Seven of the team’s 26 players are under 25, and, although they’ve had playoff experience in some other leagues, most are participating in the NHL playoffs for the first time.
“It’s unbelievable, probably the best time of my life right now, hockey-wise,” said Petteri Nokelainen, who is one of three players that spent time in Providence this season but is now taking in the excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
These “Baby B’s” have had to grow up fast, but Nokelainen, along with David Krejci
and Vladimir Sobotka, who round out this season's Providence-to-Boston group, are “just enjoying [this time], playing hard,” as Krejci said.
As the Bruins had more and more players sidelined with injuries as the season went on, rookie players had to step into big roles, often flourishing in the face of new pressures and responsibilities.
“With the injuries, we had just enough players,” said head coach Claude Julien, specifically of Nokelainen, “so with him, maybe the fact that there was nobody behind him, and he knew he was going to be in, he just went out there and played and found his game.”
All of the players have performed similarly, “finding their game” when their team needed them the most.
“In the last two games, he’s been unbelievable,” said Shawn Thornton
, also of Nokelainen. “He’s been on the ice for a couple of goals scored, and he’s doing a good job.”
Thornton has played alongside Sobotka recently, and while he says the 20-year old is “unbelievable at controlling the puck down low [and] making things happen,” he’s also heard praise from other Bruins teammates.
“Talking to our defensemen in practice, he’s one of the hardest guys to get the puck off of,” Thornton continued. “He’s pretty sturdy down low, got a great set of hands on him.”
As always, Krejci earned credit for his calm demeanor.
“There’s no panic in the kid, really,” said Thornton. “He’s got a lot of patience. I think that helps him not get too high before games like [these], being able to keep it in control.”
The 21-year old Krejci is calm in the locker room, as well. He speaks quietly and calmly admitted he was “just thinking about tonight’s game, getting ready.”
They’re trying not to let the playoff atmosphere (re: the increased number of Montreal rooters and a lot more noise from the home crowds) influence them. Nokelainen said simply that it was “pretty unique,” while Krejci called it “great for the fans, fun for us too.”
The composure and consistent play of the three young players has pleased Coach Julien, who admitted he could not have foreseen young players filling the roles they have recently – and filling them well.
“It’s been a really great year for our hockey club and our organization that way, to see how many strides a lot of those young players that we didn’t expect to even be here at this time have made.”
Meanwhile, the players themselves – along with all their teammates and Bruins fans – are hoping this ride keeps going for a while longer, although maybe for some different reasons.
“Hopefully...I’ll get a chance to keep it going,” said Krejci, discussing his still-thin playoff beard. “A couple weeks, at least.”
The Hub of Hockey can only hope.