WILMINGTON, Mass. – It might not be getting as much attention as the Bruins attempts to beat star goaltender Ryan Miller, rookie netminder Tuukka Rask’s ability to handle his first taste of the NHL postseason or even Andrew Ference’s health, but head coach Claude Julien’s choice of a sixth defenseman for Game 1 in Buffalo should be as hot a topic as any heading into the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Bruins and Sabres.
With a balanced attack four lines deep, Boston’s top four defensemen aren’t going to be able to take every shift. Even if Ference gets clearance from the doctors and a lineup spot from head coach Claude Julien, there’s still going to be a seldom-used rookie on the Bruins’ back end.
“We’ve got three young guys here that have stepped in and done a good job for us, especially when you look back at last game,” Julien said after practice at Ristuccia Arena this morning. “We’ll have to make some tough decisions. But those decisions will be made when the time comes.”
It would seem, and Julien alluded to this, that Adam McQuaid would have the edge in the battle to earn that sixth spot because of his experience. He skated in 19 regular-season games, while Andrew Bodnarchuk only appeared in five and Jeff Penner just two. But McQuaid is still working his way back after a lengthy absence with a freak concussion he suffered during the Olympic break. McQuaid had been playing his best hockey and was gaining confidence before he was assigned to Providence (AHL) to get playing time while the NHL was closed up.
Before returning to Boston, he appeared in just two games for the P-Bruins. Because of all Boston’s injuries, suddenly he found himself thrust in a role that included logging time at even strength and on the penalty kill.
“I definitely feeling pretty good there going into the break,” McQuaid said. “Obviously when you miss that much time it takes a little while to get back in the swing of things. I feel like I am kind of getting up to speed and stuff now, so I’m feeling better as we go along.”
Julien noted that McQuaid seemed to be getting “better and better” while playing in the Bruins’ final four games. McQuaid’s looking forward to continuing that progression.
“There’s an opportunity there for one of us three guys here and I’m just trying to practice hard and be mentally prepared in case I get that opportunity,” he said. “And I want to make the most of it.”
However, McQuaid’s competitors aren’t giving up on the idea they could get the call.
“It’s exciting to think that I might have the opportunity, but you never know what’s going to happen,” said Bodnarchuk. “The only thing you can really do is approach every day like you’re in. Even if you get there and the first second game you don’t play, you’ve got to approach every day like you’re going to be playing.”
Said Penner: “Looking at the practices, you’ve kind of got to look at it as a training camp-type situation where you’re trying to find a spot out there and you’ve just got to work your bag off out there and try to make the guys better while you’re trying to earn your spot.”
Regardless of which player gets the call, it’ll be interesting to watch how that defenseman handles the situation with the playoff atmosphere and intensity, and – on the road – the matchups that Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff will undoubtedly want to throw out against the untested backliner.