BOSTON — It was Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, and as the Bruins stepped on the ice at Joe Louis Arena, they knew two things: That the Red Wings, finally on their home ice, were going to do everything in their power to give themselves a 2-1 advantage in the series, and that they were going to do it the second the puck dropped.
In the playoffs, getting out to a good start is always imperative. It’s even more imperative when you’re playing in a rink that has given you fits, dating back seven years.
So eight minutes into the first frame, when the Bruins found themselves on a power play after Detroit got caught with too many men on the ice, they knew they had to make it count.
Enter defenseman Dougie Hamilton. He started with the puck behind Boston’s net. He surveyed his options.
“Before that, on the previous breakout, I think I had a brain cramp and iced it,” Hamilton said.
So he skated the puck up the middle of the ice to Detroit's blue line, right past Darren Helm. Kyle Quincey tried to get his stick on it — no luck. Brian Lashoff and Joakim Andersson were stuck outside the posts, already out of the play by the time Hamilton reached the net.
That left just him and Red Wings goaltender Jimmy Howard.
“I just decided I was going to just skate it again, and I had success doing it the previous game,” Hamilton said. “I just decided I was going to skate it, and it kind of opened up for me. Then I kind of ran out space and decided to take a shot.”
Top shelf, glove side. It was in the net before Howard seemed to even see it.
“I got a pretty good shot off,” he said. “Just happy it went in.”
There was no overstating the significance of that goal. It gave the B’s a 1-0 lead in a critical Game 3, in front of some of the most voracious fans in hockey, in a building the Bruins hadn’t departed with a win since 2007.
Boston wouldn’t relinquish that lead, and it would finish that game with a 3-0 victory in Game 3.
We all know how the rest of the series played out. Boston forged a slow, steady comeback to eventually win Game 4 in overtime before finishing off the Wings at home in Game 5, setting up a second-round matchup versus Montreal.
While Hamilton wasn’t the only young gun who powered the Bruins to the first-round victory, he was one of the most consistent. Hamilton came into this postseason with just seven games of playoff experience, all of which came during the first and second rounds in 2013.
This year — with his first full year of NHL experience under his belt — he entered the postseason a new player.
“I think last year was a little bit tougher, when you don’t really feel like you’re part of the team, and when I was playing, it was kind of in and out a little bit,” Hamilton said. “But I think [I’m] just more comfortable now, more confident, and [it’s] just more exciting to be playing and part of it and having that challenge and, I guess, the opportunity that comes with it.”
Hamilton emerged from the first round with a goal and three assists for five points in about 17 minutes of ice time per game. His four points in those five games are second only to Patrice Bergeron’s and Torey Krug’s five, but his impact on the top pairing alongside Zdeno Chara was one of the most resounding on the team.
“Obviously it’s playoffs, and obviously it’s a challenge when you got to play against [Pavel] Datsyuk and their top line,” Hamilton said. “I wanted to rise to that, and raise my game, and kind of be more physical, and things like that. So I think the offense was just kind of, I guess, puck luck, and I think just more defensively, I tried to be really solid. I thought I did pretty good at that.
The Game 3 goal wasn’t the only huge momentum boost Hamilton helped to provide. In the Game 4 overtime victory, he assisted on Milan Lucic’s game-tying strike, and in overtime, he put the bomb on net that ended up deflecting off Jarome Iginla for the game-winner.
“I can honestly tell you he was very impressive in that first round,” said Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien. “His play was probably at the top of his game, from what we know him to be. So no doubt we were pleased with that, and hopefully it is a growing experience for him as well and he continues to gain that confidence moving forward.”
Hamilton’s dominance — as well as that of Krug, Reilly Smith, Kevan Miller and other young players with minimal playoff experience — carried Boston to victory. When Boston's veterans weren’t finding the back of the net in the first three games, the young players were. That, in very large part, was the difference between Boston and Detroit in this series.
“I think we’ve had that [depth] all year, with injuries and stuff, and defensemen kind of coming in and playing well,” Hamilton said. “I guess every time we have a callup, he always plays well, as well, so I think it just kind of shows how truly deep we are. I think everyone works hard and has skills and things like that, so I don’t think we have anybody that’s kind of limited in any way.”
If depth doesn’t win championships, it certainly factors heavily into championships. The Bruins will head into the second round confident in the poise of their young players, and confident that if the veterans need to take some time to find their game, the necessary backup will be there to hold down the fort.
Depth isn't a given, and it doesn't always provide the boost a team expects, come playoff time. It was Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock who credited the series victory to Boston's depth, and Hamilton was at the forefront of that.
“I think he’s got all the tools to become [an elite defenseman], and that is how we have anticipated him,” Julien said. “But at the same time, you have to allow a young player to develop. And development can be with some experience of playing, it can be with getting bigger and stronger, it can be getting more mature and older.
"So you allow a player time to do that in order for him to become that elite player you think he is going to be.”