It was difficult to see the silver lining at the time, and even harder to talk of one in the following days. The playoff hopes of the Bruins seemed to be limping off the ice, on a knee shredded by ACL and MCL injuries that would soon require surgery.
Dennis Seidenberg, the second-most important defenseman on the Bruins, had gone down, leaving them without his experience and power and talent, without the chance to form the shutdown pairing with Zdeno Chara that had sustained Boston in playoff runs past.
Recovery would not be swift. And it didn’t help that in the next few games, the defense faltered, the penalty kill faltered, and the questions crept in.
Seidenberg was injured Dec. 27, late in the third period of a game well in hand. And then Adam McQuaid, who had already missed much of December, went down again midway through January. That was, very quickly, a combined 835 games of NHL experience erased.
Fortunately for the Bruins, there was already a succession plan of sorts in place. With the decision to not re-sign Andrew Ference (760 NHL games) at the end of last season, general manager Peter Chiarelli had planned to rely more on young players, on Dougie Hamilton and Matt Bartkowski and Torey Krug. He had planned on mistakes and growth and learning curves, as those three became core parts of his defense.
Still, he had not planned on this.
“The one common theme is that we’ve tried all year to integrate a few young guys — Hamilton, Bartkowski, Krug — into a meaningful role within the D corps,” Chiarelli said. “It got a little easier — like the silver lining in all this with Seids and McQuaid out for a sustained period is that it got to be easier to put them in.
“So in a weird way we benefited from the absences.”
And at least as far as the regular season, the team certainly wasn’t harmed by them. Since that downturn in the immediate aftermath of Seidenberg’s injury, the Bruins rebounded to win the Presidents’ Trophy (most points in the league) after going on a tear through March with a 15-1-1 record.
The Bruins were 26-10-2 before the injury and 28-9-7 after the injury. Their goals-against average rose, barely, from 2.00 to 2.13, and their save percentage went from .932 to .925. The only area in which the Bruins seem to have been significantly affected was the penalty kill, with the percentage dropping from 86.9 to 82.1.
“We had planned for the three of them to be developed at a decent pace and what has happened is that pace has accelerated,” Chiarelli said. “When that happens, things can go awry a little bit and really they haven’t.”
For the Bruins, the commitment to defense has always been there. It’s why some of their more gifted forwards — Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci — don’t score as many points as they would in other systems. It’s also one of the key reasons the team has been to the Stanley Cup Final two of the last three seasons.
But that commitment to defense became more problematic with this season’s shift to a younger, less experienced group. The Bruins expected to need more out of the coaching staff in terms of teaching and managing and fitting everything together.
“It may sound simple to you out there: four defensemen, play them,” Chiarelli said. “It’s a little different from that, especially with the significance of the defensive position, with the youth. They’re going to make mistakes, and it’s about fixing those mistakes and, at the same time, not ruining the confidence of the players.
“We had one or two periods where we were scratching one of those three [Hamilton, Bartkowski, Krug], and you bruise their egos and they’re young and it can go sideways.”
It never did.
“I think a lot of it is communication,” coach Claude Julien said. “Players today need to know where they stand.
“There was a time long ago when you didn’t have a conversation with a coach, you just kind of sucked it up, and the next time you were in, you just played. But as everything else, this world changes, as does the game and your approach with players.
“You have to give them the opportunity to play and they are going to make mistakes, but you have to keep working with these guys to help them get better. We’ve seen guys make mistakes and then go back on the ice a few shifts later. So you don’t take their confidence away, especially when you see the effort and the determination is there.”
It wasn’t perfect. There were mistakes. The Bruins won just four of their eight games following Seidenberg’s injury, allowing 25 goals. They gave up 10 power-play goals in 29 opponent chances.
“They probably all had [bad] plays in that stretch, but now they’ve benefited because they’ve been through that,” Chiarelli said. “They’re still young. I still see them overanxious at times in their own way, whether it’s carrying the puck, whether it’s committing a pinch or something.
“But every game, every week, I see it a lot less frequently. They just don’t do it as much.”
As he talks through the scenarios involving his young defensemen, Chiarelli refers to three — Hamilton, Bartkowski, and Krug. But he is reminded that it’s not just those three getting big minutes in big situations.
There is also Kevan Miller, who has almost seamlessly stepped into McQuaid’s spot on the third pairing.
The general manager pauses. “I even forgot about him,” he says.
That’s not exactly an easy thing to do. Miller has been responsible for some of the hardest hits — and most onesided fights — this season, in addition to shoring up a pairing that could have been lost without McQuaid.
It has been easy for Julien to slot him in the lineup, his reliability and defensive responsibility mostly unquestioned. Miller was the final cut of training camp, sent down to Providence as the regular season began. The team knew he was ready, knew he could help. There just wasn’t room.
And then there was.
“He’s fit in very well,” Chiarelli said. “His game is very compatible with our system, very competitive kid. And he plays with poise and maturity beyond his years.
“I mean, I knew he was knocking on the door, but that’s been a surprise that he’s gotten to where he is right now, and it’s been obviously very good for us.
“He doesn’t play a mistake-free game, but I haven’t seen many mistakes from him. Part of that is where he plays in the lineup, but he’s also had some larger-minute games where you’re more apt to make mistakes.”
For the most part, though, he hasn’t.
“I think the system helps,” said Miller, who signed a contract extension in January. “We play the same system down in Providence, and coming into Boston, it makes it easier to transition.
“I think my job is to play defensively and to limit those mistakes and turnovers and, at the same time, create opportunity for the forwards and to break pucks out of my zone and be hard to play against.
“I think that’s part of my game and I just need to make sure I’m doing that.”
While some of Miller’s most memorable moments have come with a bang — witness those mammoth hits and those punches from hands that his fighting tutor Shawn Thornton said have “natural sting” — his importance to the Bruins has been much more basic.
“I’m a lot like [McQuaid],” Miller said. “He’s a very simple player. The simple play works. And in our system, it definitely does work.”
Now comes the real test.
“We all knew these guys are going to make mistakes, so we see that and you accept that and you see how they rebound and respond the following shift, the following game,” Chiarelli said. “So that’s stuff I was OK with.
“It was more about looking into the playoffs and seeing if it was the proper group — a young group that can defend, really defend. Because in the playoffs, it’s a lot of defending.”
That was the issue that faced the GM at the trading deadline. Did he have the right players to defend in the postseason? And, more crucially, was there anyone better out there?
“It was rare for me to say that [an available defenseman] is better,” said Chiarelli. “So that’s a testament of where they are in their progression.”
Partly that has come from last season, from the Bruins’ needs at that point. With injuries to Seidenberg and Ference in the postseason, those inexperienced defenders were forced into games — perhaps before they were ready.
Hamilton played in seven postseason games, as did Bartkowski, and Krug was a force in the Rangers series (four goals), ultimately playing 15 games.
“Just the atmosphere alone for the playoffs is totally heightened, at least double of the regular season,” Johnny Boychuk said. “Just to get thrown in that situation and do such a great job, I mean, you take that experience and you hopefully use it.”
That’s the plan. And yet, even with what they went through in the playoffs last season, even with what they’ve been through in the regular season this year, there are still concerns. It remains unlikely that the Bruins will get Seidenberg back (though he has been skating), and the status of McQuaid remains murky.
So the Bruins will go with what they have, with four players who came into this season with a combined 65 NHL regular-season games, four players who have been allowed to make mistakes and grow as their team finished with the top mark in the league. Four players who enter the postseason with questions still unanswered.
“When you get into those tougher games, deeper into the playoffs, that’s when you really like the veterans, the Seidenbergs and the McQuaids,” Chiarelli said. “So the jury’s still out on this group.”