By Steve Lichtenstein
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We all know why the Devils brought Brian Boyle over as a free agent in the offseason.
To provide leadership on and off the ice to a young hockey club.
To be a responsible checking center for maybe 13 minutes a night.
To take defensive zone draws and manage late-game situations with a lead.
To produce at nearly a point per game clip, be a net-front presence on the power play and be a weapon in shootouts.
Wait, what was that last sentence? Seriously, I expected that any scoring from a player who reached double digits in goals just five times in his decade of NHL service was supposed to be a bonus.
Wow, was I wrong. Boyle has been on an absolute tear over the last month.
After the Devils’ pulsating 4-3 home victory over the rival Rangers on Thursday, in which he provided both the game-tying, power-play goal in the third period and the shootout winner, Boyle was asked if he could recall ever having a stretch like his eight goals and five assists for 13 points in his last 14 games (and 3-4-7 in his last three games). Boyle smiled and said, “No. I don’t think so. But I’ve been getting opportunities. I had one in the second — I was happy I got another one. If I’m going to be put especially on the power play or in those offensive zone faceoffs, with our depth on our team, playing with good players every shift, there’s a responsibility to produce.”
Devils coach John Hynes said such production was “not necessarily unexpected.”
“Brian has talent to be able to score,” Hynes said. “He’s getting an opportunity here maybe more than he’s gotten in some other places to be in some offensive situations. One of the things we talked to him about this summer was we wanted him to come in for his leadership and who he is as a person and what he can bring to a team and his playoff experience. But we also told him the No. 1 job is, ‘We need you to be a good player, and we need you to be a productive player for us.'”
As for listing Boyle as the fourth shooter in the shootout, Hynes said, “He’s got good numbers in his shootout career. I don’t think some people know that, but we do. And he’s done a good job.”
Actually, Boyle was 2-for-8 (25 percent) going into his mano-a-mano confrontation with goalie (and former teammate) Henrik Lundqvist, who was ridiculously acrobatic all night in making 45 saves through 65 minutes of real action to earn a point for the visitors.
The 6-foot-7, 244-pound Boyle may not be fleet on skates, but he has deceptively fast hands. He snapped the puck through Lundqvist’s five-hole so quickly after getting into shooting position that it was in the net before Lundqvist’s pads hit the ice.
The power-play goal was netted with a similarly swift action. Taylor Hall’s centering pass from the left-wing wall was received by Boyle with his back to Lundqvist. Boyle immediately spun to his backhand, and the puck was lifted past Lundqvist’s glove with 8:06 remaining.
“When you’re hot, you’re hot,” Blake Coleman, who contributed a huge short-handed goal to tie the score at 2-2 late in the second period, said of his linemate. “He’s playing with the kind of passion — when you play with that heart and that compete, you’re giving yourself an opportunity every night to put a puck in the net or make a play that changes the game. You can see it on his face after he scored, just the pure excitement and the love of being out there after everything he’s been through.”
Oh, yeah. I haven’t even gotten to the part where I note that Boyle has accomplished all this after dealing with a serious health scare. He was diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukemia at the start of training camp and missed the first 10 games of the season. He had to get into playing shape on the fly.
This is the kind of story for which Hollywood writes movies. Devils rookie center Nico Hischier provided a tag line, calling Boyle “inspirational.”
Of course, the 2017-18 season didn’t wrap on Thursday. It isn’t even half over. The Devils may have nudged back into a tie for first place in the brutal Metropolitan Division (with a game in hand over Washington), but they still have 22 games to play within this division.
With all the twists and turns we’ve already seen from Boyle and the Devils, who’s to say where this story will end?
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1