BOSTON -- Dougie Hamilton and the rest of the young Bruin defensemen have passed every playoff test thrown at them over the last two years. Hamilton, Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski all stepped up during last year’s run to the Stanley Cup Finals when injuries created openings for them. In fact, Krug was so good and full of offensive impact that it firmly convinced Bruins management they could survive without Andrew Ference.
This season it’s been much the same.
The Black and Gold were able to at first survive, and then eventually thrive, without injured defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who blew out his right knee just after Christmas. Hamilton became the go-to partner for Zdeno Chara on the right side, and showed he was capable of playing big minutes against the best offensive players in the world.
Krug led all NHL rookie defensemen with 40 points and sparked the Bruin power play with his booming shot from the point. He also established himself as a good, third-pairing defenseman. Matt Bartkowski essentially stepped into Seidenberg’s role as the second pairing left-side defenseman and played 20 plus minutes a night while showing durability, escapability and unflappability in a make-or-break position for the Black and Gold.
Throw in the steady, physical pounding presence of Kevan Miller, and the Bruins are getting major returns from first- or second-year defensemen making up two-thirds of their D-man corps. The Bruins never would have piled up 117 points during the regular season and won the President’s Trophy if each of the young defenders didn’t perform at a consistently high level.
Clearly there was a learning curve and mistakes along the way, but they always pushed through with determination and confidence in their own abilities.
“There are times when they did get caught, and I’ve got a lot of clips of that if you want,” said coach Claude Julien. “But that’s how they learn; you have to teach along the way. Because they were allowed to do that, sometimes you learn from your mistakes and get better.
"So every day these guys spend time looking at their shifts, and we spend time teaching them the right time to go, and not to stay in there too long, and when to come back out. They’re young players who are getting better all the time, and they have learned. That is to their credit.”
Certainly the Bruins wouldn’t have taken down the Detroit Red Wings in five games if those young defensemen didn’t rise to the occasion. Hamilton sparked the Bruins with his aggressive one-man rushes to the net on the power play, and Krug posted five points in five games while pushing up close to 20 minutes per game against his hometown Winged Wheels.
Miller and Bartkowski were severely hampered by the gastrointestinal virus that ripped through the team at the start of the series, but gained strength as things rolled on. As a unit they provided the necessary support for veterans Chara and Johnny Boychuk against a fast, skilled Red Wings club, and together held Detroit to just six goals in five games.
That kind of performance didn't go unnoticed by the powers-that-be.
“It’s been very important,” said general manager Peter Chiarelli. “You saw last year towards the tail end and in the playoffs, we had valuable contributions from all those except Kevan. You know, I saw this quote the other day — 'it’s a game for young men' — and I don’t necessarily agree with that in total, but [they have] the young legs, the energy. We talked about the speed label, the lack of speed label. That we have those guys . . . not so much Kevan, but the other guys [bringibg] speed coming up through the defensive zone, the neutral zone, and that helps our speed game.
“The youthful energy, the youthful enthusiasm, the youthful naiveté sometimes in practice lightens the mood. All that stuff, it really energizes your team, and of course, they’re good players. So you’ve got good players playing that can skate all day.”
Nobody is questioning the kind of speed and fast transition game that a rapidly developing Hamilton can bring to a Bruins forward group that hasn’t always been the quickest, and Krug and Bartkowski are two of the faster skaters on Boston’s roster since Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley were shipped to Dallas.
But the quartet of young Bruins D-men are going to have to prove it all over again versus a deep, talented group of Montreal forwards in the second round of the playoffs. The Canadiens' third line of Rene Bourque, Lars Eller and Brian Gionta destroyed the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Habs' first-round sweep, and the Bruins defense will need to make certain that doesn’t happen again this time around.
That’s the challenge with Montreal posing a much more credible threat of getting in the collective faces of Boston’s young defensemen. The Canadiens have the potential to force them into turnovers and make them rush their decisions amid a withering forecheck. That’s the recipe that Montreal has used to win six of its last seven games against the Bruins over the last two seasons, and it’s exactly what Chara, Boychuk and the young studs are preparing for heading into a series that will start later on this week.
Chara knows he’ll have his own hands full with his responsibilities trying to shut down Thomas Vanek and Co. on Montreal’s top line, but concerning himself with his young 'D' corps is also part of his job description as a team leader.
“It’s a fine line or balance that you do have to take some responsibility, and take a little bit upon your shoulders," he said. "But at the same time, you don’t want to be doing too much that it’s actually costing your own game. You still want to be helping younger guys with their development and getting more — or speed up the development or the experiences they might not have yet — but at the same time, you don’t want to be doing a job for them and then not doing your job. So it’s kind of a balance that you want to help, but you want to make sure you focus on your game and let them, at times, figure out for themselves how to play.
“They do a really good job — all the young guys we have, they really made huge strides from the time they got here, or they got called up, or trades. They’ve made really smooth adjustments.”
That nice job will need to continue against Montreal if the Bruins are planning to advance past their traditional rival to the North. The pressure will be higher and the job will be tougher, but Hamilton (20), Krug (23), Bartkowski (25) and Miller (26) are starting to perform beyond their years.