Blue liners putting it together
Wideman clicks with Hunwick
WILMINGTON — For several strides in the neutral zone, Mike Grier and Dennis Wideman were skating shoulder to shoulder, until the Buffalo forward realized he had to go.
“He was skating right beside me,’’ said Wideman. “I didn’t think anything was going to happen. All of a sudden, Grier just put on the jets and went after Munch, which opened me up. If Munch doesn’t make that drive, I’m just out there for no reason.’’
Wideman was speaking of Bruins teammate Matt Hunwick, who drove to the net, sucked in Grier, and opened up his defensive partner for a one-timer that evened the score at 1-1 in the first period of a 2-1 win Monday that gave the Bruins a 2-1 lead over Buffalo in their best-of-seven first-round playoff series.
“Hunwick is the one that created space for Wideman to take that shot,’’ coach Claude Julien said. “So it was a great job by him to be going to the net and creating that opportunity for Wides to take that shot.’’
At one point of the regular season, it was unthinkable that Wideman and Hunwick would even be on the ice at the same time. But through three playoff games, they’ve been logging big minutes as the second pairing behind Zdeno Chara and Johnny Boychuk.
“Down the stretch, we’ve played a lot better together,’’ Wideman said after yesterday’s practice at Ristuccia Arena. “When both of us aren’t playing good, it can be a little disastrous, because we’re both thinking offense a bit first. When we’re both thinking that way and cheating, then things can go bad in a hurry.’’
The best example was when Wideman and Hunwick were at their worst March 4. The Bruins won a 3-2 overtime game at TD Garden over Toronto. But Wideman and Hunwick coughed up the puck throughout the night, forcing goalie Tim Thomas to bail them out on repeated odd-man rushes and breakaways. The next game, Julien had no choice but to split up the toxic twosome.
“That wasn’t,’’ Wideman put it bluntly, “a good night.’’
But after Mark Stuart’s left hand blew up April 2 — an infection that has has kept him from performing any physical activity since — and Dennis Seidenberg had his left forearm sliced open a day later, Hunwick and Wideman have had no choice but to log heavy workloads and jack up their games.
In hindsight, that was a good thing.
“I think we’ve seen that quite often in this game,’’ Julien said. “Guys have been forced into situations. When they’re forced into it, they understand the responsibility that goes with it and they perform well.
“I think it was one of those times where, even as a coaching staff, we say, ‘Well, we’re really going to need those guys.’ Dennis Wideman is one of those guys. And Hunwick. Those are two guys we knew could be better for us.
“Since then, they’ve responded in a positive manner. They have been better for us. That’s been a big difference.’’
For three games in February, the jumpy Hunwick was a healthy scratch. But when Andrew Ference was sidelined with a groin injury Feb. 27 — he would miss the final nine regular-season games — Hunwick returned to the lineup, playing 14:40 in a 5-0 laugher over Calgary. Two days later, the coaching staff gave Hunwick 15:07 of ice time in a 3-2 loss to Buffalo. In each of the following two games, Hunwick played only 12:40, least among the six defensemen.
That would all change against Toronto March 3. With Stuart unavailable and Seidenberg limited to 4:48 of ice time because of his injury, Hunwick played a career-high 27:36, more than double his workload from the previous game. Since then, Hunwick has not played less than 20:00 per game.
“Not if we want to win,’’ said Hunwick when asked if he had any choice but to raise his play with the increased demands. “At this point of the year, everyone’s stepping up.
“It’s actually a lot of fun to be playing this amount of minutes and having the opportunity to do some of the things that I didn’t get a chance to do early on in the season.
“It creates a bit of a challenge. So you have to be focused. You have to be ready in all three phases of the game. You’re out there a lot and you’re able to make plays. That’s obviously the most important thing.’’
Just such an instance took place in Monday’s first period, on Wideman’s game-tying goal. First, Michael Ryder gave the puck to Hunwick in the defensive zone after eluding a forechecker.
“Rydes made a really good play under pressure with their D-man pinching,’’ Hunwick said. “Once that happened, I knew we had a two-on-one. But I could feel Mike Grier coming back on me. I had to tell myself to really keep my feet moving and get up the ice to be an option on the back post.’’
Hunwick gave the puck to Vladimir Sobotka on the right wing, then barreled through center ice to the far post. Grier, seeing Hunwick release, was forced to backcheck on the defenseman. By bringing Grier with him, Hunwick opened up a pocket for Wideman, who had also joined the rush.
“[Grier] has to come back and at least take away that back-door option,’’ Hunwick said. “If that puck gets through, that’s a tap-in goal and that’s probably the most dangerous guy on the ice. But with Dennis shooting the puck like that, obviously he was the most dangerous player.’’
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.