There were moments, as Dougie Hamilton played against the Islanders’ top line 10 days ago, when he looked like the rookie he in some ways still is. He was victimized by New York’s best, by Thomas Vanek and John Tavares, as he tried to keep up with Zdeno Chara in place of the Bruin captain’s usual partner, Johnny Boychuk.
It was the season nadir for the Bruins, who weren’t helped by mistakes from a defense that is usually rock-solid. But since then, whether paired with Chara or his usual partner Dennis Seidenberg, Hamilton has shown a growing maturation on the ice.
“I think I learned in the Islanders game that you really have to be careful, and there are plays where you want to jump up and be in the rush, but those are guys that kind of like to stay behind you and wait for turnovers and go the other way, so just to focus on defense and focus on getting the puck out and not getting beat,” said Hamilton, who was a minus-2 in the game.
The lesson has shown.
In the last two outings, against Atlantic Division heavyweights Toronto and Tampa Bay, Hamilton has had two of his best games of the season, something that’s perfectly timed with the injury to Adam McQuaid.
As coach Claude Julien said after the Maple Leafs game, “His first part of the year, he was in and out a little bit. But he’s played really solid for us and offensively continues to make good decisions, good plays, and very aggressive.
“Defensively he’s becoming better and better all the time.
“So he’s a young player — he’s a 20-year-old — but with experience, he’s starting to flourish and he just has to keep going that way.”
It was even more crucial Monday, as the McQuaid injury forced Hamilton back with Chara, back against the opponents’ top pairing. And against the Lightning? That’s tough duty, with the duo of Steven Stamkos — before he suffered a broken tibia in the second period — and Martin St. Louis standing as two of the best offensive players in the conference.
“We’re asking Dougie to play against top lines with Zdeno and those kind of situations and I think he’s done a good job of handling it,” Julien said.
And that’s even with the fact that, as Hamilton said, “If you’re a smart player, you go to my side and not [Chara’s].”
When the season started, Julien seemed to be planning on a rotation that involved Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, and perhaps McQuaid as the seventh defenseman.
But as Hamilton has asserted himself, that fell away. He has become more and more indispensible to the defense, and the voices that once called for more seasoning with Providence in the AHL have fallen away.
“He’s reading the play really well and positioning himself right and then he’s blocking shots,” goalie Tuukka Rask said. “He’s growing into a great player.
“He’s making right plays, blocking shots, and being smart out there. He’s a big body, he’s a great skater, he can make it fast up ice. And it’s just the biggest thing to do that defensively too.”
Against the Lightning, Hamilton had an added challenge. He was involved in the injury to Stamkos that resulted in that broken tibia. Stamkos was backchecking on Hamilton when the pair went down, with Stamkos’s left skate and then right leg hitting the post of the Lightning goal.
“It kind of scared me, I think,” said Hamilton. “It sticks in your head. I think obviously at any time in the game you can get hurt and you’ve got to be aware of that. And you feel bad for him, too, so I think just to refocus and get back to playing.”
He did, and so did the Bruins, finishing a shutout of the conference’s top team. It was a full defensive effort, the kind the Bruins need to be successful over the course of the season — especially if they’re going to need Hamilton playing with Chara against opposing top lines.
Hamilton was noticeably more cautious about joining the rush against Tampa Bay than he had been against the Islanders — after all, it was after that game that Julien called out both Hamilton and Brad Marchand for not getting back on a play that led to a New York goal.
“I think you know how dangerous they are and how much they want those plays, so you kind of have to hold yourself back a little bit and just really focus on defense,” Hamilton said. “But I think I did well at that.
“I think it’s something where you want to come out of the game even or not being scored on, so I think, like I said, I learned in the Islanders game that those guys are feasting on turnovers and mistakes and they want you to jump up in the play and stuff, so you really have to be careful and just kind of stay back and focus on that, and be strong on your net.”
Unlike the past couple of years, when Julien could rely not only on Chara and Seidenberg, but also on Andrew Ference and Boychuk and McQuaid, the coach’s defense is far younger and far more inexperienced.
As he pointed out after Monday’s game, three blue liners — Hamilton, Krug, and Bartkowski — are all essentially first-year players.
Hamilton, though, is the most experienced of the bunch, at least at the NHL level. And while it’s been clear from the beginning that he has the ability to make things happen on the offensive end, he’s now demonstrating exactly what he can do, even against some of the best offensive talent in the game.
“It’s a guy growing into his job,” Julien said. “He’s played so well for us. He’s very capable of doing that.”Amalie Benjamin can be reached at abenjamin @globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.