With his team facing elimination in the Stanley Cup Final, Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy was looking for a jolt of energy for Game 6 on Sunday night in St. Louis. So, he turned to rookie Karson Kuhlman, a speedy, responsible winger who made his Cup Final debut against the Blues.
“We’re not nervous about how he’ll handle the moment,’’ Cassidy said after Sunday’s morning skate.
The moved worked out nicely for Cassidy, the Bruins and especially Kuhlman, the former Minnesota Duluth captain scored a third-period goal and had a plus-2 rating in a 5-1 victory that forced Game 7 on Wednesday night in Boston. Cassidy chose Kuhlman over veteran David Backes, the former Minnesota State standout from Spring Lake Park.
Kuhlman, an Esko, Minn., native, played 18 shifts covering 13 minutes, 7 seconds. His only shot came midway through the third period, when he took a pass from linemate David Krejci inside the blue line, skated to the top of the right circle and fired the puck over the blocker of Blues goalie Jordan Binnington and into the upper corner of the net for a 3-0 Bruins lead.
“[Krejci] made a good play in the neutral zone to get the puck over to me, and I was lucky enough for it to go in,’’ Kuhlman said of his first career playoff goal. “I was just thinking to take it to the net. I had missed a few opportunities earlier in the game in net drive, but I saw a little sliver on the far side, so I decided to put it on net.’’
Cassidy credited Kuhlman’s speed throughout the game and creativity on the goal.
“He gets in on the forecheck with his footspeed, Cassidy said. “Kuhly can make some plays as well. That shot is sneaky, his wrister. He’s scored a couple times that way, across the body. Most righties want to go glove side, he’s able to go blocker side.”
Kuhlman had three goals and two assists in 11 regular-season games with the Bruins after making his NHL debut Feb. 16 at Los Angeles. He played 58 games with Providence of the AHL, collecting 12 goals and 18 assists, and has been in and out of Boston’s lineup in the playoffs. He had an assist over three games in the first-round series against Toronto, then added an assist in his only game against Columbus in the second round. He didn’t play in the Eastern Conference Final against Carolina, and his appearance Sunday was his first since April 30.
That long layoff didn’t faze Kuhlman’s coach.
“When he’s sat for stretches of time, we didn’t lose him,’’ Cassidy said. “Power plays, penalty kills, whatnot, when he came back, he gave us the same energy, which is pretty impressive for a young guy. He was a winner in college. He’s got a lot of those good attributes.’’
Indeed, Kuhlman has big-game chops. He played a huge role in Minnesota Duluth’s run from last team in the NCAA tournament to national champions in 2018, earning most outstanding player honors in both the NCAA West Regional and the Frozen Four. His goal in the championship game sparked the Bulldogs in their 2-1 victory over Notre Dame at Xcel Energy Center.
Now, he’s in line play in the biggest game possible in pro hockey, Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final, when the Bruins face the Blues on Wednesday night in Boston. Cassidy said Monday that Kuhlman "probably'' will play.
“It’s something you dream about as a little kid,’’ Kuhlman said. “If you can’t get up for that one, you better check your pulse.’’