Johnny Beecher, the Bruins’ fourth line and a memorable playoff debut

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BRIGHTON, Mass. — On April 18, the Boston Bruins reported to Warrior Ice Arena for the first of two practices before Game 1. Johnny Beecher was not around.

The NHL regular season was still proceeding. Beecher was in Providence. James van Riemsdyk was practicing as the No. 4 left wing next to Jesper Boqvist and Pat Maroon.

That would change.

Youth over experience

Beecher arrived in the NHL playoffs with a thunderclap. On his first career postseason shift, Beecher scored the opening goal in the Bruins’ 5-1 Game 1 win.

That wasn’t always guaranteed.

Before Game 1, the Bruins reviewed their options. They could open the playoffs with van Riemsdyk, the former Toronto Maple Leaf, on the fourth line. The 34-year-old finished ninth in team scoring with 38 points. He scored five of his 11 goals on the power play. The Bruins entered the playoffs in a 15-for-93 downturn (16.1 percent) since the All-Star break.

Van Riemsdyk had 71 games of playoff experience, including seven as a Maple Leaf in the 2013 opening round against the Bruins. Beecher had none.

But van Riemsdyk had seemingly run out of gas. He had not scored a goal since Feb. 17. An illness in March did not help. The Bruins could not count on van Riemsdyk to keep up with pace and physicality in the playoffs.

Those are two commodities Beecher has in abundance — when he’s committed.

It is not easy for rookies to maintain peak thresholds of NHL competitiveness. Beecher discovered the consequences of falling short. On Jan. 20, the Bruins assigned him to Providence. He didn’t return to the NHL until March 13.

“The NHL’s a whole different animal,” Beecher said upon his return. “You’re playing all throughout the week. Limited practices. It’s just about growing up and learning how to take care of your body a little bit better, coming to the rink every day prepared. I think that’s where I kind of started to slip up a little bit and ended up getting sent down, unfortunately. But I’ve been working on that ever since.”

The 6-foot-3, 216-pound Beecher is a handful at high tempo. He is one of the team’s fastest skaters. He strikes opponents with force when he arrives at full speed. Beecher is also a natural center who can play left wing.

“Intensity. One-on-one battles,” coach Jim Montgomery said before the series when asked where Beecher had improved since his two-month AHL assignment. “That was an area we felt he needed to go down and focus on. It’s an area that’s drastically improved. His faceoffs, his penalty kill are always something we really valued.”

In theory, then, Beecher checked a lot of boxes for what the Bruins wanted in a postseason fourth-liner. But they wouldn’t know until Beecher hit the ice.

“It’s a whole new world tonight,” Montgomery said before Game 1. “It’s playoffs. We’ll see how it goes for everybody tonight. Not just him.”

On his first shift, Beecher made his coaches’ trust pay off.

Immediate impact

In the first period, a flat-footed Maroon was trapped between Ryan Reaves (6-foot-2, 226 pounds), Joel Edmundson (6-foot-5, 221 pounds) and the TD Garden boards. He should not have been able to escape.

But Maroon, who had received an outlet pass from Hampus Lindholm, has 234 pounds of puck-protection beef and a pair of soft hands. By combining both strengths, Maroon touched the puck to an in-motion Boqvist. 

The Bruins were in business.

“The guy’s got three Cups for a reason,” Beecher said. “He knows how to play the right way. He knows how to manage a game. He’s been great for me and Boqs, just slowing the game down and giving us a little advice here and there. He made an unbelievable play. The goal doesn’t happen without him.”

One of the reasons Montgomery prefers Boqvist at center over wing is his ability to transport pucks rapidly through open ice. As soon as Boqvist received Maroon’s feed, the left-shot center punched the turbos to initiate a two-on-one rush against Timothy Liljegren. 

With his speed, Beecher had no trouble keeping pace. In fact, he slowed down at the offensive blue line to stay onside. As soon as he and Boqvist gained the offensive zone, Beecher prepared to receive the puck. Once Liljegren hit the deck, Boqvist flipped a saucer pass over the defenseman’s stick and onto Beecher’s blade.

“Just being ready for a shot,” said Beecher. “He’s such a skilled player that you never know when it’s going to come over to you. For a second there I thought he was going to shoot it. But he was able to squeak it through (Liljegren). I tried to get it on net as good as I could.”

It wasn’t just the goal. Beecher won six of 10 faceoffs. He helped the Bruins go 4-for-4 on the penalty kill with 1:58 of short-handed ice time. He was credited with two hits.

“He was really good,” said Montgomery. “I think that’s the best game he’s ever played as a Bruin.”

(Photo of John Beecher: Brian Fluharty / Getty Images)

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