The race for the Presidents’ Trophy isn’t the only battle the Boston Bruins have on their hands as they enter today’s game with Buffalo at HSBC Arena.
There’s also the little matter of sixth defenseman. Assuming Dennis Wideman is healed up and ready to go, there’s still no telling what Andrew Ference’s status will be when the postseason opens next week. While the Bruins still haven’t revealed what’s ailing the blueliner, they were quick to rule him out for the final four games of the regular season, and he has yet to return to the ice — so you know it’s serious.
There are three main options for head coach Claude Julien. One might assume that his first priority would be to stick with rookie Matt Hunwick, who has provided a spark to the Bruins throughout the season, especially down the stretch when the team needed something to break it out of the doldrums. However, Hunwick has never tasted the NHL postseason. That wouldn’t be a big deal if Julien’s other two options weren’t a pair of seasoned veterans.
Shane Hnidy has been a rock for the Bruins ever since he came over in a trade last season and then got acclimated to the Boston system. While not the offensive, puck-rushing threat Hunwick is, there’s a physical element to Hnidy’s game the Bruins might need should their upstart first-round opponent cross a line or two.
And then there’s Steve Montador, who brings a mix of the best elements Hnidy and Hunwick provide but just doesn’t do those things quite as well as his teammates. Like Hunwick, Montador could also fill in up front in a pinch, and that might be an edge Julien would give to the two versatile backliners.
Julien always says there are good problems to have, so he’s not going to complain. But in a seven-game series it can sometimes be tough to bounce back from a wrong decision. This game in Buffalo and tomorrow’s on Long Island should give Julien a clearer picture of his opening-game lineup. Of course, Ference could render this all moot and just come back to bolster the roster.
Season series: The Bruins are probably glad Buffalo won’t be among the playoff teams because Boston has only compiled a 2-2-1 record against their division rivals this season.
Player to watch: Beyond the battle for the last defense spot, the Bruins also have a battle to be the next forward into the lineup should there be an injury up front during the playoffs. Julien could go with Hunwick or Montador, but if he wanted to dig deeper youngsters Vladimir Sobotka and Mikko Lehtonen might be among those considered. Both were called up from Providence (AHL) and are expected to be in the lineup against the Sabres. Sobotka in particular has the edge that comes with having skated against Montreal in the postseason last year, and his combination of grit and skill could be a series-changer should be get in the mix.