BostonBruins.com - Chris Kelly has two goals in four games to start off the 2013-14 season.
"Yeah, better than last year," the dry humored centerman remarked to reporters following the Bruins' 3-1 win over Columbus on Saturday, in which he scored the equalizer that set his team up for three straight unanswered goals.
It took the Bruin 22 games in 2012-13 to get two goals on the board. He finished the lockout-shortened season with three goals and six assists in 34 games. The 14 games he missed were due to a broken tibia he suffered in March.
"Last year wasn’t the best year. But every year is a new year and you want to come in and play to your capabilities and you try to learn from previous years and move on," Kelly said during the preseason.
Last season may not have been his best showing; but the way he ended the year certainly was.
After not getting his first playoff point of 2013 until Game 2 of the Final, he then put up two goals and an assist in the series, anchoring the B's best line.
Though he, as most players do, talked of hitting refresh to start 2013-14, his coach was actually looking for him to pick up right where he left off.
"Starting fresh, or maybe, starting where he left off in the last round," Head Coach Claude Julien said during training camp, as we noticed a strong, speedy Kelly in stride. No need to start fresh, when there's something to draw on.
"He was much better; I thought he played some of his best hockey then and it seemed like he was finding his game."
"I thought after the injury it really took him a long time to find his game and he just didn’t seem to be quite the same player."
"I think after a while it got in his head, the pressure of not scoring and the expectations and the new contract everything else, all that stuff kind of weighed on a player whether you’re a veteran or not," added Julien.
"You want be a positive attribute to your team and when he was looking at his plus minuses and when he was looking at his line not scoring, but getting scored on, I think that stuff, as a leader, kind of weighed on him a little bit."
"But he was able to overcome that, I thought, at least in the last round; in the playoffs he started playing much better."
It was Julien's hope, for Kelly to start the way he ended last year. And the alternate captain has delivered.
"It’s good to see him play that well because it’s going to certainly help that third line be the kind of line we expect it to be," the B's bench boss said, following his club's 3-1 win over Detroit on October 5. "It’s nice to see him be confident right now."
Though wingers have come and gone on the third line, Kelly has been the mainstay, anchoring a line Julien likes to describe, in one word, as "reliable." At its best, it plays a strong defensive game and shows the grit of the fourth line with its "Merlot mentality," while offering secondary scoring.
No. 23 put up 13 points (five goals, eight assists) en route to the Cup, and he carried that over into the 2011-12 regular season, putting up career highs in goals (20), points (39) and plus-minus with +33.
Now, the center is coming off the 2013 postseason, and leading the way once again for his line.
They have been feeding off of Kelly's speed, smarts and strength.
"I think I feel a lot more confident than I did when I came back from the injury," said Kelly, who had to sit out from March 12 to April 6 before getting cleared for game action. "I tried to get back as quick as possible and that’s every player. I think you don’t realize it until later on how poorly you were feeling."
"I started feeling a lot better in the Conference Finals and even more so in the Finals, just skating and really thinking not about the injury as much. The offseason was great, I never had any setbacks, it felt great, everything I did. And in the preseason I feel like my feet are moving a lot better than they were."
It has helped, being on a line with two 22-year-old wingers full of energy. But that is only a small influence, compared to what the 32-year-old Kelly is able to offer them.
A strong asset for the Bruins on the ice, with his simple game and exceptional hockey sense, Kelly also adds "intangibles" with his off-ice demeanor and leadership.
"He’s pretty intense, which is good for them but he’s also a guy that can loosen them up. As you’ve probably seen, he can pretty funny at times with his dry humor," said Julien. "He’ll work with them but at the same time he’s not going to let them off the hook and be soft on them when comes game time."
"He requests and demands from them as much as he would anybody else and I think that’s good for those young players."
"I think it’s just getting those guys comfortable with playing with me, with each other," said Kelly, whose familiarity playing with Caron before has also helped breed the quick-forming chemistry with Smith.
"So even off the ice just joke around with them and have fun."
Playing on the same line with Kelly since the start of training camp, Smith has had more than a month of getting to know him.
"He definitely brings a lighter atmosphere," laughed the winger, when I spoke with him at the start of the regular season, after making the B's opening night roster ('Do I have to answer the questions seriously?' he had joked.)
"He and March are kind of always bickering back at each other, so that's pretty funny. Once you get to know him, he's chirping, he's making fun of everyone."
"So that's just a couple of things that lighten the mood all of the time and make it easier for me, so, you know, I'm not the quiet kid in the corner," he smiled.
Smith has also been influenced by Kelly's communication on the ice.
"He's a really smart player, so he's always backing me up if I'm in the wrong position. He's always behind me. He's always communicating," said Smith.
So far, that approach has resulted in three players combining for three goals and two assists in the first four games.
"They've made smart plays defensively and made smart plays offensively, I thought they've played extremely well," said Kelly, of his wingers.
"If only I could get Reilly to talk a little more, then he'd be perfect," he laughed. "He is very quiet, I asked him in the game [against Detroit] on the bench in the third if he had said a word tonight."
"He said, 'Well there's not much to say'."
It's alright to be quiet, when you have a confident, vocal centerman leading the way.
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