PHILADELPHIA -- Oh no, not again.
For the second straight spring, Blake Wheeler found himself sailing down the Boston Bruins' playoff depth chart. He couldn't help but wonder whether, like last year when he was removed from the lineup after four games against Carolina, he might find himself in the press box if he didn't start producing.
Well, Wheeler can rest assured he won't be wearing a suit during Game 4 of the Bruins' Eastern Conference semifinal series with the Philadelphia Flyers. Bumped up from the Bruins' crash line to a trio with Marc Savard and Michael Ryder, Wheeler tipped home the crucial tying goal in Boston's 4-1 victory Wednesday night at Wachovia Center. The win secured a commanding 3-0 series lead for the visitors.
"Scoring is obviously fun, especially in big games. But more importantly, our team toughed it out and did a great job tonight," said Wheeler, who had scored just one goal in his previous 23 games.
That lack of production was one of the reasons Wheeler found himself skating with the likes of Shawn Thornton and Steve Begin after the Bruins disposed of Buffalo in the first round. Another reason was Savard's return.
Wheeler had produced a couple of assists skating with Ryder and Vladimir Sobotka, but someone had to shift out of the top nine to make room for the Bruins' most dynamic offensive player. Thus, the circumstances of Wheeler's descent on the depth chart were far different from last spring, when Wheeler went without a point in eight playoff games and looked like he had no gas in the tank. Down the stretch, coach Claude Julien had tried to manage the then-rookie's ice time to keep him fresh -- even scratching him for a game in March -- but it was obvious Wheeler needed much more than a brief breather to be effective again.
Having gone through last year's struggles, there's no way Wheeler could have avoided a slight case of déjà vu.
"I can't lie and say that it wasn't maybe a little bit hard," Wheeler said. "But you realize that there are things way bigger than you. It's way bigger than just what line I'm playing on or who I'm playing with.
"You've got to bear down and you realize that playing with [Thornton and Begin] is probably a blessing in disguise -- keep the game simple, work hard and from the puck drop of [Monday's] game, playing with those two guys, we did a great job of getting the puck in deep and created some scoring chances. And the confidence begins to build. It takes four lines this time of year. It doesn't matter who you're playing with."
While Wheeler's confidence sometimes wanes, he rarely gets too deep in the dumps. He lives by the mantra of putting the team ahead of individual goals, whereas other players might speak the cliché in public, then complain about ice time behind the scenes. Over his first two NHL regular seasons, Wheeler has struggled to find a level of consistency, at times looking like the offensive talent who was the fifth overall pick in the NHL draft, and at other times like a guy destined to waste his 6-foot-5 frame and excellent hands.
Regardless of the line he's on, Wheeler tries to play the role given him. And in Game 3, he proved he can step into a role unexpectedly, as he filled in for the injured David Krejci on the power play and helped create that Recchi goal with a screen in front and a baseball swing at an airborne puck.
"I didn't even think about it [playing on the power play], to be honest, until [assistant coach Geoff Ward] came up to me and told me to go," Wheeler said. "I guess you put two and two together; I played on the unit all year, so it was natural for me to go in there. It's obviously tough to have to step up in that situation. But you have to do your best, and it was a big goal in that third period that kind of separated us."
The Bruins now are separated from Philadelphia in this series with the next round just one win away. Wheeler has become someone who doesn't belong with the muckers and grinders. And he definitely doesn't belong in the press box. Right in front of the net is where he'll try to be for however long the Bruins are playing this spring.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for ESPN Boston and runs TheBruinsBlog.net. His first book, "100 Things Bruins Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die," will be published by Triumph Books in the fall and can be preordered here.