On Nov. 21, 2012, Dougie Hamilton was a member of the Niagara IceDogs. Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski, and Kevan Miller were playing for Providence. They combined for 11 games of NHL experience.
One year later, all four young defensemen will be in the varsity lineup at TD Garden for the Bruins’ showdown against the powerful Blues. St. Louis is 1 point behind Western Conference leaders Chicago and Anaheim. The Blues feature a dangerous mix of brawn, speed, and skill. Entering Wednesday’s games, Alexander Steen had 17 goals and nine assists for a league-leading 26 points.
This is not the type of opponent the Bruins want to play without Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid.
Seidenberg was hurt on his first shift of Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Rangers. Seidenberg appeared to injure his left leg during a net-front pileup with Derek Dorsett. It is unknown how much time the No. 2 defenseman will miss.
McQuaid will most likely sit out his sixth straight game Thursday. McQuaid hasn’t played since he suffered an undisclosed injury Nov. 9 against Toronto when turning and pursuing a puck. McQuaid resumed skating Monday. Coach Claude Julien said McQuaid might return Saturday when the Bruins host Carolina.
Miller is the latest addition. The Bruins recalled the 26-year-old from Providence Wednesday on an emergency basis. Miller will make his NHL debut against the Blues.
The right-shot Miller is a physical, stay-at-home defenseman. In 12 AHL games, Miller has one goal, two assists, and 30 penalty minutes. The 6-foot-2-inch, 210-pound Miller played four seasons at the University of Vermont. The Bruins signed Miller as a free agent Oct. 21, 2011. Miller was the last player cut from camp this season.
Some teams would be in big trouble with four inexperienced defensemen. Not so with the Bruins, partly because they have two of the best players at their respective positions: Tuukka Rask and Zdeno Chara.
On Tuesday, Rask was under assault from the start. The Rangers attempted 85 total shots. Forty-four pucks hit their target. Only one slipped behind Rask: a second-period power-play goal by Derick Brassard.
Rask turned back the other 43 shots. It was the most saves Rask made this season. Perhaps appropriately, Rask submitted his starriest performance of 2013-14 when Jari Kurri, Team Finland’s general manager, was on hand at Madison Square Garden. Rask is guaranteed one of Finland’s three goaltending openings. Rask’s 43-save night could be one bullet point on his résumé over Antti Niemi for the No. 1 position.
Rask isn’t just making his case to be an Olympic ace. Rask is an early favorite for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goalie.
Rask should have been one of the three finalists last season. Instead, the NHL’s GMs, who vote for the award, tabbed Niemi, Henrik Lundqvist, and Sergei Bobrovsky. Columbus’s Bobrovsky won the trophy.
This season, Rask (12-5-1, 1.61 goals-against average, .946 save percentage) is pulling away from his rivals. The Oilers lit up Bobrovsky for four goals on Tuesday — the defending Vezina winner was yanked after the fourth — en route to 7-0 laugher. The Bruins beat Lundqvist with two highly skilled strikes. Shawn Thornton popped in a puck high glove. Daniel Paille scored on a shorthanded breakaway. But a locked-in Lundqvist could have stopped both shots.
The Bruins might have originally decided to rest Rask against St. Louis, a nonconference opponent. But their blue-line injuries may force Rask back into the crease for a third straight start. Chad Johnson might have to wait until Saturday’s matinee against Carolina.
Whoever starts against the Blues will have the NHL’s best shutdown defenseman standing guard in front of him. On Tuesday, one night after logging 23:23 of ice time against the Hurricanes, Chara was asked to neutralize New York’s first line of Rick Nash, Brad Richards, and Ryan Callahan.
Chara’s duties expanded rapidly after the Bruins lost their second-best defenseman. The Rangers roll four fast, mean, hungry lines. Chara saw time against all of them. Chara finished with a season-high 31:27 of playing time.
Chara didn’t just assume some of Seidenberg’s shifts. Chara also had to help out his younger defensemen.
In the second period, Callahan dumped Bartkowski into the boards and the defenseman fell and hurt his left knee. Bartkowski toughed out the blast and played 21:13, but tried to keep his shifts short and efficient.
Chara also had to take on some of Krug’s ice time. The night didn’t start well for the offensive-minded defenseman. On his first shift, Krug was bumped off the puck by Dorsett. Seconds later, the Rangers had a net-front scoring chance, which also led to Seidenberg’s injury.
Krug is the engine of the Bruins’ first power-play unit. But Krug doesn’t match up well against fast, powerful forwards.
Krug is also in one of his first troughs as an NHLer. Krug’s approach is to push the offensive pace, which puts him at risk of turnovers.
In the last three games, Krug hasn’t been as responsible with the puck. Assistant coach Doug Houda, who’s responsible for the defense, sent out Krug for only 15:44 against the Rangers.
Conversely, Houda repeatedly tabbed Chara. It’s not a club the Bruins want to pull out of their bag often, especially in a back-to-back scenario. But Chara can handle working overtime occasionally. It’s why Chara is the best at what he does.