WILMINGTON - At this time last year, David Krejci was wrapping up his first season as a professional hockey player. Vladimir Sobotka was recovering from shoulder surgery after appearing in 33 games for Slavia in the Czech Extraliga. Glen Metropolit and his St. Louis Blues had missed the playoffs. And Petteri Nokelainen was winding down his season in Bridgeport, the Islanders' AHL affiliate, doing nothing to attract the attention of Scott Gordon.
"Not at all," recalled the Providence Bruins coach. "Other than scoring two goals, no."
A first-year pro, a wispy youngster with a bad wing, a journeyman, and a first-round washout - hardly the stuff of an NHL roster the subsequent season.
But the Bruins, who kick off the postseason tonight against the heavily favored Montreal Canadiens, would probably have missed the playoffs had it not been for their late-season kick, which was delivered by their up-the-middle strength from a most unlikely foursome.
"We've had to compensate with that," coach Claude Julien said of his center-ice patches following the injuries to Patrice Bergeron and Marc Savard. "But having said that, we got ourselves into the playoffs because, partly, they did a great job. They stepped it up, and you almost have to take the same approach going into the playoffs. It doesn't matter who you have. You've still got to perform."
The center takes the faceoff. While the wings can stop and start, the center is in constant motion in all three zones. He stays high in the defensive zone, remaining in the middle of the ice, on watch for dangerous plays. In the offensive zone, the plays usually flow through the center, who can distribute or attack with the puck.
"The biggest thing is to be at the middle," Nokelainen said. "Claude is telling me and the other centers to let them come to us. We just have to cover the middle. That's basically our home where we have to go every time. You can sort things out from there. Usually if you're in the middle, you're fine. It doesn't matter if your guy is outside. That's a pretty safe place to sort things out."
Bergeron, oozing with hockey sense, was a prodigy before his injury. Savard has had nine NHL seasons to learn these elements. But Bergeron has been unavailable for more than five months with a Grade 3 concussion, while Savard missed seven critical games because of a broken bone in his back, leaving the Bruins shorthanded at a vital position.
The primary candidate to step up, especially when Savard went down, was Krejci, Boston's second-round pick in the 2004 draft.
Last season, Krejci started slowly in Providence. But as he became familiar with the AHL game and gained confidence, he erupted. In 69 regular-season games, Krejci totaled 31 goals and 43 assists, showing abilities to put the puck in the net as well as dish to his teammates. During the playoffs, when Providence was riddled with blue-line injuries (Mark Stuart and Matt Lashoff were among the battered), Krejci dominated, putting up a 3-13 -16 line in 13 games.
Krejci was so powerful that Gordon usually dressed only 11 forwards, giving the rookie additional shifts to take advantage of his presence.
"I was double-shifting him whenever I could," Gordon said. "I set up my lines so that he was playing with the scoring line and distributing to them, then going with the fourth line. He was tireless."
During the offseason, general manager Peter Chiarelli considered pursuing a veteran free agent to serve as the No. 3 center behind Savard and Bergeron. But management decided to give Krejci an opportunity because of his standout playoff run.
The initial results were so-so, as Krejci was demoted Nov. 4 after recording three assists in 12 games.
"You could see he was a little off," Gordon said of Krejci upon his return to Providence. "He wasn't skating at the level we were accustomed to. Maybe because his minutes were cut down, he lost some of the conditioning from playing at a higher pace."
But after a 25-game AHL tuneup in which he collected seven goals and 21 assists ("Every game he was dominating at both ends of the ice," said Gordon), Krejci was brought back to Boston Dec. 30.
On March 8, Krejci dished out two power-play assists in a 2-1 win over Washington, recording one of the helpers after a high stick from bruiser Donald Brashear chipped his teeth, leaving a chunk of tooth wedged into his bottom lip. Then Krejci turned on the gas at the end of the season, putting together a five-game scoring streak (3-6 -9) with Savard out of the lineup.
"He's moved up significantly," said Chiarelli. "He's been on the first power play. He's really elevated his play."
Unexpected contributionsWhile Krejci's play hasn't been a complete surprise, there were few who projected Metropolit, Sobotka, and Nokelainen as NHL players this season. Twenty-nine teams passed on Metropolit last summer, and the center made the Bruins on a tryout basis. Sobotka is a year out of Czech hockey. Nokelainen was floundering in the Islanders' organization, hobbled by a bum knee and looking nothing like a first-round pick (No. 16 overall in 2004).
Metropolit, however, turned into such a dependable player - he was considered an offensive specialist before this season, but finished on a checking line and was a regular penalty killer - that he was one of only three Bruins to appear in every game. He killed penalties with Marco Sturm, saw some power-play duty in the initial games after Bergeron's injury, and centered Milan Lucic and P.J. Axelsson during the home stretch while playing against the likes of Ottawa's Jason Spezza.
"I came to camp fighting for a job just to make the team," said Metropolit. "Talking to Claude over the summer, I said I'd play anywhere. I meant it. That being said, I was given a good role here, shutting down other teams' top lines with Axy and Looch, playing a good, simple game."
Sobotka, a fourth-round pick in 2006, made an immediate impact during last July's development camp, where the Bruins' bosses noticed one thing: hockey sense.
"Vladi was a surprise, only because we didn't expect that he was going to adapt as quickly as he did, especially not speaking English," Gordon said. "He's the perfect example of a player with great hockey intelligence. He goes about playing the game the right way. We don't have to explain things twice to him too often."
After getting seven goals and seven assists in 15 AHL games this season, Sobotka was recalled Nov. 23. He skated in mostly fourth-line roles as an agitator and disturber, but after Savard went down, he was elevated to a third-line position between Peter Schaefer and Phil Kessel.
Sobotka had his best NHL game last Friday when the Bruins clinched a playoff spot, thanks in part to a 2-1 win over Ottawa at Scotiabank Place. Sobotka assisted on both goals and was on the ice for the final defensive-zone draw in the third period. Sobotka (1-6 -7 in 48 NHL games) is one of only two fourth-rounders from 2006 (Columbus's Jared Boll is the other) to see regular big league shifts this season.
"He's obviously learning the game and learning to play at this level," Julien said. "He was extremely good in the American League, and I think he's continued to grow with us. His confidence has probably made the biggest difference. Ottawa was probably one of those better games that we've seen him play."
Nokelainen, meanwhile, has had the rockiest season among the bunch.
"Initially in our training camp, there were some habits we weren't too crazy about," Gordon said. "He had a stand-around mentality. He'd probably gotten accustomed in Bridgeport to playing behind the net, not getting above the puck, and not jumping on opportunities to forecheck when it's been there. But once he came around, he was our leading scorer by the time he went up."
In an 11-game stretch from late February to mid-March, Nokelainen was a nine-time healthy scratch. But he has appeared in every game since March 16, usually centering the fourth line. Nokelainen has even seen shifts on the No. 2 power-play unit.
In a bit of a surprise, Nokelainen trails only Sturm on the Bruins in goals against the Canadiens this season, potting two in seven games.
"Nokie's had time on the second power play," Chiarelli said. "Sobotka's played shutdown minutes. That's the role we envisioned for him down the line, but he's doing it already in crucial situations. It's very comforting to see these guys playing in the roles we projected them, but not for a year or two. That's what's significant."
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.