Wednesday, June 1, 2016

More than Mr. Irrelevant -- Nick Bonino

By Larry Wigge

There was a slight interruption in the time Nick Bonino waited just outside the goal crease and when the perfect passing pass from Kris Letang was coming.

Then it came. From Letang to Bonino, the interruption could be construed as a tick on the clock while Bonino readied himself for his lob wedge shot as Bonino lifted the puck high over the right shoulder of San Jose goalie Martin Jones.

With 2:33 left, Pittsburgh had taken the lead, 3-2.

"Tanger put it right on my stick," Bonino explained. "It was a shot that wasn't my hardest shot by any means ... but I kind of found a way to flip it over him."

“He’s a terrific player in every aspect of the game,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan of Bonino. "We use him in so many key situations, offensively and defensively.

"He has high hockey IQ and sees the ice well. The way he uses his stick to take away passes is impressive. He blocks shots. Good faceoff guy. He’s done so much for our team to get us to this point."

One sidelight to this miraculous finish -- Bonino was originally drafted in the sixth round, 173rd overall, in the 2007 NHL Entry draft.

Bonino was traded by the Sharks to the Anaheim Ducks on March 4, 2009, in a package for Travis Moen and Kent Huskins.

"I was in school. In a class. I couldn’t really concentrate because I knew I was going to be traded," he said. "So I went to a 3 p.m. practice and I hadn't been traded yet. And then when I got back to the room, I had a bunch of calls and texts."

Fast forward seven years later and has now found greener pasture in Pittsurgh, after being sent to Vancouver with Adam Clendening and a draft choice for Brandon Sutter and a draft choice July 28, 2115.

Bonino is attracting more attention his way during the playoffs, playing on the HBK Line -- Carl Hagelin, Bonino and Rick Kessel. Known more for his hard work, Bonino now has four goals and 12 assists in 19 playoff games after getting just nine goals and 20 assists in 62 regular season games. His career high was 22 goals with Anaheim in 2011-12.

"I think I found a home for sure," Bonino said. "I enjoy the guys. The organization is first-class. It definitely feels nice to be in the Cup Final playing with these two guys."

Said Matt Cullen, "He's had some huge goals in the playoffs, come up really big. Obviously playing in the middle of that line, he's been huge for us all playoffs. It just brings another element of depth to our team.”

But, Bonino has 12 career postseason goals, five of which have been game-winners. The past four of those have come in the last three minutes of regulation or in overtime.

In fact, Bonino’s big-time heroics date back to his days at Farmington High School (Connecticut), where he scored the game-winning goal against Trumbull in double-overtime of the CIAC Division II championship. In college, he scored the tying goal with 17.4 seconds left in regulation in Boston University’s remarkable, late-game comeback victory over Miami (Ohio) in the 2009 national championship game.

There's more, before this goal against the Sharks, Bonino previously scored two series-clinching overtime goals. He had one in 2014 for the Ducks against the Stars and one against the Capitals in the second round this postseason.

Born in Hartford, Bonino was a Red Wings fan until the day in 2007 when he was drafted by the Sharks. Brendon Shanahan was his favorite player. Shanhan also is the man who traded Phil Kessel from Toronto to the Penguins last summer. Rutherford, who left owner Peter Karmanos for Pittsburgh in 2014 after more than two decades running his hockey empire, is the man who acquired Bonino from the Vancouver Canucks last July.

"I was so shocked by the trade I really don't remember much of what Jim Rutherford said to me," Bonino said. "I know he wanted me to be the third-line center and to give some depth to the team to work with."

And that plays to Bonino's competitive fire. How competitive? After he was stopped on two breakaways in overtime of a state semifinal loss to Hand-Madison, his mom Joanne once said he didn't talk for a week. A week!

He's a pretty good all-around athlete, played soccer and lacrosse at Avon. Because of that, people think, oh, he is just all natural ability. Forget that. His skating is what has improved the most through the years. He has absolutely worked his tail off. I'm so happy about his success.

The collection could make an impressive display, with a World Championships medal and NCAA national championship hardware included, but Bonino hopes it isn't complete yet.

He wants at least one more trophy.

"One of those little miniature cups would be nice," he said.

A small, replica Stanley Cup, that is.

First he needs to win a real one. This is the fifth NHL postseason for the 27-year-old forward from Connecticut, whose Cup-carrying chances likely improved with his July trade from Vancouver to Pittsburgh.

"An NHL career can't be disappointing if it's a long career," Bonino said, "but it's definitely a way better career if you win the Cup and you have that to your name."

The collection could make an impressive display, with a World Championships medal and NCAA national championship hardware included, but Bonino hopes it isn't complete yet.

For now, Bonino represents a small faction on the team that works -- big-time.

He is part of the depth of the Penguins.

"They've been a big part of this team for so long now that it doesn’t surprise us," Sullivan said. "They’ve stepped up and made big plays for us ... and not just scoring goals.”

"They’re first- and second-line players right now. They have big roles," Letang said moments after Bonino buried his pass for the winning goal with 2:33 left. "[Rust] has scored a lot of big goals for us. Sheary is playing on Sid’s line. Bonino has been a big part of his line with [Carl Hagelin] and [Kessel]. That’s not depth. Those guys are some of our top players."

Even more important is that Nick Bonino is scoring big-time goal at big moments.

More than you would expect from the 173rd pick in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft.

NOW -- that a story.

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