to contribute every night and brings something to the lineup,” Fraser said, “so when the coaches in the pregame skate wonder who they should put in, they can look at me and know that I will do my part.”