This 'Ax' keeps grinding away
Veteran's value goes beyond stats
WILMINGTON - He is the longest-tenured Bruin on the roster. He has played 11 seasons for the team and has flown under the radar for much of his National Hockey League career.
He is neither a great goal scorer nor a flashy skater. What he brings isn't always quantifiable, but to those who have played with him or coached him, 34-year-old P.J. Axelsson has always been a valuable contributor.
In Game 1 of the Bruins' Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against Montreal Thursday, Axelsson drew the cross-checking penalty on Josh Gorges at 10:12 of the third period that led to Zdeno Chara's winning power-play goal at 11:15. He also blocked a Patrice Brisebois slap shot with his kneecap that caused him to head for the dressing room briefly, but he finished the game and said he was fine.
Throughout his years in Black and Gold, Axelsson has been a strong penalty killer, a shadow to other clubs' best players, and a pesky hard worker along the boards. This season, he also set a career high in assists with 24.
For Axelsson, the most important part of his job is to help the team get to where it's going - in this case, deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs. The first order of business was taking advantage of their home ice against the Habs.
"I think it was a pretty even game," said Axelsson of Game 1. "I think we came out good and I think Montreal took over in the second period and it was even in the third. The power play won us the game."
Axelsson said he realizes the fans' expectations are very high, even higher than when Joe Thornton was in town and Boston was facing Montreal in the 2004 playoffs.
"We had a good regular season, it doesn't mean much now," said Axelsson. "We've got to prove that we can play in the playoffs. You can sense from the people in town, they're real excited about hockey and that's a good thing, that's what you want.
"This time around there's more [excitement] around the rink and when you're walking the streets and stuff like that. People are more into it. That's a good thing. It's fun when people are involved."
Coach Claude Julien said it took him no time to appreciate all that Axelsson gives to the team.
"I think every coach that's had him and had him day in and day out recognizes the stuff he brings to the table," said Julien. "He's one of those guys that will always be an unsung hero.
"The little things that make a big difference always go unnoticed. He's not the biggest player. He's not the most natural goal scorer. But he compensates in other ways. [Thursday] was a good example of that. He threw a good hit on Georges [Laraque] one time coming into his own end, no hesitation with that.
"He blocks shots. He creates a penalty. Penalty kill, I can't [say] enough. He's probably our smartest and best penalty killer. This is what P.J. brings to the team. Sometimes it's not reuniting the best players that makes the best team. Sometimes it's having the players like Axy come in and play certain roles that makes you the best team."
Axelsson will become an unrestricted free agent when the season ends and he knows that this could be his last chance for glory in a Bruins uniform. He said he hasn't really thought about the prospect of moving on from the only NHL team he has ever played for.
"I just want to enjoy this moment and play as good as I can," he said. And that means continuing to sacrifice his body for the team.
"You have 20 guys out there, not everyone is going to score goals or set up goals. You need to do a lot of different things. I just like to play hard and do what you can to help out."
Fluto Shinzawa of the Globe staff contributed to this report.