The Bruins started their longest homestand of the season Thursday night when the Colorado Avalanche came to town begin a five-game run on Causeway Street.
These five games in 10 days will likely have the roster’s newest addition in Frank Vatrano, the pride of nearby East Longmeadow. Vatrano, called up from Providence last Saturday night for his first NHL game against Montreal, tallied his first NHL goal in a 4-2 loss before suiting up 24 hours later in Brooklyn for the Bruins 2-1 win over the Islanders.
The 21-year-old Vatrano was asked postgame after his first official game on TD Garden ice if he expected this meteoric rise so soon. “No, not at all.”
Consider that just a year ago he was beginning his second year of NCAA play at UMass-Amherst in Hockey East after sitting out all but one game his freshman season. That was preceded by three years at the US National Team Development Program after a year in the U.S. Hockey League right here in Boston, playing for the Junior Bruins.
Eight months ago, he signed a free-agent contract with the Black and Gold before playing five AHL games as a Providence Bruin and recording but one goal.
The past month? How about goal-a-game pace in Providence with 10 goals in 10 games and 12 points, best in the AHL. At UMass, he had only 10 goals and 18 assists in 36 games.
One season of college hockey and 15 games in the American Hockey League – and Vatrano is playing on a line with David Krejci and Loui Eriksson in the Bell Centre against the team he grew up hating, scores a goal. Five nights later, in front of his friends and family for the first time at the Garden, Vatrano is in the starting lineup.
How does all this happen in such a small calendar? For one, that 200 pounds on a shorter frame seems to be a major piece of Vatrano’s armor along with another. As one puck scribe said pregame Thursday, “Vatrano’s got the size and the nose for open space – and an absolute cannon for a shot.”
“I lost 10-15 pounds; definitely feel a lot faster out there. I knew the hard work it would take to get here and in the summer I put in the work,” Vatrano said about getting to the NHL. “In main camp, the organization had some high hopes for me. I had a pretty good rookie camp. It was good to be rewarded and up here now.”
After his newest team coughed up a two-goal lead the first 20 minutes, Vatrano’s first-period log for the scrapbook would read 4:14 of ice time with seven shifts, one missed shot and an even plus-minus.
“There’s some chances I wish I finished on that could have helped the team,” Vatrano said in his first postgame media scrum at TD Garden.
“I get more comfortable every shift.”
Four minutes into the second period, Vatrano put a backhand shot and then his own rebound, again on the backhand, on Avs netminder Reto Berra. At 17:00 he would take two for interference.
A minute into the third and deadlocked at 2-2, Vatrano pastes Berra with a short-side shot. Matt Duchene would break the deadlock at 6:49 in the 3-2 final. Vatrano would end the night with a respectable 11:54 ice time and five shots.
“He had a couple of chances,” Claude Julien commented postgame about Vatrano’s performance, “but I think as a team all of us could’ve been a little better. He’s young player that comes in and every game he plays he has opportunities. He seems to be a gifted goal scorer or at least a guy that every game creates something that gives you an opportunity to score.”
“He’s a good player. He’s a north-south player, and he can shoot the puck well,” Krejci added.
“I left four tickets for my aunt, brother, and mom and dad,” Vatrano said. “Maybe 20-plus people came.”
He will need a few more Saturday night — another pinch-me evening for Frank Vatrano and his growing legion of supporters.