Got his shot, having a blast
Boychuk’s play has been a big plus for the Bruins
WILMINGTON — The fantasy began nearly two years ago, as soon as the Avalanche air-mailed him from Colorado to Causeway Street.
“Boy, would that be something to play with Chara,’’ Johnny Boychuk mused. “We’d just be beasts together. Crush guys, take slap shots. It’d be unbelievable.’’
Now the man whom he respectfully calls “our captain, our leader’’ dresses a stick’s length away from him at Ristuccia Arena and Boychuk, his stylistic soulmate, is paired with Zdeno Chara for massive minutes every night. The Bruins have made it to the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and their 26-year-old rookie defenseman has become a man of consequence.
“He makes a difference out there,’’ said general manager Peter Chiarelli, who finds Boychuk’s play “enthusiastic.’’
“Enthusiastic’’ is a weighty adjective in the Bruin lexicon. It means more than having a perky personality. It means playing with unthrottled fervor. Wha t the front office, his coaches, and his teammates appreciate about Boychuk is that he was enthusiastic even when he wasn’t playing for weeks on end. Who else would insist on warming up for a game that he’d already been scratched from?
“Of course I wanted to warm up,’’ said Boychuk, who would routinely hit the exercise bike, shower, put on a suit, and go up and watch the game from the press box. “I want to be in the dressing room before the game. I want to be around the guys. I want to be part of the team.’’
After spending five seasons in Hershey, Lowell, Albany, Lake Erie, and Providence and just five games in the NHL, Boychuk would do anything to prove that he belonged. Once he put his skate across the Garden threshold, no matter how precariously, the man was determined to stay, whether or not he was playing.
“At the beginning of the year, I knew I was going to be the seventh defenseman coming in,’’ he said. “It wasn’t a big secret that I wasn’t going to be in the top four unless something weird happened. So I had to come to practice and work hard and stay positive and focused.’’
That’s what the club liked most about Boychuk. His size (6 feet 2 inches, 225 pounds), his heavy shot, his concussive approach to the game all were pluses. But his work ethic and one-for-all attitude was a throwback to the blue-collar days of the Lunchpail A.C.
Even his name, with its punchy consonants, evoked the bygone days of the Uke Line.
“He’s a team-first guy,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “He’ll do whatever it takes, no questions asked. He doesn’t care about individual accolades but he wants to do well for the team.’’
Boychuk got his chance early after Dennis Wideman hurt a shoulder, then went back on the scratch list, where he remained until December. Practices should be games, Julien told him, and Boychuk resolved to make the most of them. Learning in Boston was better than playing in Providence, where Boychuk already had mastered the syllabus.
Practicing with the big club enabled him to adjust to the speed of the NHL game and the Bruins’ defensive principles. Watching the game from a ninth-floor seat gave him a chance to study opponents whom he’d eventually be facing.
“Watch what kind of forecheck they’re bringing,’’ Boychuk said. “Are they finishing their checks? Their penalty kill, their power play. There’s just so much to watch, especially if you play a team quite a bit.’’
His teammates told him to keep on keeping on.
“They said work hard, stay positive, try to learn as much as possible, and listen to the coach, whatever you do,’’ Boychuk said. “Just keep a good attitude — because you never know.’’
But as the DNPs piled up, eventually reaching 21 straight, his restlessness grew.
“After 18 or 19 games in a row, I was thinking to myself, is somebody ever going to get hurt?’’ Boychuk says. “Not that I was hoping for it, but I’m wondering if I’m going to get to play this year. Everybody’s playing good, they’re playing healthy.’’
Eventually, the club sent him back to Providence just to get him in a few games, then fetched him back three days later. The Bruins were getting hammered in Montreal and they needed a bit of muscular vigor.
“They called me in between the second and third periods,’’ said Boychuk, who’d just finished showering after the AHL game with Portland. “They said, ‘You’re going back up, you’re playing the next game.’ I’m like, ‘But the game isn’t even over. It must be going pretty bad. Who got hurt?’ Nobody, they said.’’
So Matt Hunwick was out and Boychuk was in, promptly scoring his first NHL goal against Toronto. Except for the aftermath of a terrifying February moment when Vancouver’s Mikael Samuelsson hit him in the eye with a slap shot, he’s been a nightly standard on the blue line.
That seemed doubtful, though, when Boychuk was lying on the ice with a broken orbital bone.
“When it first happened, I was worried that I might lose my eyesight,’’ he said. “I could only open one eye and all I saw was blood gushing from my face. I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ ’’
The puck had struck him on his left temple, and Boychuk still has the scar.
“It was just a few millimeters away,’’ he said. “Very dangerous.’’
But the eye was undamaged, and since the fracture was undisplaced, he didn’t need surgery.
Thanks to the Olympic break, Boychuk missed only five games with the injury, and as the season wore on and the club’s defensive corps kept getting battered, his minutes and responsibility grew. After Dennis Seidenberg had forearm surgery shortly before the playoffs, Boychuk found himself fulfilling his fantasy and performing alongside the captain.
“I was thinking, ‘Seids isn’t coming back for a while,’ ’’ he said. “ ‘I could end up playing with Z.’ ’’
Nobody logged more minutes in the opening series with Buffalo than those two — an average of 28:46 per game for Chara, 25:51 for Boychuk. Merely stepping on the ice for a playoff game was a novelty for Boychuk, who came close to getting the chance last year against Carolina. What he’s discovered is that the game is dramatically different in April than it is in October.
“You notice it right away,’’ said Boychuk. “The intensity level is amazing. Everybody brought their game up. You cannot take a shift off. Everybody’s going with everything.’’
Especially the man who spent almost all of last autumn observing the action in street clothes.
He wasn’t sure after yesterday’s practice whether he and his teammates would be going to Pittsburgh or Philadelphia for their upcoming road games, but he knew they’d be airborne. That’s one lovely NHL perk.
“Five years of taking those nice bus trips in the minors . . .’’ Johnny Boychuk was saying. “When you’re riding planes and leaving the day before the game, you kind of don’t want to go back down there.’’
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.