Defensemen on the Defensive

The Bruins were doomed.

Even after their stunning upset of Toronto in Game 7 of the first round and having the higher seed, the forecast called for a lot of wind. Most experts expected the Bruins to get blown out of the Eastern Conference Semis by the New York Rangers. Even homers like Michael Salk and Michael Holly on WEEI proclaimed, “After the Maple Leafs series, I won’t make any predictions…but if I were to, I don’t like how it looks.”

Boston’s line of defense presented the largest area of concern. Wade Redden, a 13-year veteran with over 450 career points, landed on the disabled list with a typical NHL injury: “undisclosed.” Dennis Seidenberg, a veteran of nine years, couldn’t play as a result of a leg injury. And the biggest loss came to the injured Andrew Ference, a very valuable Bruin who averaged over twenty-minutes.

All three defensemen, all three important, and all three out.

The Bruins were seemingly trotting out lambs named Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner when they employed three rookies as their top five defensemen. Highly touted first-round pick Dougie Hamilton played on the first-line with skyscraper-on-skates Zdeno Chara. Late-season call-up from the AHL Matt Bartkowski paired defensively with Johnny “Rocket” Boychuk. Torey Krug, a Providence promotion, sided with Adam McQuaid. Between Hamilton, Krug, and Bartkowski, none possessed a full-years worth of real NHL experience – their inexperience exacerbated by the lockout shortened season.

What fans expected resembled a Bad News Bears-esque bumbling and stumbling into one another while Rangers snipers treated the game like a penalty shot: clear ice with only the goalie to beat.

What fans received resembled nothing short of a miracle. They saw something historic. Not historically bad, like they expected, but Torey Krug becoming the first player (not just defensemen, but player) to score four goals in their first five playoff games.

A defenseman scoring presents a new weapon into an already-potent arsenal. During the regular season, which consisted of 48 games, blue-liners scored 23 of 127 (18%) of Bruins’ goals. The budding Bruins blue-liners surprised everyone by scoring seven out of the Bruins’ sixteen goals (44%) in the second round of the playoffs. They iced the hot Rangers offense and opened up the door that Vezina trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist had closed.

Someone should send a fruit basket to Providence.

The Bruins defensemen, once considered a liability, ended up to be the reason the Bruins emerged victorious – including scoring two of the three Bruins goals in the momentum-grabbing, overtime, Game One win.

So everything was going wrong, but then three unproven, unanticipated players appear and make the difference. Everything’s going great and it seems the Bruins have a better ending than a Lifetime movie.

But there’s a problem. (There’s always a problem.) What decision would Coach Claude Julien make when Ference and the Injury Company returned, as the all may do in their next series? The next series faces off the offensive juggernaut Penguins of Pittsburgh against the Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Claude Julien, who two weeks ago had his house for sale and was leaving Boston after another playoff collapse, got the miracle from his team in Game 7 against the Maple Leafs and therefore got the opportunity to hang around.

Now, he needs to reward the players who helped him get here. He needs to win, now, for Boston. He needs to keep Hamilton, Krug and Bartkowski in the defensive rotational for the Bruins.

The Bruins can ride the hot streak – no, more like exploding supernova – of Torey Krug, former Michigan State captain, Providence Bruin until April, and now leading goal-scorer for the Eastern Conference Finalist Boston Bruins. Unreal represents a major understatement of his play thus far. The Bruins know, maybe better than anyone else, that a team can pack its saddle on to the most popular mule and ride it to victory as they did with Goalie Tim Thomas in 2011 en route to the Stanley Cup. Thomas shut down opponents and made diving, acrobatic saves with his large frame that endeared him to Bruins fans everywhere. Boston rode Thomas’s play in the crease all the way to the cup – why not pitch in with Torey Krug and the Rookies and see how high the hit soars?

It’s like the first rule of poker; don’t get up from the table when you’re on a hot hand. The corollary to that rule says to leave before the hand goes cold, but there’s no sign of the latter.

In conjunction with the above plan Julien should patiently work back the Injury Three. Julien’s dynamic stratagem should involve a steady, slow increase of playing time between the three as to give them time to acclimate to the pace and demanding physical aspect. The dichotomy between practice time and game play exhibits how different the two are and how every athlete, regardless of the sport, requires time to re-enter the routine and the groove of the game.

Take it from Amaré Stoudamire in the NBA this postseason, or Ben Roethlisberger during the 2008 NFL campaign, or better yet: Keith Primeau, the Philadelphia Flyers Captain whose career ended in 2005-06 after he returned too quickly from a concussion and received a recurring one.

It’s better to let athletes work their way back slowly (though not as slowly as Derrick Rose) than to rush them back and risk re-injury.

Granted, Julien did play Seidenberg 23 minutes in Game 5 (his first game back), but he didn’t contribute in the points category and only delivered two hits.

As the other ailing Bruins begin to return to action, Julien can’t rush them back, nor should he give them more ice time than Krug or Bartkowski or Hamilton. Whoever plays better deserves the ice time and whoever gets the ice time needs to produce.

Julien received a miracle with the end of the Toronto series; he can’t waste it just because other Defensemen used to play there.

It seems bad enough that the three defend Tuukka and the goal, but now they must defend their own jobs.

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