BOSTON — He’s been such a loyal soldier throughout his 12 years of service to the Boston Bruins, you almost feel guilty asking winger P.J. Axelsson if he’s thought about the fact that this could conceivably be his last couple months in black and gold.
After all, one wrong answer could prove to be a distraction to his team’s title hopes. But when a member of the media today posed that question to the 34-year-old unrestricted-free-agent-to-be, he Axelsson provided the proper, expected answer.
“I try not to. I just want to enjoy this moment and play as good as I can,” said Axelsson after the Bruins had a team meeting at Ristuccia Arena in Wilmington, Mass., this morning in preparation for Game 2 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Montreal Canadiens.
Those moments will multiply throughout this spring if Axelsson can keep playing the way he did in Game 1, and the Bruins can advance in this NHL tournament.
He didn’t register a point in the 4-2 win over the Habs, and was actually a minus-1 for the game. But as we all know by now, you have to look way past the stats sheet to find Axelsson’s contributions. In addition to throwing what had to be a season-best three hits, Axelsson was mixing it up in front of the Montreal net when he drew the crosschecking penalty on Josh Gorges that led to the Bruins’ go-ahead power-play goal by Zdeno Chara. If that wasn’t enough, Axelsson came up with a huge block of a Patrice Brisbeois slap shot later in the last stanza while the Bruins were protecting a one-goal lead. The shot nearly ended Axelsson’s night, as it rocketed off his left leg. But he came back.
“It hurt more (than I expected). … A small stinger,” he said.
“Not really. You’re into the game, so you just get back out there,” Axelsson continued when asked about it being tough to get back in the game.
Axelsson returned and produced some key defensive shifts. It was just another typical night in the career of Axelsson — Boston’s most misunderstood and underappreciated skater.
“People either like and respect him for what he does, and some other people just don’t see what he brings,” head coach Claude Julien recently said. “I think every coach that has had him day in, day out, recognizes the stuff that he brings to the table. He’s one of those guys that, yeah, will always be an unsung hero. It’s the little things he does that make a big difference and often go unnoticed.”
Part of the reward for sticking around Boston as long as he has is Axelsson is the team leader in playoff games played in black and gold. He’s been part of two highly touted teams that fizzled in the first round (’02, ’04) and also contributed the last time Boston actually won a round (’99). But he gets the feeling that the Hub is hopping more now than in any of those years.
“This time around, I think it’s more hyped-up around the rink, when you’re walking the streets and stuff like that. People are more into it, I think. But that’s a good thing,” said Axelsson.
It’s that type of hype and hysteria that has endeared Boston to Axelsson. Unfortunately, the love hasn’t always flowed the other way. Whether he wins the Stanley Cup as a Bruin this year and heads elsewhere after this season or sticks around to defend or pursue a title in the future, it’ll always be tough to put your finger on his contribution. But Axelsson will always be right in the thick of it.