When Canadiens left winger Travis Moen rose from the ice Monday night, he clearly was woozy. He had just been knocked down twice during a first-period fight with Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller, a player who started the season in obscurity, but will end it on the list of players no one wants to take on.
But it’s more than just the handful of fights — and many more handfuls of big hits — that Miller has laid on the competition.
Miller has become one of Boston’s more reliable defensemen, providing needed minutes as a stay-at-home blue liner in the third pairing in place of the injured Adam McQuaid. In Denver, against a potent Avalanche attack, Miller played a team-high 23 minutes 10 seconds in a game the Bruins would win to clinch a playoff spot.
“A while back we talked about [Reilly Smith] being a real surprise to this hockey team this year, what he’s brought. I think you can put Kevan Miller in that category as well,” coach Claude Julien said. “When you lose a guy like McQuaid for as long as we’ve lost him, big strong physical body, and you replace him with Kevan Miller who’s done an unbelievable job, I think that makes things a lot easier.”
Miller has played in 39 games, far more than anyone would have expected at the start of the year, with one goal and four assists. He’s a plus-17 and is averaging 17:10 per game. He knows to be effective he has to be physical.
“I think one of the things I kind of pride myself on is just being really tough to play against,’’ Miller said.
“We’ve lost [Dennis] Seidenberg and then you lose McQuaid on top of that, but when you’ve got guys like [Matt Bartkowski], when you’ve got guys like Miller coming in to replace them, between the job they’ve done it’s really bailed us out quite a bit,” Julien said. “Millsy has just been so confident. He makes smart plays, nothing is fancy but everything is efficient. He wins I’d say 90 percent of his battles along the way. He’s such a strong individual, and that’s what our team is built around.”
Miller proved his strength in training camp, matching Zdeno Chara pull-up for pull-up at 31 each. And he’s proven it again and again, in each of his three fights at the AHL level and four at the NHL level this season. According to hockeyfights.com — and the naked eye — Miller has decisively won just about all those fights, including the one against Moen that left Miller anxious about the well-being of his foes.
The bout started when Miller pushed Dale Weise, sending him into the boards. Moen then challenged Miller. Both Canadiens left the ice. Neither would return.
“To be honest with you about the hit, I felt bad about it,” Miller said. “I just kind of bumped into him. I think he was a little off-balance. I stood there just trying to make sure he was OK for a second and Moen asked if I wanted to go. I just hope they’re both OK.”
Miller, meanwhile, continues building his reputation, both as a pugilist and a defender, and should be a key asset in the upcoming playoff run.
“He’s been really impressive,” Patrice Bergeron said. “Even in training camp I kind of noticed him a bit, how strong he was, but also how committed he was to his defense and playing solid hockey. He has just been improving. He basically didn’t give many choices but to keep him. He didn’t leave any of the management a choice to [send him] back down. So credit goes to him, and he’s been great for us. Really happy to have him.”
While it’s unlikely the Bruins will face the Canadiens in the first round of the playoffs it still seems likely they could meet at some point.
Asked about that possibility, Brad Marchand said, “I think it would be a very physical series. We would try to play just like we played [on Monday] and hit them every chance we get and they’re probably going to want to do the same thing they did [Monday] — poke at us and try to get us to take penalties. So it would be a lot of fun to watch.”
Back to the grind
The Bruins were off Tuesday but will get back on the ice Wednesday to prepare for another tough game, this time against Chicago. It’s the first time the Blackhawks are returning to the TD Garden since stunning the Bruins in Game 6 of last season’s Stanley Cup Final. “It’s going to be, obviously, a tough game, a great matchup,” Bergeron said. “I’m expecting, again, the same kind of atmosphere as [Monday] with the fans and everything and just looking forward to it.” . . . There will be a lot less hair in the Bruins dressing room starting Thursday. The seventh annual “Cuts for a Cause” will take place Wednesday, with 21 players having their heads shaved by auction winners to benefit the Shawn Thornton Foundation, the Boston Bruins Foundation, and the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center.Amalie Benjamin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @amaliebenjamin.