Although it never hurts a new face’s staying case to throw his weight around, Kevan Miller’s snowballing hit count hardly completes the impression he is making in his first prolonged stint with the Boston Bruins.
Rather, it is the who’s who on his list of recent body-check recipients, the times of the hits and the occurrences, or sometimes lack thereof, in the aftermath of those hits. That is what lends the substance to Miller’s performance over the last calendar week, wherein Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli offered him a two-year contract extension.
Miller signed that extension last Tuesday, an off day that followed back-to-back games against a pair of Western Conference bigwigs from Chicago and Los Angeles. He had charged up five checks in each of those contests while playing several shifts with captain and blue-line elder statesman Zdeno Chara.
When the Bruins returned to an extramural engagement in Philadelphia on Saturday, it was more of the same from the third-year professional. He again led Boston with five hits and added four blocked shots and a takeaway amidst a 6-1 romp over the comparably physical Flyers.
The first of Miller’s hits in the Saturday matinee came at the 8:11 mark of the first period, just four seconds after Chara gave the puck away. He effectively bailed his partner out by bumping the brawny Scott Hartnell.
Two Miller hits and 12 minutes later, the Bruins were harboring a 2-0 lead at the first intermission. He then reiterated his presence at 9:10 of the second period when he checked Jay Rosehill, who by shift’s end had incurred a penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct at 9:42.
With that, Hartnell and Voracek in particular joined, shall we say, elite company among players engaging in contact with the rookie rearguard.
At the start of the week, Miller had entered an eventual 3-2 shootout loss to the Blackhawks with credit for 31 hits in 14 NHL appearances. He suddenly entered Monday night’s engagement with the Islanders bearing 46 hits in 17 NHL games played.
Working with Chara and logging extra minutes might have made it a little easier for him to start swelling that tally, but he needed to justify the move and earn an extended stay.
He did that, in part, by bumping some of Chicago’s prime offensive suspects. Those included captain and two-way connoisseur Jonathan Toews at 14:50 of the first and team-leading goal-scorer Patrick Sharp at 15:02 of the second.
Throw in Andrew Shaw, himself the Blackhawks hit leader with 123 in 52 appearances, who met Miller’s shoulder at 18:07 of the first, and there was a telling hint that Miller was willing to engage in grunt work against the major league’s mighty muckers.
He wasted no time following up on that in last Monday’s tilt with the Kings. He collided with another Stanley Cup-winning captain in Dustin Brown four recorded times on the day, playing the hitter’s role once in each period and accepting a little punishment at 4:57 of the third.
The single play that resonates with the most radiance, though, came roughly 13-and-a-half minutes later in the climactic phases of a 3-2 Boston triumph. Within the penultimate minute of regulation, Miller and Brown converged on the right corner on Bruins property, and Miller thrust the L.A. star down on his back.
The NHL officially recorded that hit at 18:21, at which point there were 99 seconds to work with in regulation. It was less than two minutes after Miller checked Matt Frattin and was his second hit to occur within the final two minutes of a period that day. The other came at Jarret Stoll’s expense with 23 ticks to spare in the opening stanza.
Miller’s mere presence on the ice in those critical, potentially momentous phases of those periods expressed the coaching staff’s confidence in him. His constant means of declaring his presence in those segments has validated that trust.
This must be somewhere in the neighborhood of what the Bruins brass envisioned when they signed Miller to a minor league deal following his senior campaign at the University of Vermont in 2011. It falls along the lines of what he set a tone for when, as a professional rookie in 2011-12, he easily led Providence with a plus-20 rating, 15 points higher than the closest runners-up.
The fact that this is all surfacing so soon and so quickly is the only definite surprise. In the same vein, as wise as it was to offer Miller an extension, the Bruins need not bank on him continuing the throttle for the whole balance of 2013-14.
In light of Boston’s current arrangement, lowlighted by Dennis Seidenberg’s injury-induced absence until next fall, csnne.com beat reporter Joe Haggerty is already envisioning Miller and Chara as the top unit for the 2014 playoffs. Haggerty underlined his rationale with Miller’s late-minute involvement with Chara against Pittsburgh.
He was implicitly referring to a Nov. 25 game that saw Miller log 20 minutes and 13 seconds of ice time. That was during the rookie’s first of four separate call-ups from Providence, and there has since been more of the same in other marquee matchups.
While there is no reason to inflexibly dismiss that prediction, the Bruins would doubtlessly subject their midseason call-up to a peerlessly fiery baptism if they go through with that. Sustaining this stretch through the coming spring is at toss-up, at best.
Come what may, Chiarelli can still pursue insurance in the form of a seasoned acquisition before the March 5 trade deadline, and the postseason is still almost three months away. For the immediate future, Miller suffices as a fastidious defender with plenty to prove and ample opportunism.
His task for now and later is to accept the eventual and occasional human nature-induced setback but still strive for more post-contract performances like this past Saturday.
If he can do that, he will merely build on a habit he has already established and demonstrated through the first half of this season. His flexibility has earned him the right to trudge his way up from the AHL to The Show and from essentially the eighth to the second slot on Boston’s defensive depth chart.
Now Miller is serving as a silver lining for the black and gold by instilling at least temporary stability amidst a chaotic whirlwind of injuries plaguing the blue-line brigade. With his resultant two-year extension, he has earned the still-to-come challenge of delivering the same commitment and functioning as a key piece in a collective stable of defenders that is not getting any younger.
The Miller who links up with the Bruins captain and grinds against opposing captains and elite NHL forwards might not be a constant for the rest of 2013-14. He might not even be on display every night for the rest of his current contract.
But Chiarelli and company can take comfort in the recent confirmation that this Miller exists and should be available as needed in the coming years.
Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via NHL.com and are through games of Sunday, January 26
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