Exhibit A for stats not telling the story- I give you Boston Bruins center Noel Acciari.
(Acciari talks to reporters about his 1st NHL shift vs Calgary- when Landon Ferraro scored to take a 1-0 lead; Boston Sports Desk video)
The Johnston, R.I. native was an undrafted free agent signing after being one of the captains who led his Providence College Friars to the 2015 National Championship, stunning their Hockey East rival (and the favorite) Boston University with a third period comeback Acciari had a hand in.
Aside from his minor hockey days, Bishop Hendricken high and final year of prep with the Kent Lions (the Connecticut school that if I’m not mistaken produced one Billy Jaffe, esteemed hockey analyst and broadcast personality) under Jaffe’s fellow Michigan Wolverines alum, Matt Herr, Acciari has not been one to put up big offensive numbers. That’s not his game.
What is his game is what we saw from him last night, in his third NHL contest since being brought up from Providence this week when Zac Rinaldo was optioned to the AHL. In a hard-fought 2-1 overtime loss to the Washington Capitals, winners of seven straight games against the B’s going back to the 2013-14 season, Acciari stood out in a good way, even if he has yet to register a single point.
Besides, who doesn’t love a good underdog?
His signature moment, the one that created major buzz online among B’s fans last night, was when he dropped Caps defenseman and former BC standout Brooks Orpik with a big, clean hit along the boards. Many folks don’t like Orpik for some of the predatory hits he’s laid on players during his career, and he more recently (in December, 2013) took out Loui Eriksson, leading to Shawn Thornton’s retaliation and subsequent suspension, as he caused injury to Orpik when he pulled him down from behind and pounded him on the ice. Regardless of whether you root for Orpik or not, he’s a legitimate shutdown defenseman who is known for and experienced in playing a physical brand of defense- so when he’s out looking to make body contact, the veteran defender is usually the one who comes out on top.
Acciari, still playing with a jaw protector on his helmet after taking a slap shot to the face from Providence teammate Chris Casto earlier in the season, stepped into Orpik like a seasoned vet and used his lower center of gravity to drive the Washington player back and off his skates.
That’s the type of hard, but clean hit that has become Acciari’s hallmark over the years. He stands at just a shade under 6-foot, but he’s a stout 200+ pounds and understands how to give and take a hit. Ever since he broke in with the Friars after taking a red shirt season in 2011-12, he’s done it. And while his offensive numbers grew in each of the three consecutive seasons he played in his home city, what was always consistent for him was how he finished his checks and forced opponents to think about how early or how late they held onto the puck, because they knew Acciari was coming.
He’s not a prolific scorer and won’t ever be that kind of guy, but he brings a well-rounded set of skills to the table: he’s a good skater who has the kind of short-area burst that is essential to thrive in a checking line role. To be able to do the job right, it’s about being more quick than straight-line fast and being able to change directions through a series of rapid stops and starts- Acciai’s excellent command of his edges allows him to be a disruptor on the forecheck and deny the opposing center time and space to make plays when the puck is in the Boston end. Watch the way he comes in behind unsuspecting puck carriers and lifts their stick to (legally) interfere with their possession. When you say that a player is smart- it’s not just about how creative he is at creating scoring chances. Making the right defensive play is just as commendable, especially when you’re in a 1-1 contest.
Acciari is a relentless ball of energy when he plays. As he gets more comfortable and experienced, he’s going to be able to assert himself a lot more in all three zones. Last night against the Capitals was the first of the three games he’s played (he was whistled for two marginal fouls against the Blackhawks) in which I’ve truly seen him start to morph into the wrecking ball that we’ve seen him be since his days at Kent and PC. Like most youngsters getting their first taste of NHL action- he was playing conservatively and skating more not to lose than to win. Against Washington, we started to witness that grinder who can wear opponents down and force players to think about what’s coming. Overthinking it equals errors that can be forced and exploited.
What’s best about Acciari is that he comes in with zero fanfare. He was a late-bloomer who was never drafted, but got the thrill of his young life when his favorite Bruins team came calling to offer him a job last June. Like Frank Vatrano, he simply could not pass that up, even though he was eligible to stay at PC under head coach Nate Leaman for another year. Also like Vatrano, the undrafted free agent that no team ever spent a pick on, can now say what a lot of guys who were drafted in each of the three years Acciari was available (2010-12) can’t: he’s made it to the NHL. Where he goes from here is still very much open to debate, but the B’s are no doubt pleased at what they’re seeing in his small audition. A team can do far worse than NA55 as a fourth-line center, and perhaps not a whole lot better.
We’re seeing things come together for Boston’s forward lines. A fourth unit that gives Claude Julien and his staff confidence and can do all of the things you want from the bottom-three, but also chip in with some speed and scoring to go with the physicality- that’s coming to fruition with Landon Ferraro and Brett Connolly flanking Acciari.
Don’t fix it if it ain’t broke, and for one Rhode Island kid who grew up in local rinks plugging away and envisioning himself putting on the Black and Gold for the big club that played in the shiny building about an hour up the road on I-95, that time has come.
Here’s to seeing continued growth and Acciari being that next good “hometown kid makes good” story for the B’s.