WILMINGTON, Mass. – As a 22-year-old in his first NHL season, Vladimir Sobotka didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.
After spending all but 25 games in the American League with Providence in 2008-09, and even starting this season down with the farm club, Sobotka was just appreciative to be skating in the NHL early on when the Bruins kept switching him from center to wing and then back again.
Obviously Boston’s injury troubles forced head coach Claude Julien’s hand, and even clinched Sobotka’s permanent residence at center, but Sobotka’s comfort was also a factor in the decision to play Sobotka at pivot.
Sobotka, who has emerged as one of the Bruins’ most effective forwards in their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with Buffalo, even vocalized his desire to stay away from the wing in order to better aid Boston’s cause.
“We talked about it. For me, it doesn’t matter, but after when I played wing I said (to the coaches), ‘I want to play middle and I feel more comfortable now,’” said Sobotka after practice at Ristuccia Arena in preparation for Wednesday night’s Game 4.
“For me, I like to play with the puck,” Sobotka explained. “When I play in Providence, those few games, I like to play with the puck and make more plays and be more productive for the team.”
Early in the season, partly because of his position on the wing, Sobotka was struggling with his intensity and his physicality. Always known as a player that could make up for his 5-foot-11, 193-pound frame against bigger opponents with his upper-body strength and tenacity, Sobotka finally found that once he settled in at center.
While injury and ineffectiveness forced Julien to shuffle wingers off and on lines, Sobotka didn’t really find a pair of flanks he could really thrive with until the last week of the regular season when Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler arrived at his sides. Sobotka recorded a goal and an assist in a dramatic April 8 win over Buffalo that pulled Boston within a couple points of a playoff berth. Through three games of the playoff series with the Sabres, Sobotka has registered two assists and a plus-2 rating.
“I think what you’ve seen in Vladi is he’s started playing the game we’ve asked him to play all along,” Julien said. “Sometimes it takes a while to understand and discover that that’s what’s going to make you a good player. Whether he played on the fourth and he thinks he should be on the third or second or whatever, at one point you find your comfort zone, I guess, and you see what makes you a good player. And I think he’s discovered that the way he’s playing right now not only makes him a good player, he’s made some plays that have resulted in goals.”
It should be no surprise that Sobotka has some offensive flair to his game. With the P-Bruins since he came to North America, Sobotka was a better than point-per-game player with a nose for the net and prolific hands. He also never lost his edge and even engaged in a couple fights.
Defenseman Dennis Wideman has witnessed Sobotka’s all-around game all year in practices.
“He’s got a lot of skill and he plays the game the right way, he plays hard,” said the veteran blueliner. “He’s getting more and more ice time this year and he’s playing really, really well. And he’s making a lot of great plays. He’s found me four or five times in the slot coming in late on the rush. He’s doing a great job of that. He’s got good vision, and then when he has the time he makes the right play.”
Sobotka credits Julien’s faith in him, and an increase in ice time, as much as his settling in at center for his emergence as a two-way force. How could Julien not have faith in Sobotka when he does things like he did early in Game 2 in Buffalo last Saturday? After a Game 1 loss, the Bruins talked about getting more traffic in front of Ryan Miller and worked on some things in practice. It didn’t take long after the puck dropped the next day for Sobotka to collide with Miller. A goaltender interference penalty was handed out, but also a message was sent. The Bruins went on to score five goals in the win, most with bodies screening and battling in front of Miller.
“We were practicing this every practice. The middle guy is supposed to drive the net and I just went to the net,” said Sobotka.
While he downplays it, there’s no doubt Sobotka’s play resonated with his team. And his overall game has jolted his once-dormant linemates to life. Ryder scored twice in Game 2 and Wheeler tallied two assists. Both had more scoring chances in Game 3 and kept the heat on Miller.
It’s not a knock on David Krejci, Ryder and Wheeler’s previous long-time center. But Sobotka’s extra-hard work ethic, paired with some playmaking savvy, seems to be a better fit for the pair of wingers at this point and time.
“I think our line has been very involved, and he definitely sets the tempo,” said Wheeler. “He drives the net extremely hard, he takes the body extremely well – especially when he’s the first guy on the forecheck – so with me and Rides, we have a lot of free pucks to pick up. And it kind of allows us … its funny, he’s not the biggest guy, but he opens so much space for us. … We’ve made a lot of plays, giving ourselves a lot of opportunities to score just by having Vladi in there on the forecheck.”
Never mistaken for Selke Trophy candidates, Wheeler and Ryder seem to have raised their games in the defensive end while skating with Sobotka as well. Julien has entrusted the trio to match up against Tim Connolly and Buffalo’s second line while Patrice Bergeron’s line has been shutting down Derek Roy’s top line.
“It’s about trust from the coach,” said Sobotka. “If we have a good game, our line, he’ll put against Roy, Connolly, whatever line.”
Lest we think Sobotka’s hands are limited to just making hockey plays, we finally got to see him drop the gloves in the NHL. While it wasn’t much of a bout, and Buffalo’s Andrej Sekera might have landed a couple more blows, we found out that Sobotka’s as adept at ducking a punch as he his setting up a teammate for a goal from the slot. Winger Shawn Thornton, who boxes in his spare time, joked that Sobotka might’ve learned the old “bob and weave” from his boxing coach. Sobotka said it was just instinct.
“I just saw his hands come in and I, you know …” said Sobotka.
Luckily, Sobotka doesn’t avoid anything else opponents send his way other than fists. Otherwise he wouldn’t be on the cusp of establishing himself as one of the Bruins’ better two-way forwards and a center of attention.