The Boston Bruins were without three veteran defensemen in Game 1 of their second-round playoff series against the New York Rangers on Thursday as Dennis Seidenberg, Andrew Ference and Wade Redden couldn't play because of injuries.
As a result, Bruins head coach Claude Julien was forced to insert rookie defensemen Torey Krug, Matt Bartkowski and Dougie Hamilton onto his blue line, and these young players performed very well despite their lack of playoff experience (five games combined).
Even though the Bruins have a lot of confidence in these rookies, the team should be at least a little bit surprised that they played a major role in the Bruins taking a 1-0 series lead with a 3-2 overtime victory.
"I thought they played really well," said Julien in his postgame press conference.
"They deserve a lot of credit for the way they handled themselves, all three of them. It was Torey’s [Krug] first game, obviously. Not only did he score a big goal, but he just moved that puck so well. A lot of times, he played against their third line which is a pretty heavy line. I thought he handled them extremely well.
"Bart [Matt Bartkowski] continues to get better and better. He certainly takes the ice that’s given to him, he moves the puck up quickly...We’ve seen Dougie [Hamilton] with us all year. I thought they did a great job, but also our veterans that were back there with them."
Not many teams have the depth to be able to call up two talented young defensemen (Bartkowski and Krug) with very little or no NHL playoff experience from the AHL and get positive impacts in all three zones immediately, but the Bruins have this luxury because of their ability to identify, sign and draft quality young blueliners on a regular basis.
Krug's power play goal in the third period was a huge confidence-booster for the Bruins, whose 1-0 lead evaporated quickly when the Rangers scored two goals in 16 seconds between the end of the second period and the beginning of the third. Hamilton was credited with the primary assist on the goal.
"I just remember moving the puck to Marchy [Brad Marchand], and he was getting in the zone with speed on the power play, and he curled up and gave it to Dougie [Hamilton] and Dougie made a great play by drawing the guy out to him and then he slid it over to me," said Krug when describing his first career playoff goal, which tied the score 2-2 in the third period. "I had a lot of time to take a shot."
Krug also made a bit of Bruins history with his goal in Game 1 (via Jeremy Lundblad of ESPN Boston):
Jeremy Lundblad @JLundbladESPN
Torey Krug (5'9") is the shortest defenseman to score a goal for the Bruins in 27 years (Mike O'Connell)5/17/2013, 2:17:39 AM
Here are some notable stats from Game 1 involving these three rookies.
One of the reasons why these young players are able to come up from the minors and play a meaningful role in an NHL playoff game is because the Bruins and their AHL affiliate in Providence both teach a congruous style of hockey, which is built on responsible defense, physical play and blocking shots.
"It’s very similar to Providence and it’s a lot of emphasis on defense," said Bartkowski when asked about the similarities between Boston and Providence.
"So, being able to step in you know your job, you know your role and everybody else on the ice does as well. You don’t really get out of the system very much, and if we do, that’s where we have breakdowns, but everybody tends to stay in the system and it makes it easy."
What the Bruins lose in playoff experience without their three veteran defensemen in the lineup (274 games between Seidenberg, Ference and Redden), they add in speed and offensive skill when the rookies are called upon. They also aren't afraid of physical confrontations, as seen on Bartkowski's massive hit on Ranges star winger Rick Nash in the third period.
Hamilton is a fantastic skater with a great shot from the point, while Krug and Bartkowski are both able to use their fantastic quickness to evade the opposing team's forecheck and start the rush up ice.
While these three rookies are certainly not on the same level defensively as Seidenberg, Ference and Redden, they are more talented from an offensive standpoint with fantastic playmaking skills and a willingness to be aggressive by taking shots whenever the opportunity is present. This was evident when Boston had the man advantage.
Speaking of the Bruins power play, Game 1 was the first time in quite a while that his part of the team's game was effective on a consistent basis.
Boston finally created a lot of good scoring chances (including eight shots on its power play in overtime) with the man advantage, and one of the reasons for this improved success was Krug and Hamilton's ability to walk the blue line and move the puck well in the attacking zone to open shooting lanes.
Against a fundamentally strong defensive team that shot blocks as much as the Rangers, good scoring chances are created when the puck is constantly moving, which forces the penalty killers to shift into different positions. Krug and Hamilton played a key part in this strategy.
But the most impressive part of each rookie's performance was the poise and composure they had in all three zones, which is not easy against a physical team like the Rangers that pursues the puck better than most clubs.
"Honestly, there wasn’t too much nerves," said Krug "These guys in here are an unbelievable group of guys, the confidence that the coaching staff showed in me and the other guys showed it. I felt very comfortable out there."
It's often difficult, especially for young defensemen, to step into an NHL playoff game and adjust to a level of speed and intensity that is far great than what's seen at the AHL.
But you have to give credit to Krug, Bartkowski and Hamilton for making smooth transitions to the NHL and giving the Bruins some much-needed depth and skill with their second-best defenseman (Seidenberg), a top-four blueliner (Ference) and an experienced veteran (Redden) out of the lineup.
Even if its veteran defensemen miss an extended period of time with their injuries, Boston has enough two-way talent on the blue line to win this second-round series against the Rangers with three rookies forced to play important roles.
"They did incredible tonight," said Bruins forward Brad Marchand.
"Obviously, we’re really depending on those guys to step up and play big minutes, and they all did a great job tonight. We’re very happy with them."
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. He's also a credentialed reporter at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. Nick has covered the Bruins since the 2010-11 season. All quotes obtained firsthand.