It was only last November that Matt Hunwick played his first NHL game. The 23-year-old defenseman suited up for 13 games with the Bruins last season, but he started this season as he did last, in Providence. Nice town, but not Boston. He was called up Oct. 14, but he spent all but one of the next 11 games in the press box. Nice view, but not rinkside.
Hunwick looks very comfortable now, on the ice and in the Bruins' locker room. The smooth-skating, puck-moving defender, was after all, the captain at the University of Michigan, for which he was three times the top defenseman, and a key player in last season's playoffs for Providence, taking a role on the power play and the penalty kill as well.
In the last two months, Hunwick has jumped from stand-in to stand-out. Boston's defense has taken a series of hits, with Andrew Ference out for two months after breaking his leg, Aaron Ward nursing a leg injury that so far has cost him five games, Shane Hnidy missing three games (lower body injury), and Dennis Wideman (muscle strain) one. The Bruins needed Hunwick.
"I've kind of been thrust into that position," Hunwick said, "just because of the fact that we've had some injuries and I had to play more minutes - not to say I didn't earn them, but at the same time, there's an opportunity for me to get a lot of good ice time as long as I keep playing consistent. That was my main objective, to come in and be a reliable player."
Hunwick put up a six-game point streak from Nov. 17-28 with three goals and five assists, tying the longest point streak by a Bruin rookie defenseman - a record held by Ray Bourque. In the last 13 games, Hunwick has three goals and 11 assists while posting a plus-12 rating. He is plus-14 for the season, second among NHL defensemen to Anaheim's Steve Montador (plus-15). Furthermore, Hunwick has three multiple-point games, including a three-assist effort in the Bruins' 7-2 victory at Atlanta Dec. 12.
The coaching staff always had confidence in his offensive skills, but they wanted him to expand his view of plays as they developed. Coaches Craig Ramsay and Doug Houda spent a lot of one-on-one time in practice and in the video room pushing Hunwick to improve.
"Probably the situation we wanted to see him most improve in was the vision of what was front of him, so that would help his puck-moving decisions," said Bruins coach Claude Julien. "We knew that his strength was without a doubt his skating ability, his mobility, his ability to skate and support the attack, and he's shown that already. The biggest thing he needed to improve was the ability to see the play a little better.
"You know sometimes he'd get the puck and he'd only be looking at half of the ice instead of looking at all of it. He moves the puck better under pressure and what that's done is, in turn, build his confidence. He knows he can skate well, he can support the attack, so it's given him more of a complete game."
It may be that the time in the press box helped, too.
"I'd take the warm-up, then I'd do my workout, and usually watch the second and third periods from the press box area," Hunwick said. "In that regard, it's good to see the game from that angle, and it looks a lot easier from up top. At the same time, it's a good teaching tool, then being able to go out now and put the things I've learned from watching into action."
An important step for Hunwick has been learning what to do before he gets the puck.
"It's not necessarily when I have the puck, but before I get it, knowing my options, knowing who's going to be open," he said. "We also learn how teams are going to forecheck, so you know who should be open, you can hint towards that direction. Our bench as a whole has been making simple plays, trying not to overhandle the puck, and I think that's been a big part of our success, getting the puck up ice quick."
Phil Kessel became the second Bruin named the NHL First Star of the Week, after scoring three goals and assisting on five more as the Bruins went 3-0-1 in the week ending Dec. 14. (Kessel's linemate Marc Savard was honored for the week ending Nov. 23.) Kessel extended his point streak to a career-high 15 games, the longest run in the league this season, and the longest point streak by a Bruin since Adam Oates recorded points in 20 straight from Jan. 7 to Feb. 20, 1997. Kessel is second in team scoring with 31 points. He ranks third in the NHL in goals with 19 (trailing Buffalo's Thomas Vanek and Philadelphia's Jeff Carter), matching his total of last season.
In a conference call with journalists from across North America yesterday, the taciturn Kessel repeated stock answers to questions about his success: "I have great linemates who get me the puck in good places," "We have a lot of depth on this team," "It's a great group of guys," "I haven't changed my game, I'm just working hard and trying to help the team any way I can."
He even shrugged off last season's two-game playoff scratch with, "Well, no one wants to be scratched but I've moved on since." Kessel was diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2006 and had one testicle removed. He missed only 11 games during his recovery and hasn't missed any since (155 games). Kessel added he is cancer-free. Then, finally, his passion for playing burst through.
"I've never wanted to miss a game," Kessel said. "I love it so much even if you have little bumps and bruises you want to play I'm fortunate not to have any injuries. When you're not playing, you don't know what to do. You're so bored. Looking back, I could never be someone who didn't play hockey. I just love it so much I had to get back right away."
Barbara Matson can be reached at email@example.com.