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On hockey

Bruins defensemen fight for playoff position

Torey Krug (center) was one of the Bruins who took issue with a hit on Johnny Boychuk.

Barry Chin/Globe Staff

Torey Krug (center) was one of the Bruins who took issue with a hit on Johnny Boychuk.

At 5 feet 9 inches and 181 pounds, Torey Krug was the smallest Bruin on the ice on Saturday when Carolina’s Patrick Dwyer sent Johnny Boychuk crashing skates first into the end boards.

Krug could have left the response to Milan Lucic and Jarome Iginla. Both are big boys with plenty of strong-arming experience.

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But once he saw Boychuk plow into the wall, Krug quickly approached Dwyer and tried to tangle with the Carolina forward. It was an unacceptable play that required a response.

“I feel he got shoved or pushed into the boards,” Krug said. “I haven’t seen the replay. But you’ve just got to react for your teammates. I don’t know. It looked pretty ugly.”

It might not have been a coincidence that Krug answered with some bite. Two days earlier, the coaching staff kept Krug out of uniform for the first time this season. From TD Garden’s ninth floor, Krug had to watch Andrej Meszaros take his spot on the third pairing and the No. 1 power-play unit. Nobody likes to see another driver sit behind the wheel he’s steered all year.

On Saturday, Meszaros was out. Krug was back in. Krug’s performance included the jousting with Dwyer and a garbage-time goal, just his second in the last 12 games.

“It was good,” Krug said of returning to the lineup. “You always want to be out there on the ice with your teammates and going to battle. It’s fun that we’re winning games right now. Any time you go out there and put a good effort in, it feels good.”

The Bruins acquired Meszaros because of his size, experience, and versatility. In three games, Meszaros has played on two pairs, both sides, and two power-play units.

For the first two games, Meszaros punted Dougie Hamilton out of the lineup. The left-shot Meszaros served as Zdeno Chara’s right-hand man, Hamilton’s former title. Meszaros also displaced Hamilton as the point man on the second power-play set.

On Thursday, Meszaros moved down to the No. 3 pairing. Meszaros switched to his strong side. He assumed quarterback responsibilities on the first PP unit.

But Meszaros’s addition was also about promoting competition. Counting waiver pickup Corey Potter, the Bruins have eight healthy defensemen. They could have nine if Adam McQuaid recovers from his quadriceps strain.

Before Meszaros and Potter arrived March 5, the Bruins didn’t have a spare defenseman. There were no varsity players grousing about playing time. If the Bruins wanted reinforcements, they’d have to promote rookies David Warsofsky or Zach Trotman from Providence. Before each game, the six defensemen entered the dressing room knowing their game jerseys would be hanging in their stalls.

It’s different now. For every game, there are two defensemen unhappy about not playing. They’re wearing suits instead of uniforms.

Claude Julien likes that. The Bruins are virtually locked in to a top-two seed. They are not playing for points.

But Julien sees urgency on the ice. Krug, Hamilton, and Kevan Miller, three of the defensemen with their jobs at risk, played like their skates were on fire. It would have been hard to generate that kind of tension without new men pushing for work.

“We mentioned after we made those deals that there’s some depth. There’s also some competition now,” said the Bruins coach after Saturday’s 5-1 win over the flickering Hurricanes. “When there’s nobody pushing from behind, no matter who you are, you have a tendency to get comfortable. We try and keep that competitive edge within our hockey team. Right now, it’s there with our defensemen.”

Hamilton has been in for two straight following his two-game sitdown. Hamilton is back with Chara on the first pairing and on the No. 2 PP unit.

Hamilton connected with the hit of the game in Saturday’s third period. Jeff Skinner carried the puck into the offensive zone and cut toward the middle. Hamilton anticipated Skinner’s move. When Skinner pulled in to the high slot, so did Hamilton. The defensemen clobbered Skinner.

“I was kind of looking for him and waiting for him to cut to the middle,” Hamilton said. “Luckily he did. I got good contact. So it was kind of nice to have one of those. It felt good, obviously.”

It was a clean hit. Yet it was not the kind of wallop the Hurricanes should have accepted. Skinner has a concussion history. The Hurricanes do not dress a tough guy. It’s why Julien felt comfortable scratching Shawn Thornton. But someone should have approached Hamilton to discourage such behavior, just like Krug did to Dwyer.

Nothing happened. The Bruins, up 2-1 at the time, scored the next three goals.

The Bruins weren’t flawless. They played a down-and-out team whose stars (Skinner, Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Justin Faulk) shriveled under the slightest pressure.

“Our best players tonight did not play the way they’re capable of,” said Carolina coach Kirk Muller. “It was early in the game, well before [the Boychuk incident], that we had to push back, and we didn’t.”

But the defensemen played with tension. Nathan Gerbe scooted off for a third-period breakaway, but Miller raced back to apply back pressure. Later in the third, on the shift after Chris Kelly gave the Bruins a 3-1 lead, Miller supported the attack. Miller raced below the opposing goal line, an area he rarely visits. Because of Miller’s rush, Jarome Iginla scored 13 seconds after Kelly to make it a 4-1 game.

The playoff lineup is not set. Fifteen more regular-season auditions will help determine the six-man unit. The uncertainty is causing uneasiness. That’s good.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.
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