Bruins give Donato a shot; Marchand, DeBrusk game-time decisions

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When it comes to NHL coaches giving rookies/young players the call during the playoffs, sometimes you settle for “better late than never.”

Ryan Donato probably deserved more opportunities earlier during the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, whether that meant attempting to finish off the Toronto Maple Leafs a little more efficiently or, now, possibly supplementing the Boston Bruins’ depth against the formidable Tampa Bay Lightning. The fresh-out-of-Harvard forward didn’t deny some frustration with all the healthy scratches after word surfaced that he’ll suit up for the Bruins in Game 4 tonight.

(That facial hair might count as a rookie mistake.)

Donato, 22, has only appeared in one postseason game so far, receiving 9:24 in ice time during Game 2 against the Maple Leafs on April 14. That’s a long time to sit, especially when you consider that the Ivy Leaguer passed his regular-season tests with flying colors (nine points in 12 games).

It’s not clear who Donato will line up with, and this isn’t down to playoff gamesmanship alone.

[NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

Both Brad Marchand and Jake DeBrusk are considered game-time decisions after missing a recent practice. The good news is that Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy said that he believes they’ll play, but you never know in the playoffs; Patrice Bergeron‘s late scratch during the first round is an example of how things can go south after players get a chance to warm up.

The Boston Globe’s Fluto Shinzawa speculates that, under normal circumstances, Donato would replace struggling fellow young forward Danton Heinen. Marchand and DeBrusk being coin flips for Game 4 complicates such things.

During his regular season appearances, Donato’s most common even-strength linemate was David Krejci (by quite a margin, via Natural Stat Trick). Donato also saw time with Heinen and his Olympic teammate Brian Gionta.

Here’s one look at what the Bruins lineup might look like if Marchand and Heinen can both play:

It would certainly make some sense to keep Donato with Krejci, while DeBrusk might be able to jumpstart a struggling Riley Nash. Ideally, this alignment or a similar one would set up Donato & Co. to supplement that deadly top line, which could be especially important if Marchand isn’t all there (especially if Bergeron isn’t operating at full capacity, either).

“He steps off the bus and starts shooting”

In the video above this post’s headline, both Jeremy Roenick and Keith Jones campaigned for Donato to be added to the lineup even before the decision was made.

They both make salient points, yet Jones’ comment about shooting is especially noteworthy considering how this series is going.

As Joe Haggerty notes in this NBC Sports Boston piece, the Lightning have generated a 104-73 shots on goal edge against the Bruins so far during this series. That would be a disturbing mismatch for just about any team, but it’s especially startling for a Bruins team that was a possession behemoth for much of the regular season.

Despite being limited to just 9:24 in ice time during his lone postseason appearance, Donato fired three shots on goal. While he enjoyed the sort of cushy offensive zone starts you’d expect from a young player during the regular season, Donato did his part in generating promising possession stats during the regular season.

There’s a lot to like in adding Donato back into the lineup, even if Cassidy eases him in and doesn’t quite give him the minutes to really soar.

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With the Lightning up 2-1 in the series, there’s a lot on the line for the Bruins in Game 4 tonight. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m. ET; you can watch the action on NBCSN and stream it via this link.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.