When he’s on the ice and healthy, Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk stands as an intimidating figure with his knack for bone-rattling open-ice checks.
But right now his presence might be inadvertently affecting the play of his teammates.
Judging by the performance of the Bruins’ healthy defenseman tonight in a 3-2 win at New York over the Rangers, it looks like everyone’s pressing to make sure they’re not the one jettisoned to the press box once head coach Claude Julien re-inserts Boychuk.
It seemed like every Bruins blueliner committed at least one gaffe, some which hurt the Bruins and some which they dodged like a turned over bullet. Were it not for Tim Thomas and his Superman-like ways – 34 saves, including 15 in the third period – the Rangers fans might’ve lost their voices from singing that “Goal” song.
Dennis Seidenberg and Mark Stuart redeemed themselves during the most critical stretch of one minute, 45 seconds of the game when the Bruins had to kill a 5-on-3 in the third period. Those two, who became a pretty regular pair at even strength tonight, were on the ice for almost that entire two-man advantage and used a couple shot blocks and some timely sticks in the passing lanes to make life a little easier for the rambunctious Thomas.
Of course, those two guys were on the ice because Andrew Ference failed to mind his stick and made contact with Sean Avery’s face behind the Boston net, and 15 seconds later, Zdeno Chara shot the puck out of the rink for a rare Bruins delay-of-the-game penalty. Chara got caught running around a few times over the course of the night, and Ference made a pass across the defensive zone earlier in the third period that Ryan Callahan nearly turned into a game-tying goal.
Seidenberg’s giveaway at the red line led to Marian Gaborik’s goal that cut Boston’s lead to 3-2. Matt Hunwick, shifted to the third pair with Adam McQuaid after the promotion of Stuart to Seidenberg’s side, made a handful of unforced giveaways, including one that led to two golden chances by Alexander Frolov and Gaborik just after the midpoint of the second period.
Stuart was sound but not great over the course of the evening. Maybe the only Bruins defenseman that didn’t stick out like a broken stick was McQuaid. But he only skated a shade more than 11 minutes over the course of the night.
So who comes out if Boychuk is ready to face Florida Thursday night? Obviously Chara and Seidenberg are givens based on their status as the Bruins’ best two blueliners. Ference has been strong most of the season, even with an increase in playing time in the absence of Boychuk. He can be a giveaway machine some nights and contributes little to the offense, but we know Julien likes Ference’s veteran savvy and leadership.
After struggling to start the season, Stuart finally seems to be hitting his stride and, more importantly, any puck-carrier within range. He has had a tough time getting out of his own end at times, but with third-pair minutes he should be able to play almost mistake-free hockey.
So that leaves Hunwick and McQuaid. Hunwick is Boston’s best skater on the back end, but he’s not exactly putting those wheels to use. He has only chipped in three points in 16 games so far, and you’re more likely to see him chasing after a loose puck he gave away than joining the offensive rush these days. A trip to the press box might totally shoot his confidence, but with McQuaid’s size, toughness and right-handed shot, the Bruins are definitely a better team. McQuaid is almost robotic in his ability to do what the coaches tell him and keep things so simple that you hardly ever notice him out there. That’s the sign of a solid stay-at-home third-pair D-man — you never even think about him.
The Bruins got enough great saves from Thomas and some timely offense to beat the Rangers despite the high-pressure New York forecheck exposing Boston’s Achilles heel on the back end. To make sure that heel is better protected once Boychuk returns, Hunwick has to sit until someone else proves to be the weakest link.