Dougie Hamilton made it look easy. With a casual swipe of his stick, he feathered the puck to Torey Krug. From the top of the left circle, Krug blistered a slap shot past Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to tie Game 1 at 2-2 at 2:55 of the third period.
Hamilton might be the only Bruins defenseman with the skill, vision, and hockey sense to make the maneuver appear so effortless.
Hamilton was positioned against the right-side boards, holding the point. He had taken a pass from Brad Marchand and was surveying his options.
Rangers forward Brian Boyle should have been marking the point. But Boyle had fallen, which gave Hamilton some room up top. Hamilton’s first option was to shoot. David Krejci and Rangers defenseman Anton Stralman were jostling for position in front of Lundqvist. The two bodies could have screened Lundqvist. But there was also a chance that Hamilton’s shot might not make it on net.
So Hamilton accepted a different option. After hesitating slightly, he walked the puck along the blue line toward the middle of the ice.
By doing so, Hamilton accomplished two things. He halted Derek Stepan, the other forward on the penalty kill. Stepan didn’t know whether Hamilton would stay put or walk the line. Hamilton also opened up the left side of the ice. The Rangers were overloading on the other side. Hamilton snapped a pass to his power-play point partner.
“I tried to bring it to the middle and freeze [Stepan], who was in the middle,” Hamilton explained. “Then put it over to [Krug]. I tried to get him enough time to try and make a play. Good shot by him.”
Krug’s look was far better. He didn’t have any shot blockers in his way. Krejci and Nathan Horton were in front, ready to pursue a rebound off Lundqvist. No rebound came.
It is the type of high-speed play the 19-year-old Hamilton can make regularly. Hamilton’s touch with the puck is one reason the coaching staff tabbed the rookie for point duty on the No. 2 unit. During the regular season, Hamilton scored four of his 16 points on the power play (two goals, two assists). Hamilton sneaks pucks through traffic, but also reads when a dish is more effective than a shot.
But a confluence of factors pushed Hamilton out of the lineup. He was a healthy scratch for six of the last nine regular-season games. Hamilton did not dress for Games 1, 3, and 4 against Toronto in the opening round. Hamilton’s defensive-zone play had dipped. His physical presence down low against angry forwards wasn’t stiff enough for the Bruins’ liking.
The Bruins wanted to rest Hamilton. The rookie had started his season in August during the Canada/Russia Super Series exhibition tournament. Hamilton then reported to Niagara, his junior team. He also participated in the World Junior Championship in Russia.
The Bruins also aimed to evaluate Matt Bartkowski and Wade Redden to determine whether they could help in the playoffs.
Lastly, and perhaps most important, the Bruins wanted to reunite Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg as the shutdown pairing. The two strongmen had played together the previous two postseasons. With Seidenberg switching to his off side, it left three right-shot defensemen — Hamilton, Johnny Boychuk, and Adam McQuaid — to fight for the two remaining spots.
The Bruins prefer their defensemen, other than Seidenberg, to play their strong sides. Hamilton, Boychuk, and McQuaid do not have experience manning the left side.
Boychuk was a staple on the second pairing with Andrew Ference. McQuaid’s experience and snarly approach gave him the postseason edge over Hamilton.
Hamilton understood the situation, maybe more so than his play, dictated his time in suit and tie.
“Being a scratch every once in a while shouldn’t be trying for him, because he knew that coming in that it would happen,” said coach Claude Julien. “He was more than open to those kinds of suggestions, knowing it was going to make him a better player down the road. If anything, it’s been a busy season for him. He’s played extremely well for us this year. We’ve got to remember that he’s 19 years old. What he’s done for us this year has brought a good-sized defenseman to our team that moves the puck extremely well and sees the ice well.”
The outbreak of injuries to Seidenberg, Ference, and Redden has given Hamilton another chance. In Game 1, Hamilton logged 20:45 of ice time. Hamilton skated some of his shifts alongside Chara on the top pairing. That meant Hamilton saw plenty of the Rangers’ top line of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, and Rick Nash.
Prior to Brad Marchand’s overtime goal, Hamilton and Chara had to fend off an odd-man rush against the Rangers’ No. 1 line. Hamilton had to look after two players. Ryan McDonagh had joined the rush and was providing middle drive. Nash was the backdoor option on the left side.
Chara’s poke check gave the Bruins speed and numbers going the other way. If Chara and Hamilton didn’t play New York’s rush correctly, Marchand’s goal wouldn’t have happened.
“Playoffs is another step,” Julien said. “He’s taken that step extremely well. Last night he’s making good decisions, having to play with Z sometimes against their top line. To be able to be put out there against the other team’s top line has got to show that we do have confidence in him.”