Matt Grzelcyk can still remember his favorite gift on Christmas morning.
The Charlestown native has made a career out of shredding through the neutral zone as a fleet-footed puck mover for the Bruins. But like most kids in the early 2000s, the 29-year-old defenseman couldn’t get enough of the gravity-defying feats of extreme sports.
“I don’t know why because I probably barely used it — but I got a skateboard,” Grzelcyk said Tuesday. “And I was in my kitchen trying to do kick-flips. And I think I probably rolled my ankle about seven times on the first day. That was the end of that … I thought I was going to be Tony Hawk, going to the park, but it never came to fruition.”
Grzelcyk’s true calling on the frozen sheet has paid off. But on Tuesday afternoon, Grzelcyk and his teammates traded in their skates for Santa hats as part of the Bruins’ annual holiday visit to local hospitals.
In a tradition that has stretched back as far as Ray Bourque’s tenure as captain, the Bruins took part in a toy shopping event last Wednesday — picking up plenty of gifts for children at several area hospitals on Nov. 29. On Tuesday, the players stopped by Boston Children’s Hospital, Franciscan Children’s, Mass. General, Shriners Children’s Boston, and Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital to visit the patients and deliver presents.
Grzelcyk visited Mass. General with teammates Charlie McAvoy, Kevin Shattenkirk, and Danton Heinen.
“This is one of the highlights of the year for us — just to walk in, see the smile on their face, and kind of give them an early look into what Christmas is going to bring them,” Grzelcyk said. “Especially for me being from here, it means a little bit more, so it’s something I look forward to each year.”
“If you do have a costume, we try to make the guys wear it on the way from the rink,” Grzelcyk said. “So if you get stopped at a red light, they get a couple looks here and there.”
Amid the grind of an 82-game season, Grzelcyk said Tuesday’s visit is always welcome and puts things in perspective.
“I think the leadership group stresses how important it is at the beginning of each year to give back to the community, and it’s easy to just follow their lead,” Grzelcyk said. “I think Boston sports in general do a really good job.
“You don’t know how it’s going to impact those kids, so you want to make sure that you’re showing up and doing your part.”
Behind the play of Jeremy Swayman and Linus Ullmark, the Bruins still rank third in the NHL in goals against per game at 2.46. But in several key situations, Boston’s usually rigid defense has left a lot to be desired.
Coach Jim Montgomery has routinely bemoaned his team’s splintering structure during opposing rush chances. But the most concerning trend is the Bruins’ failure to snuff out rallies when opponents pull their goalie for an extra skater.
This season, the Bruins have logged 32:22 of ice time against empty-net situations, coughing up seven goals, the most in the NHL. Brad Marchand’s overtime goal on Saturday against the Maple Leafs absolved the Bruins’ latest last-minute gaffe, after Auston Matthews tied it at 19:54 in the third period.
The Bruins were not so fortunate Nov. 20 in Tampa Bay, when Steven Stamkos tied it with 4.8 seconds to go in regulation, before Brandon Hagel won it in overtime.
For Montgomery, the best avenue to countering those empty-net goals revolves around reps and experience — rather than a change in the team’s overall structure.
And with Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci no longer available for such critical junctures, growing pains are to be expected.
“Experience of being out there, of having the inner calm to be able to make poised plays and to be able to realize where the important ice is,” Montgomery said of how to limit costly sequences against an empty net. “We’ve run it out of the middle of the ice a couple of times.
“I think in the Tampa game we did, and I think in Toronto, we were running out of the middle of the ice and the intentions are good, but it’s kind of a panic read, where we got to hold the most important ice when they have possession.”
Taking it easy
After keeping his players away from the rink Monday, Montgomery scheduled an optional skate Tuesday following a stretch of nine games in 16 days. The Bruins will practice Wednesday ahead of Thursday night’s home game against the Sabres.
“This year, because of our situation with our team, we brought everybody in today, but it’s optional because there’s a lot of players, they’re just banged up,” Montgomery said.
Conor Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.