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Bruins competition should be sharp-edged

Returnee Shane Hnidy congratulates goalie Tuukka Rask after Saturday’s win. Returnee Shane Hnidy congratulates goalie Tuukka Rask after Saturday’s win. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / April 4, 2011

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WILMINGTON — Including tonight’s match at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers, the Bruins have four games remaining before the playoffs. They have two priorities: Stay healthy and play well.

But a third thing remains on some of the players’ to-do list: Fight for jobs.

Assuming good health, there are postseason guarantees. Tim Thomas will be in goal. Zdeno Chara will get big minutes. Milan Lucic, David Krejci, and Nathan Horton will be the No. 1 line. Some other things aren’t so certain.

“We still have some decisions to make,’’ coach Claude Julien said yesterday. “There are certain guys, especially up front, that are competing hard. On the back end, we feel we’ve got lots of depth.’’

Assuming injuries don’t strike, the defensive six-pack appears to be set. Johnny Boychuk most likely will skate with Chara. Tomas Kaberle and Dennis Seidenberg will be the second pairing. Andrew Ference and Adam McQuaid should be the No. 3 pair.

But the most recent games, coupled with the four remaining regular-season tilts, could solidify how the seventh and eighth defensemen shake out. On Saturday, Shane Hnidy made his season debut. The stay-at-home defenseman, in his second go-around with the Bruins, didn’t hurt his cause. Hnidy, paired mostly with Ference (McQuaid was given a rest day), played an efficient 13:53, landing three shots on the Atlanta goal in Boston’s 3-2 win.

Given the mileage on the 35-year-old’s odometer and the severity of his shoulder injury, Saturday’s performance could have been a one-time spike. It’s possible Hnidy might find it challenging to keep up with the end-of-season pace.

But Hnidy has 37 games of NHL playoff experience, including seven in 2008-09. That year, Hnidy appeared in three of the four first-round games against Montreal. He was a healthy scratch for the first game, but dressed for the last three after Matt Hunwick suffered a ruptured spleen. In the second round against Carolina, Hnidy dressed for four games, filling in for Ference (groin).

Because of Hnidy’s experience and conservative but reliable game, the veteran could be first in line in case of injury to the top six.

“It’s pretty amazing, I think, for a guy who hadn’t played in a year to come in with four or five games left and handle himself the way he did at a pretty fast pace,’’ Julien said. “That solidifies the reason behind bringing him in and giving us the depth we felt we needed. Certainly his experience showed [Saturday], just how he handled the whole situation.’’

The tougher battle will be up front. The Bruins have been carrying 13 forwards, although Shawn Thornton (forehead) has not been cleared to play the last two games. Thornton is considered day-to-day and might be available tonight.

For most of this season, Daniel Paille has been the suit-and-tie guy, a healthy scratch for 35 games. Paille was suspended for four more games for his blindside wallop of Raymond Sawada.

But Paille is playing like a man desperate for a job. For the last four games, he has been the left wing on the fourth line. Paille also has been a penalty-killing regular, paired mostly with Gregory Campbell. Saturday, Paille scored a shorthanded goal to tie the game in the second. In the playoffs, depth forwards who can play with energy, skate well, forecheck, and kill penalties are valuable assets.

“It’s not easy, being in the situation he’s been in, to drop in and hold that level of confidence when he’s not always in the lineup,’’ Campbell said. “He’s worked hard all year. When he’s on his game, he’s an important player for this team.

“He’s been skating really well lately. He’s a strong guy. He holds onto the puck and protects it well. He’s scored 19 goals in this league before. So he definitely has that touch. I think for him, it’s the mental part of the game, having the confidence that he’s capable of doing things. He’s showing that now.’’

The final spot could come down to Michael Ryder or Tyler Seguin. Ryder was recently a healthy scratch against Philadelphia and Chicago. But with Thornton sidelined, Ryder was on the fourth line the last two games. Against Atlanta, Ryder scored the winning goal on a penalty shot. He drew the penalty by intercepting a Zach Bogosian pass, then attacking goalie Ondrej Pavelec before Johnny Oduya hooked him down.

Late last month, Seguin had been playing some of his sharpest and most responsible hockey. But he hasn’t reached that level in his last two games. On Saturday, Ryder took several shifts in Seguin’s place on the third line alongside Rich Peverley and Chris Kelly.

Seguin had been the left-side half-wall man on the No. 2 power-play unit. He has a team-high four shootout goals and the best set of hands and wheels on the team. But there are no shootouts in the playoffs. Ryder has 12 playoff goals in 45 career games. Seguin’s only postseason experience was in junior against other teenagers.

These end-of-the-season games could be critical in determining whether Ryder or Seguin gets the first nod.

“I think it’s one of those things where you look at your lineup and you look at how certain players play when you put them in,’’ Julien said. “It gives you an idea heading into the playoffs, if something were to happen, which direction would you go in those [situations]. It certainly gives us a clearer indication of the direction we’d end up taking.’’

The Bruins scrimmaged instead of holding a standard practice. The scrimmage included five-on-five, four-on-four, and three-on-three play. The session ended in the shootout after Tuukka Rask turned back Paille. “I think it was more of a fun day,’’ said Julien. “At one point, there’s a lot of pressure of accomplishing what you want to accomplish. You want to still maintain that it’s fun to come to work. I think guys still worked hard today, skated, and competed. You’ve got to sometimes relieve the pressure a little bit. Hopefully it was good for us today. [Tonight] we get back to work.’’ . . . The Rangers scored a 3-2 shootout win on the road over Philadelphia yesterday.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at fshinzawa@globe.com.

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