By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON Heading into this weekends start to the Eastern Conference Finals, its not much of an overstatement to say Chris Kelly might be the most important player on the Bruins' roster.
It would haveseemed funny to say when Kelly managed only 5 points in 24 regular seasongames for the Bruins after general manager Peter Chiarelli acquired him from Ottawa for a second-round pick. His lackluster start had people viewing the gritty, two-way center as nothing more than wallpaper on a good hockey team.
But Kelly moved into this seasons playoffs with more than 40 games of postseason experience on his resume as a member of the OttawaSenators and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance already on his resume. Those big-game instincts, and the playoff poise that nearly alwayscomes with them, will be needed as he attempts to authorhis best poor mans Patrice Bergeron impersonation against the Lightning.
Kelly has come a long way from the center who earned amuch-discussed16:47 of ice time in Game 1 against the Canadiens. After that game, he caught the ire of Bs fans everywhere for getting more time on the sheet than the man hes now replacing in Bergeron (15:47).But that was before he exploded offensively against the Habs after getting thrown head first into the post by Scott Gomez in Game Three.
Chiarelli threw out the "P.J. Axelsson" parallel for Kelly at the conclusion of the Montreal series in terms of hockey intelligence and competence in all three zones on the ice, and the seven points in 11 postseason gameswas vitalfor Boston.
Nobody is expecting the Bs offense to continue running with the same efficiency when Bergeron out, but Kelly's put up impressive offensive numbers during the playoffs. As Lloyd Christmas might say in "Dumb and Dumber" about another potential offensive outburst against Tampa Bay, "so you're saying there's a chance."
I think Kelly obviously is -- what he produced offensively, point-wise and goals and all that stuff -- he has certainly been refreshing for us, said coach Claude Julien. We know he was a good, solid two-way player, we maybe didnt expect as much offensively as weve seen so far. So thats been great.
True, Tyler Seguin will get his playoffshot now that Bergeron is sidelined with a mild concussion. But its Kelly who will slide into Bergeron's center spot between Brad Marchand and Mark Recchi and help take controls of a vital forward group. Bergeron, Marchand and Recchi had been rolling for the Black and Gold. They combined for an obscenely good plus-25 in the first 11 games against the Canadiens and the Flyers, and they were a dual threat. Not only were Bergeron and Marchand exploding against other teams' second and third defense pairings, but the trio was locking down other teams' best offensive players in true checking-line fashion.
Marchand and Recchi are great players, said Kelly. Whatever needs to be done or wherever Claude wants to be me, I think there are plenty of guys that are capable of playing with them. If I do end up playing with them then itll be a fun experience. Well see what happens and go forward from there.
Obviously you cant replace Bergie. He does every little thing that maybe goes unnoticed by a lot of people, but it doesnt go unnoticed by us. He does all of the big things that get noticed as well. Hes irreplaceable and hopefully hes good to go against the Lightning.
Kelly will slide right into the defensive responsibilities and faceoff duties Bergeron hasskillfully mastered, and the former Senators center pointed to his experience in Ottawa as the prime reason hed have little trouble moving up the lines. Let's just say he made his bones with a lot of different players during his time in Ottawa.
Wherever the coach needed me to play on any line, any position and any situation, it was a challenge that Ive always been ready to take on," said Kelly.
Going from Peverley and Ryder to Recchi and Marchand might be a little easier than in Ottawa going from Chris Neil and Jarkko Ruutu to playing with Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza. Its a big difference. Not in a bad way, but they are just very different players. I think itll be a much easier transition than some of the ones Ive made in the past.
Kelly has also been a guy who's taken on a little of the missing Axelsson leadership role within the Bs dressing room.It clearly took some time in the feeling out process to get comfortable blending his leadership voice with the establishment in the room, but Kelly chimes in now when something needs to be said along with the rest of the veteran B's chorus.
Ill do anything I can to help this team, said Kelly. Obviously coming into a dressing room thats as established as this team, you just want to come in and help. Nobody wants to come in and be the loud guy within a group of players that you dont know.
As I got more comfortable and the guys got more comfortable with me, if theres something that needs to be said then I dont mind being the guy to step up and say it. Ninety-nine percent of it is always positive, and everybody here really wants to step up and do the right thing to help the team.
Fold the leadership, faceoff and defensive components into the Kelly tool box and the Bruins are getting a facsimilie of Bergeron without the elite playmaking.
The question against the Lightning: Will Kelly be able to replicate the offense he provided around the net while scoring six points in seven games against the Canadiens, who play similarly to Tampa Bay?
Kellys ability to generate some offense could be the deciding factor in the series, and that means a guy with 35 total games in a Bruins uniform could be the biggest difference-maker in the biggest Bs playoff series in 19 years.
Who would have ever guessed that when Kelly, Peverley and Tomas Kaberle were dealt to the Bruins in February?