Boston Bruins rookie winger Blake Wheeler recalls the 2007 WCHA Final Five title game as the biggest game he’s played up until now. That year, the Golden Gophers battled North Dakota and prevailed with Wheeler winning tournament MVP honors.
Playing the Gophers’ hated rival in front of a rocking Xcel Energy Center crowd in St. Paul might’ve been great, but it will pale in comparison to what Wheeler is going to experience when the Bruins and Montreal Canadiens tangle in a best-of-seven series starting Thursday.
“I think the difference is that you can possibly play the same team seven times. So you could see the same guy across from you seven times in two weeks and that can get kind of old,” Wheeler recently told TheBruinsBlog.net. “You’ve got worry about yourself, worry about what you can control and just go out there and do everything to the best of your ability. You can’t look down for a minute out there because that’s when you’re going to get scored on or make a mistake.”
Wheeler is one of three NHL rookies — along with defenseman Matt Hunwick and forward Byron Bitz — on the Bruins’ roster. Hunwick should also be in the lineup for Boston when it hosts Montreal in Game 1 at TD Banknorth Garden. But Bitz might be in the press box because of the expected return of P.J. Axelsson.
Like Wheeler, Hunwick experienced big-time rivalry games while at Michigan. Back then he felt what it was like to raise his game to another level because of the added importance of those games against Michigan State and other CCHA clubs.
“Even in college, there are games that obviously mean more. They’re still two points in the standings, but games against Michigan State mean a little bit more than games against some other opponents,” said Hunwick. “And that was reflected in the play. It was two teams that didn’t like each other very much. It was similar to (Boston-Montreal).”
All three players also competed in NCAA tournament games. But now all the talk is about to end and the three NHL neophytes will get their first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs — a place where every shift is treated like a players’ last and every play, ever second is micromanaged and analyzed.
“I’m ecstatic. You feel really blessed to be a part of a team, in my first year, that has the opportunity to play in the playoffs and we’ve obviously had a great year,” said Wheeler. “I’m just really excited to see the city of Boston kind of amp up for the playoffs. And to be a part of it is going to be a huge thrill.”
Added Hunwick: “I’m definitely excited to move on to the playoffs. It’s a whole new level of competition. You always want to challenge yourself. And that being said, that’s why we play the whole season — just to get to that point. We’ve had 82 games to get our seed and we’ve done a good job in that regard. But it really doesn’t matter unless you can win games in the playoffs.”
Their experience in high-pressure situations should help them a little, but Boston’s trio of rookies is going to find out real quick that it’s a whole new world now that the field has been whittled down to 16 teams.