May 30—BOSTON — He’s too big and slow. He can’t keep up with the pace of play in the playoffs, a 6-foot-2, 232-pound tortoise trying to shut down a fleet of jackrabbits wearing skates.
But the Bruins don’t see Ritchie as a liability. To them, he’s a physical force on third line left wing, one who’ll be tasked with using that large frame to slow down the likes of top six Islander forwards Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, Josh Bailey, and especially Matthew Barzal throughout the two teams’ Round 2 postseason tussle.
Another thing that Ritchie’s mass is very good at: screening goaltenders.
Stationed in front of Islanders rookie netminder Ilya Sorokin is where Ritchie planted himself six-plus minutes into the third period. He wasn’t going to be moved, either. I am a rock; I am an island, his body language said.
David Krejci saw this, flung a pass up from the right half-wall to Charlie McAvoy inside the top of the blue line, and the budding superstar defensemen let one rip into the back of the net for what turned out to be the game-winning goal.
That tally, plus a lot of help from David Pastrnak and his hat trick performance, went a long way towards Boston’s 5-2 Game 1 victory before the first packed house at TD Garden (17,400 fans) since early March of 2020.
McAvoy said that he saw the puck get rimmed around the corner boards in the New York end as he was coming off the bench and Krejci got hold of it. McAvoy wanted to make himself available for a pass, and when he did he was also cognizant that Barzal was coming up on him. So he gathered the feed, shot to the side of Barzal’s body to get it on net, and was rewarded with his first goal of the postseason.
It wasn’t until after the fact that he realized the role Ritchie played in it.
“Afterwards when I’m watching the goal, I think you can attribute all of it to Nick Ritchie out front,” said McAvoy. “So many times this year he’s standing in the net front, taking everyone’s else away and being a pain. It’s so selfless, but he’s a big part of the offense when he’s doing that.”
You’ve heard that saying, everyone has to know their role? It’s tres cliché but it’s true, and it doesn’t really matter what sport you’re talking about. Any successful team has that elusive mix of superstars, pluggers, under-the-radar types and overachievers. They may not all be simpatico every time out, but success comes more often than not when they play within those roles defined for them.
The 25-year-old Ritchie pretty clearly understands his. He’s not often on the power play and nowhere near the penalty kill; rather, he skates his 17-18 shifts a night while using his body to create space for himself and his teammates and driving the net. He battles defensemen out front for tips and along the walls for 50/50 pucks, sticks up for his teammates whenever the situation arises, and with a decent shot is a throwback-type to the power forwards of a generation ago.
So yeah, he’s not fleet of foot. Ritchie’s not the most agile nor elusive, either. He’s not going to score like Pastrnak, play the three-zone game that Patrice Bergeron does, create chances for himself or his linemates the way Brad Marchand excels at, or see the ice the way Krejci does.
What he does is fill his role. And against a heavy team that will no doubt look to ramp up their physicality in attempt to slow down the speedier Bruins in Game 2 Monday night, Ritchie will be there to counteract that Islander initiative.
In other words, he’ll play his game. And if he does so effectively, the end result will likely please his team and its ever-growing fan base. — Phil Stacey, the Executive Sports Editor of The Salem News, covers the Boston Bruins for CNHI Sports Boston. Contact him at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @PhilStacey_SN