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Hunwick's spleen spun him around

MATT HUNWICK How'd it happen? MATT HUNWICK
How'd it happen?
By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / April 22, 2009
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MONTREAL - Out of uniform but certainly in the spirit of the postseason, Matt Hunwick suited up for Game 3 of the Boston-Montreal playoffs series Monday night. The Bruins' rookie defenseman, who had his spleen removed Saturday afternoon, wore a hospital johnny and scooted around a corridor at Massachusetts General Hospital with both hands gripped securely on a walker.

Not really the game sweater he preferred to pull on, or the arena where he preferred to wear it.

"I thought we played a really strong third period," Hunwick said yesterday via phone, feeling much better and preparing to be released the day after watching his Bruins take a 3-0 series lead over the Canadiens with their win at the Bell Centre. "And I don't want to toot my horn, but you could ask people around here, I predicted a 4-2 victory for us."

No one could have fathomed that Hunwick, the speedy 23-year-old from the University of Michigan, would have spent such an eventful, somewhat harrowing, weekend after he logged his 20 shifts and 15:59 in ice time in last Thursday's 4-2 win over the Habs in Game 1 at the Garden. He practiced the next day in Wilmington, and felt some mild abdominal discomfort, but the initial read from the club's medical staff was that his spleen might heal on its own.

"Really, after Friday's practice, I still felt pretty good," he said. "Especially when I was out there on the ice, I felt great. Makes me wonder, is hockey such a great distraction for me that I wouldn't feel pain?"

Saturday morning, after a breakfast of oatmeal, yogurt, and banana, he made his way to the workout in Wilmington. For the most part, he felt fine. According to the Bruins, he already had been told that he would not suit up in Game 2 as a precautionary measure.

"I had the pain on Friday," he said. "I could feel it when I bent over to tie my skates. Then all of a sudden [on Saturday], I could feel a tremendous amount of pressure in my upper chest and pain in my left shoulder. At that point, I knew there was some bleeding going on - and that's when they called the ambulance."

He arrived at MGH in time to have another CT scan, and eventually, he said, "The pressure continued - and that's when it became the best option to take it out."

NHL forwards and defensemen, despite wearing pads over most of their body, typically suit up with little more than their game sweaters covering their abdomens. Even so, incidents of a lacerated or ruptured spleen are quite rare.

Colorado superstar Peter Forsberg needed to have his spleen removed in May 2001, under an emergency situation similar to Hunwick's. Last spring, the Rangers' Sean Avery was forced to pull out of the playoffs with a lacerated spleen he suffered against the Penguins in the second round. He did not require surgery.

"If I was a forward or a defenseman, I'd be wearing some protection there," said Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, who, like all netminders, wears a chest protector that covers the front of his upper body. "I know people think goalies are crazy, but I think the forwards and defensemen are a little crazy, too. It takes more guts for them to be out there blocking shots without something to protect them."

Hunwick is still unsure how the injury happened. He has watched a NESN replay of an incident in Game 1 that might show where he got hurt. But he isn't certain.

"I'm up against the boards and I get hit - nothing that hasn't happened to me plenty of times before," said Hunwick. "You can see on the replay that my elbow gets caught between my ribs and the boards. Maybe that was it.

"We still haven't found out if I have a broken rib, and sometimes that's what happens - a rib goes into the spleen."

Teammate Shawn Thornton, like most everyone in the dressing room Saturday morn, was stunned to see the pale and pained Hunwick taken away by ambulance.

"Kind of scary," said Thornton. "I don't know if people appreciate what our bodies go through on a nightly basis out there. The way we run into each other, that kind of thing could happen a lot more often."

Had it not been for a slight post-operative fever, now under control, Hunwick likely would have been home by yesterday morning. By tonight, he hopes to be home, ready to "suit up" for Game 4, maybe wearing sweats and watching from a comfortable chair. His prediction for tonight's final score?

"I'll have to get a better feel tomorrow," he said. "Not sure yet."

The doctors have told him that the healing process will take weeks. That likely means he is done for the season, but he is planning otherwise, with the hope that the Bruins make it to the Stanley Cup finals and he possibly could be ready for a game late in that series.

"I'm not hanging my hat on that, obviously," he said. "But that's a good goal for me, in case we're in a final and we need another defenseman, then maybe I can be ready."

It's the playoffs. Anything can happen, a lesson Hunwick knows all too well.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com.

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