Hockey, like life, is all about adjustments. When teams lose, coaches may change lines, defensive pairings, or goaltenders.
When players struggle, they practice harder, prepare more diligently, and commit to moving forward.
New York Rangers center Brian Boyle always has been open to adjustments even when they’ve been hard.
This hasn’t been a banner season for the 28-year-old Hingham native, far from it. The 6-foot-7-inch, 244-pound pivot tallied just 5 points, two of them goals, in 38 regular-season contests. He was a healthy scratch on four occasions — Feb. 7, 10, and 12, the latter in Boyle’s hometown when the Rangers visited TD Garden — and he sat out again March 8 when Brad Richards returned from an injury. To that point, Boyle had just one assist in 19 games.
Sitting out games when injured is one thing, watching from the stands because you didn’t crack the lineup is a blow to any hockey player’s pride.
“That was a long time ago,’’ said Boyle, who will try to help his team climb out of a 2-0 hole in Game 3 of the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinals against the Bruins Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden. “This is the fun stuff, not to say that that [the regular season is] not fun, but quite frankly, it wasn’t this year for me.’’
Boyle was further thrown off by a leg injury April 16 that forced him to miss the final six games of the year as well as Game 1 of the quarterfinal series against the Capitals.
Since rejoining the team for Game 2, Boyle had two goals and one assist in the final six games against Washington, and although he was held scoreless in Games 1 and 2 against Boston, Boyle has been an enormous presence in front of the net and in the faceoff circle.
“Brian has, really right on through since I’ve coached him, since he’s been in New York, has been a really good playoff player,’’ said Rangers coach John Tortorella. “His line [with left wing Taylor Pyatt and right wing Derek Dorsett] was probably our most effective line in the first game of this series.
“He’s been good for us. I don’t think he’s played that well, at least this year during the regular season, there were some struggles, but once playoffs started, he’s been a really consistent player in all facets of the game.’’
Boyle said he feels as if he’s finally getting his legs under him again.
“Since I’ve come back from injury and even a little bit before that, I was feeling a little bit better,’’ said Boyle. “I’m starting to get better and back to the spot where some of the things I needed to do every night consistently are starting to come. It wasn’t great but it’s getting better. When you’re off the ice for a couple of weeks, it’s tough. You just try to get in shape and go back to doing simple things that you can do and try to help the team that way.’’
Nowhere did Boyle learn more about adjustments than at Boston College, where he was a four-year standout.
During Boyle’s senior year, when the regular season was winding down in the spring of 2007, the Eagles were woefully thin on defense, so Boyle moved from center to the blue line. One of the people who can best appreciate that is Mike Brennan, who took over the captaincy from Boyle the next year. Brennan was Boyle’s defense partner during the Hockey East playoffs as well as the Eagles’ NCAA Tournament run, which ended with a loss in the championship game to Michigan State.
“That’s another great example of him being put into a position where he didn’t want to fail,’’ said Brennan. “He wanted to succeed. He just took it in stride.
“To play forward for that long and then to be able to skate backward, it’s hard, especially at that level. College hockey is a fast, fast game. He just took it and ran with it. In that run to the national title game, he was a huge part of our D corps. It was pretty incredible to watch his development into a defensemen in about four weeks.’’
What made it even more challenging was that while Boyle was learning a new position, opponents were ratcheting up their games for the postseason.
“When you are trying to win a championship, every piece of your game hits another level,’’ said Brennan. “There were some really good players we were playing against who are playing in the NHL now and the American League. He did a great job. Not a lot of people appreciate that transition. He had never played [defense] before. He’s a big man. To be able to so fluidly move to back skate, I can appreciate it because I have been learning it since I was 5. You have to learn to gauge speed and Brian never looked out of place.’’
Brennan credited Boyle for his committed attitude and approach to the game. He said Boyle set a good example for everyone around him.
“You knew he was meant to be a pro,’’ said Brennan. “He came to the rink and he was always the hardest-working guy on the ice. He was in the weight room continuously. Watching Brian and the way he approached hockey, I think I learned a lot from him about how to be a pro and how he tried to learn something every single day. He’s extremely serious when it comes to his sport. When he’s at the rink, he’s all business, and he’s an extremely loyal guy.’’
BC coach Jerry York, who keeps in touch with Boyle, said one area in which Boyle always has excelled is faceoffs. Even when he played defense at BC, he still took key draws. That has been a strength for him as a pro.
“I watched [Game 2] closely and he won draws clean,’’ said York. “He’s really developed. At St. Sebastian’s, he came along and got better and better. At BC, the same thing. With the NHL, that experience with Los Angeles and the minor leagues [where he started his career], he just kept on persevering and now he’s clearly one of the dynamic players for the Rangers. He’s a real game-changer defensively or he can do it offensively.’’
Boyle considered turning pro after his junior year at BC but he wanted to try to win an NCAA title so he returned. Even though his team fell just short, York said the fourth year benefitted his game.
“[At St. Sebastian’s] he got his confidence; instead of running off to a junior league or switching schools, he stayed at St. Sebastian’s,’’ said York. “He gets committed to that team. With us, it was the same way. He entertained different offers to leave during the course of his career but he was committed to the school and to his team. He understood, he’s such a big kid, his growth and his physical development were all catching up, so I think it served him well to stay the four years.’’
As much as Boyle struggled this season, York said he is the type of player who is always a factor in the big games.
“He seemed to elevate his game with us in tournaments – Beanpot tournaments or Hockey East or national tournaments,’’ said York. “He seemed to relish being on a bigger stage. He did not shrink at all, he got better. [When he switched to defense], his attitude was, ‘Whatever can help the club, coach.’ That’s a real terrific quality to have from my perspective. The player maybe will sacrifice where it’s comfortable to go to an uncomfortable position to help our club. He was really an outstanding defenseman for us. He’s very versatile.’’
At this time of year, Boyle said his focus isn’t on what he overcame, it’s on what’s in front of him.
“You look at the playoffs, the regular season is over, here is what we play for and this is what we grind through the regular season for,’’ said Boyle. “This is the fun stuff. You just do anything you can to possibly help your team advance.’’