After a bit of uncertainty to start the season, Chris Bourque may have finally cemented himself as worthy of the role of the Boston Bruins' 12th forward.
When the son of Bruins legend Ray Bourque scored his first goal with the team in the first period of Saturday's 1-0 victory against the Toronto Maple Leafs, it marked the first goal he had scored in the NHL since December 2008. But it also helped bring the Bruins closer to being confident in all 12 of their active forwards than they've been since Mark Recchi retired and Michael Ryder left after the 2011 Stanley Cup win.
The Bruins' top two lines—Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton on one and Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and Tyler Seguin on the other—have been playing well this year. So has the energy line of Daniel Paille, Gregory Campbell, and Shawn Thornton, which can usually be trusted to play intelligent, physical hockey for nine to 10 minutes per game.
But the third line of Bourque, Chris Kelly, and Rich Peverley struggled in the season's first six games. They didn't make the scoresheet until Thursday's 7-4 loss to the Buffalo Sabres, and that was with Bourque scratched in favor of Lane MacDermid and Paille playing on the third line.
It certainly wasn't the start that Bourque or the Bruins were hoping for as they attempted to solidify the third line, because many of the other options are further downgrades.
Last year, 2009 first-round pick Jordan Caron played with Kelly and Peverley, but could only manage 15 points in 48 games. In 33 games with Providence in the AHL this year, Caron has dealt with injuries and a major slump, scoring only eight points. He hasn't fulfilled the promise of his draft pick, much like ex-Bruin Zach Hamill, the player traded for Bourque.
Jay Pandolfo, a Bruins training camp invitee and Massachusetts native, doesn't offer much more than Caron. An ex-Selke Trophy finalist as a top defensive forward and two-time Stanley Cup winner with the New Jersey Devils, the 38-year-old Pandolfo hasn't been his former self since a pelvic injury suffered in late 2007 and doesn't need to fill a leadership role in what's already a stoic locker room.
A handful of other Providence prospects still find themselves in the mix as well. The gritty MacDermid made Boston's roster out of camp as the 13th forward, while leading scorer Jamie Tardif made his NHL debut against Toronto. Tardif offers some offensive potential, while MacDermid frees up Paille to play more offensive hockey as he works with Campbell and Thornton to keep the peace.
But the job remains Bourque's to lose, and after getting to watch a game from the press box, he came back with extra spark and vigor in Toronto. One good game doesn't solve a 48-game problem, but it's a step in the right direction. If Bourque can find some of the scoring touch that made him a point-per-game player at the AHL level, the Bruins will be just fine with him.
For more from Christopher Leone, follow @christopherlion on Twitter.