Haggerty: Bruins rookie D-men need to handle pressure

Haggerty: Bruins rookie D-men need to handle pressure
May 19, 2013, 10:45 am
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BOSTON -- There was all manner of positive chatter and hearty backslapping over the downright positive performances from Boston’s three rookie defensemen in Game 1 of the second round against the New York Rangers.

Rightfully so, as almost everything went right for them: Torey Krug snapped off a power-play goal that tied the game in the third period in his first NHL playoff game; Dougie Hamilton skated 20:45 of ice time and assisted on Krug’s power play strike while reeling off five shots of his own; and Matt Bartkowski looked like a grizzled veteran while only Zdeno Chara, Patrice Bergeron and Johnny Boychuk managed more ice time than his 26:42.

It was impressive stuff from a trio of defensemen that now have only eight playoff games combined on their NHL resumes.

“I didn’t see a guy [in Krug] that was nervous at all. If anything I saw a guy that was extremely confident in making the executions that he needed to make. That was not only on the goal, but the plays me made coming out of his own end,” said coach Claude Julien. “On the power play [Krug scored on], he was taking his time coming up and allowing other guys the time to make a line change to get into their positions. He’s a pretty smart player, and a pretty confident player.”

They handled the pressure of the game ably, and managed to avoid any long stretches of overexposure in the defensive zone against a big, strong Rangers unit. But that’s bound to change in the playoff series the longer the “Three Little Baby Bears” are all in the B’s lineup together, and Boston should expect that a veteran New York group is going to come gunning for them in Game 2 on Sunday afternoon.

Rangers coach John Tortorella talked about an adjustment his team needed to make that was “not on the ice”, but perhaps that meant more about a mentality or strategy change for the Blueshirt attackers. If so, his players have absorbed the message loud and clear already down 1-0 in the best-of-seven series.

“We need to fore-check a little harder and hold the puck a little more in their end to create some offense,” said New York Rangers Ryan Callahan. “Our biggest weakness was not playing in their end enough. One of our biggest strengths is getting in the forecheck, creating turnovers and that’s how we get most of our offense. I didn’t think there was enough of that in Game 1.”

Absolutely nobody will be surprised if the Rangers come out with a much more aggressive, suffocating forecheck designed to intimidate the rooks and knock them out of their comfort zone.

There’s an outside chance Wade Redden could be healthy enough to return on Sunday afternoon, and possibly supplant Krug in the lineup to give the Black and Gold a little more of a veteran presence. But the Bruins also moved the puck with more snap in Game 1 than at any point in the series against the Maple Leafs, and that’s connected with the young Boston blueliners that are a little more offensively gifted than the injured veterans they were replacing.

Julien wasn’t ready to completely chalk up his team's success to the three 20-something D-men, but it’s pretty clear they were a factor in the Bruins moving the puck so efficiently.

“We expect them to come hard at us. We expected them to come hard at us last game too,” said Julien. “Our D’s handled it well, our forwards did a great job of coming back. It’s just a matter of being ready to up your game because the other team is going to be better.

“That should be something that you know automatically. We saw some things in our game that we talked about in our dressing room that we’ve to improve on. That’s the adjustments you make game-to-game in these kinds of series. But I thought they took the ice well, and there’s no doubt our transition game [in Game 1] was good. Whether it was because of them or because of our game, they did exactly what they had to do. They didn’t sit on their heels and they didn’t just freeze and try to move the puck standing still, they carried it when they had the ice.”

So it’s well established that the B’s rookie blueliners were quick, aggressive and fearless when it came to turning the puck up the ice with a purpose into the New York zone. But much in the way an NFL defense looks to rattle a rookie quarterback, the Rangers will be looking to take advantage of the inexperience of Boston's young defensemen on Sunday afternoon.

The Rangers attackers are going to do everything they can to physically pound those smaller, younger players at every turn and exert enough pressure on them that they have less time and space to make decisions.

That’s the plan, anyway.

Game 2 is the Black and Golden chance for Krug, Hamilton and Bartkowski to prove that Thursday night’s Game 1 wasn’t a one-hit wonder. If the rookies show that they’re capable of repeating the stellar trio of performances, it could be a quick series for the Rangers. But if the Bruins youngsters can’t handle the pressure with the same youthful grace and skill, then the door will have been opened for New York in a seven-game playoff series that’s still got a long, long way to go.