BOSTON -- The Bruins didn't ease Mason Lohrei into the NHL. He was thrown right into the fire, and he very much looked like he belonged.
His NHL debut Thursday night came against one of the league's best teams, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are absolutely loaded with elite offensive talent in the form of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, William Nylander and John Tavares.
The Bruins also didn't have the luxury of sheltering Lohrei because with injuries to Matt Grzelcyk and Derek Forbort, plus Charlie McAvoy's suspension, they needed the 22-year-old defenseman to play a top-four role, including minutes on special teams. There was nowhere to hide.
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Lohrei passed his first test with flying colors in a 3-2 shootout victory for the Bruins.
"He was dynamite. He played really well," Bruins head coach Jim Montgomery said of Lohrei's debut. "His poise with the puck in all three zones was very noticeable. He made a lot of intelligent hockey plays."
Lohrei looked very comfortable with the puck, and by the end of the first period, he was using his excellent skating and transition skills to clear the zone and jumpstart the rush up ice.
The Ohio State product is most dangerous in the offensive end, and it didn't take long for him to pick up his first career point. Lohrei tallied a secondary assist on Pavel Zacha's first-period goal that opened the scoring for Boston.
Lohrei even got 1:43 of penalty kill ice time, and he excelled in those minutes as well. In fact, one of his best moments came on a penalty kill shift in the second period when he broke up a scoring chance with some good stickwork on Leafs forward Tyler Bertuzzi, and then seconds later he stole the puck from the ex-Bruin and cleared the zone. The Bruins successful killed off the penalty.
Overall, Lohrei played 21:23, with 17:34 of ice time at 5-on-5. You don't typically see a rookie defenseman step into his first NHL game and play meaningful shifts in all situations, but that kind of responsibility is nothing new to Lohrei.
"I've penalty killed my whole life, did it in junior, we had a really good penalty kill at Ohio State, so it's not new to me," Lohrei said. "Obviously doing it up here is new and harder, but it's a great group up here to learn from. Coach (Joe) Sacco has been great, watching film and stuff. I just try to use my stick and my size. I like to play all situations, and the PK is one of them."
Even though the majority of Lohrei's 5-on-5 ice time came against Tavares and Nylander -- two elite forwards -- the Bruins generated more shot attempts, shots on net, scoring chances and high-danger chances than the Leafs when Lohrei was on the ice during those minutes (see chart below). It was proof of how well he drives play forward into the attacking zone, and then once there, he helps create offense.
It wasn't a perfect game for Lohrei. There were a few little mistakes here and there. But the poise and good decision-making he showed in a close game against a top-tier opponent with zero NHL experience was quite impressive.
"You could see in training camp that he's gifted," Bruins captain Brad Marchand said of Lohrei. "Big kid, skates well, really smart with the puck. What I liked about his game tonight is he didn't try to do too much. That's where you can get in trouble a little bit. When you have that kind of talent and ability, you sometimes want to try to do too much and he didn't do that. He made strong plays, competed hard and took what was in front of him. He had a really good game."
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Lohrei is the Bruins' top prospect. He has the skating ability, hockey IQ, playmaking skill, size (6-foot-5, 210 pounds) and composure to be a regular NHL defenseman right now. So why didn't he make the Opening Night roster after a strong camp and preseason? Well, the Bruins were pretty deep on the left side of the blue line. But injuries and a suspension opened up an opportunity for Lohrei this week, and he has taken full advantage of it so far.
How long will Lohrei stick around in Boston? Grzelcyk is on long-term injured reserve and isn't eligible to play again until Nov. 25, so he is going to miss a minimum of nine more games. Forbort is day-to-day with a lower body injury. So with two left-shot defensemen banged up, Lohrei could get an extended look at the NHL level.
If Lohrei continues to play as well as he did Thursday night, it's going to be awfully tough for the Bruins to send him back to Providence.