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On Hockey

The Sheriff gets another shot

Hnidy is fired up to be on blue line

By Kevin Paul Dupont
April 3, 2011

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The expectations are few, limited in scope, but that’s fine with Shane Hnidy. He’s 35 years old, with full-time employment as a part-time player on a playoff-bound team. Nothing wrong with that.

“Sure, I’m here for insurance,’’ said the veteran blue liner, after suiting up for the first time this season in the Bruins’ 3-2 win yesterday over the Thrashers at the Garden. “But at the same time, you know, compete to play.’’

To be more specific, Hnidy is in Black and Gold again to compete for a spot and wait for the inevitable injury. In today’s game, defensemen are the clay targets in the skeet shoot that is the NHL. When the Lord of the Boards erased the red line after the 2004-05 lockout, and also beefed up the rule book pertaining to all matters of interference, the blue line brotherhood became the most vulnerable work group on the ice.

The game never really slows down anymore, which makes digging pucks out of corners in the defensive end an ongoing lesson in tempting fate and keeping in constant touch with your primary care provider.

“There was a time where, as a defenseman, you knew your forward or your partner was going to slow someone down to give you time,’’ said Bruins coach Claude Julien. “Those are changes that they’ve made, and every team has handled it differently.’’

Beyond the on-ice X’s and O’s, the encompassing strategy for proactive clubs is simply to have enough defensemen to endure what could be a long playoff run. Hnidy, whose first tour with the Bruins ended with the 2008-09 season, was invited back to help bolster a back line that saw Mark Stuart dealt to the Thrashers Feb. 18.

While Stuart logged nearly 21 minutes yesterday, and laid out Tomas Kaberle with a meaty shoulder-to-chest hit at the Boston bench, Hnidy posted a more humble, though solid, 13:53.

“His first game, end of the season, when everyone else has played 70-80 games,’’ noted Julien, who was pleased by what he labeled a determined and efficient performance by Hnidy. “He has a lot of catching up to do.’’

Hnidy spent last season with the Wild, then went job hunting again over the summer, landing in Phoenix’s camp on a tryout. Only three days into training camp, he tore up a shoulder, leading to late September surgery and yet another job hunt while in heal-and-rehab mode.

“To be honest, Boston was my first choice all along,’’ he said. “It’s just easy for me to mesh here. Everything felt familiar. I just think I fit well with the system.’’

As with many clubs, there is no razzle-dazzle to how the Bruins go about their business. They are as straight-ahead and predictable in course as the Bonneville Salt Flats. Though that may bore the fan base at times, it makes for easy and seamless fixes when needed.

Case in point: Hnidy. As he worked the right side in partnership with Andrew Ference most of the afternoon, a paying customer back in the Garden for the first time since, say, February ’09 might have thought Sheriff Shane never left town. Same guy. Same job. Smart, dependable defense, with no frills and no mistakes.

“Yeah,’’ he said. “I don’t think you’re going to see me out there quarterbacking the power play.’’

To that point, his 13:53 in ice time, distributed over 20 shifts, came all at even strength. In his 548th NHL game, he logged 4:01 in the first period, 5:20 in the second, 4:32 in the third. Neat, tidy, dependable.

As a bonus, Hnidy also landed three shots on net, more than any other Boston defenseman (all of whom exceeded his ice time). The guy he replaced for the day, Adam McQuaid, has put up only 42 shots in 54 games.

That’s not to say Hnidy was brought aboard as a shot machine, but he is a bit old-school in his overall approach, not so fixed to system and role that he’s unwilling to let a shot, or two, or three fly now and then.

“I want to bring that attitude that I can do everything I can to play,’’ he said. “And if I do great, then I’m still going to bring that — the work that’s needed to prepare for that situation.

“I can’t control what they do. This is what hockey is all about. This is the time of year we’ve got to finish strong, play hard.’’

No telling how much we’ll see of Hnidy the rest of the way, because that answer is wrapped up in a bundle of fate and medical tape. But for first looks, he was easy and pleasing on the eye.

OK, maybe no one asked, “Where’s that guy been?’’ But maybe it was even better, because it looked like he never left.

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

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