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A nifty glimpse into the future

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By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / May 18, 2011

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All of Bruins fandom had to be thinking one thing last night: Where has this guy been?

Tyler Seguin lit up the Garden, like it rarely his been lit up before when its floor has been ice and not parquet, piling up two goals and two assists and pacing the Bruins to their 6-5 victory over the Lightning last night. Years from now, no fewer than 106,328 or so fans will say they were among the Seguinistas on Causeway Street the night the kid came of age.

It was a special night, by a special talent, and it reminded us all why we watch these games — to revel in the rare moments when splendid and wonderful things shower down from above, to see Roy Hobbs wrap his hands around that Wonder Boy bat, carved from wood struck by lightning (not in Tampa) and light up the sky.

“I think it’s just the learning curve,’’ said Seguin, when asked why he hadn’t shown such pizzazz and productivity earlier in the year, when his rookie season was more flatline than headline. “It’s been a whole learning curve, all year. As the year went on, I’ve felt more confident and more poised . . . Tonight, I got some lucky bounces, and I tried to take advantage of every opportunity . . . and they were going in tonight.’’

The other question Bruins fandom had to be thinking: Why didn’t Claude Julien play this kid more all season?

There is a very easy answer to that, one that will be difficult to remember in the wake of the total Seguin enthrallment that developed over his rather modest 13:31 of ice time. He wasn’t out there because he didn’t deserve to be out there, his play too raw and too timid to merit longer looks.

A 4-point night will produce a mass amnesia among Bruins fans, who will delete from memory that Seguin totaled all of one goal (1-0—1) over his final 23 games of the regular season. He was kept out of the lineup for the first 11 postseason games because he didn’t do much over that last quarter-plus of the regular season that offered any hope he would respond when the games turned more intense, meaner, and important. He was right where he should have been, watching from the press box, getting that bird’s eye view of the incredible night-to-night, often vicious grind of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

“He was exceptionally good tonight,’’ said Julien, his charges now in a 1-1 series deadlock that will be broken tomorrow night when Game 3 is played in Tampa. “He’s an exciting individual, waiting for his opportunity, and he certainly made the most of it.’’

What the Bruins have in Seguin is a rare talent, a player blessed with world-class skills. He is fast, especially first-step-out-of-the-gate fast, with a gifted set of hands that produce clever passes and sizzling, lethal snap shots. His package is unique when compared with Bruins of at least the last 40 years.

The closest comparison is Rick Middleton, a.k.a. “Nifty,’’ the sensational winger whose tricky moves and even demeanor — ever straight-faced, especially after scoring — delighted Garden crowds in the ’70s and ’80s.

If Seguin can have a “Middleton’’ career in a Spoked-B sweater, then he will turn out to be the best draft pick the Bruins have made since Ray Bourque. Middleton was not as fast, but he was a deceptive, beguiling wizard, often tying defensemen in knots with his sublime puckhandling, then turning goalies into yard sales, the ‘tenders’ gear spread all over the crease after he dotted a corner with a sharp top-of-the-crease snap under the crossbar.

Different players, but equally eye-catching, breathtaking.

All along, we’ve heard Julien and Co. say this season that Seguin hasn’t been strong enough to play day to day, that he would have to build strength. Well, here’s the thing, he didn’t get significantly bigger or stronger over the last six months. He has been big enough and strong enough to play all year. He simply hasn’t been good enough or smart enough or brave enough, in a season when he turned 19 years old, to play varsity NHL hockey. “Not strong enough’’ essentially was coaching code for “in over his head, shy along the wall . . . in need of time and gumption.’’

So was Julien wrong not to have him out there? Absolutely not. He gave Seguin chances, and until last night, he didn’t make the most of his ice time. Last night he owned every second of his ice time, to the point where the sellout crowd cheered when he popped onto the ice at 15:55 of the second period to join a power play in progress. Only 21 seconds later, his name was on the score sheet again as the first assist in the Michael Ryder goal that made it 5-3.

Before the period, Seguin picked up another helper when Ryder’s second of the night made it 6-3. Chris Kelly earned the first assist, Seguin the second. Had to be the loudest cheer ever given a second assist in the history of the Vault.

It’s easy as a fan not to embrace Julien’s system. It is defensive-based, conservative, and boilerplate in execution, especially when he rolls out his four lines with metronomic pace and predictability. But it’s wrong to think he didn’t play Seguin simply because he doesn’t value a player with plus speed or a plus shot.

Seguin played 74 games this season and delivered 11 goals and 11 assists. Promise, with some panache, but often inconsistent and defensively weak. Much like Joe Thornton’s first year on Causeway Street, he didn’t turn his opportunities into points. More important, he didn’t turn his shifts into anything that said, “Hey, coach, look what I got for ya . . . whaddya gonna do about that!?’’

Until last night, Julien did all he could do with Seguin, which was wait and hope that that the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft began to show that he could perform to his billing. On one very special and memorable night, he did it. Which now leads to one question for Julien: What will he do about it.

The only answer: Play him. And hope, like last night, he turns those shifts into gold.

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

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