WILMINGTON, Mass. – Probably the worst time in any sport to post a blatantly ugly stat is opening day.
Whether you go 0-for-5 at the plate or shoot 0-for-10 from the floor, you’re digging yourself a big hole right off the bat and attracting the fans’ eyes to your stat line right away.
Matt Hunwick suffered that fate two weeks ago in Prague, as his minus-3 was one of the more repulsive numbers on the Bruins’ ledger after their 5-2 season-opening loss to Phoenix.
Folks were so up in arms about the defenseman’s poor play (even though he was one of several perpetrators in Boston’s awful outing), you’d have thought they were going to storm his downtown apartment with torches, dress him up in a Dennis Wideman sweater and carry him out to pasture.
Such is the life of an NHL defenseman, especially in Boston where the standard has been set by guys named Orr and Bourque. Even captain Zdeno Chara isn’t immune to an inordinate amount of criticism.
But a funny thing happened after that minus-3. Hunwick followed up with a couple plus-2 games and he’s now sitting at even for the season. Suddenly, the clamoring for his head died down (until he struggled through two periods of play Tuesday in Washington).
“It’s a terrible feeling. I know my first feeling was ‘shit, this is going to be last year all over again.’ I just couldn’t get any breaks to go my way,” Hunwick said after practice today when talking about his opening-night performance. “But the next night, I was plus-2. I wasn’t even directly involved in those plays. That’s just how it works. You get noticed for being a plus and you get noticed for being a minus. You don’t necessarily have to do anything on any of the goals to get the recognition. Sometimes the bounces go your way, but it was nice to get back to an even playing field over the next few games.”
Rightfully, Hunwick was one of the poster children for Boston’s 180-degree turn in the wrong direction last season. He went from a plus-15 to a minus-16 and from 27 points to 14. To his credit, Hunwick showed up this season ready for a fresh start. He’s about seven pounds lighter, but just as strong as he should be for his size. And he’s slowly starting to find the comfort level required of a player being asked to move the puck and chip in at the offensive end without causing the team harm in the defensive zone.
He’s also learning that lesson everyone needs to absorb in sports – have a short memory. That ability was certainly one of the major factors in Wideman’s demise. Hunwick’s determined not to wind up sliding down that path.
“You want to play well. Mistakes are definitely magnified. That’s hockey. It’s a game of mistakes. That’s what we try to do when we forecheck is put pressure on the other team’s defensemen to make them cough up the puck. It’s no secret that everyone’s playing more aggressive these days. You have to be able to make quick decisions,” said Hunwick, who made up for his mistakes in D.C. with a third-period goal. “And for me, that’s a big part of my game. I’m not overly physical; I’m not going to do some of the other things. So I have to be good breaking the puck out and getting back. If I do make a mistake, then shrug it off and make the right play the next time.”
That ability to bounce back, especially when his giveaways lead directly to goals (like against the Caps), is how Hunwick has shown head coach Claude Julien that he’s a better player for 2010-11.
“I thought he’s been pretty good since the start of the year. He had a tough two periods last night, no ifs, ands or buts about it,” Julien said. “But the thing as a coach early in the season, you want to see those guys battle through it. Had he not [turned things around] at one point, I think he would’ve watched the game a little more than he would’ve played. But he battled his way out of it. You want to give those players an opportunity to get themselves back on track and he did that. I think Matt’s progressed in that area, where before he’d really put a lot of pressure on himself and probably got worse before he got better.”
Hunwick’s seeing-eye shot from the blue line 2:08 into the third period eluded Washington’s Semyon Varlamov and ended the Bruins defenseman’s 50-game goal-less stretch. He admits that even though he doesn’t heap the pressure on himself to light the lamp the way a struggling forward would, he knows he needs to be part of the offense in some way to be successful.
“Not necessarily scoring, but creating goals – setting up a play, breaking the puck out. You want to be out there to create some offense,” he said. “Scoring the goal is one way, but it’s not the only way.”
Averaging 16:07 of ice time, the coaches have shown Hunwick they have the confidence in him to produce more positives than negatives going forward. Even those observers that base a defenseman’s play on plus/minus have to back off Hunwick now that he’s erased that early minus sign.
“Now it’s just about going out and making plays, kind of regaining some of that confidence and swagger back,” he said. “Once that comes, you can kind of do anything and you end up making better plays.”