A few minutes into the second period of an eventual 2-1 shootout loss, Brad Marchand had just gone to the box for high-sticking. At the time, the B’s were down 1-0, and the momentum was decisively in Montreal’s favor. Boston needed a huge penalty kill in order to keep it a one-goal game, and Head Coach Claude Julien tapped rookie defenseman Kevan Miller to step in and get it done.
Miller responded by submitting one of his strongest shifts of the game.
“That's one of the things I pride myself on, is just being really tough to play against and trying to make smart decisions with the puck,” Miller has said. “Penalty killing situations are kind of like my power play, so I just have to make sure I get the job done.”
“He just plays well all-around," said Julien. "He moves the puck well, he defends well, he’s strong, he’s winning his battles, he stands up for himself. So, not disappointed with him at all.”
After defenseman Dennis Seidenberg suffered his season-ending ACL/MCL injury in late December, it took a while for the Bruins to adjust to his absence.
Now that this team is a couple of weeks away from the end of the regular season and is currently in position to take one of the top seeds in the Eastern Conference, it’s safe to say that the adjustment is near complete, thanks to a group of young D that includes Miller.
In 39 games, Miller has averaged over 17 minutes of ice time per game, registering a plus-17 rating with 34 penalty minutes. There are several young blueliners to praise for the way the Bruins have responded in the face of so many injuries on the back end, but one of those at the top of the list is Miller.
True to Bruins form, though, he is reluctant to accept accolades for the improvements he’s made to his game over the last several months.
“Like I said before, it's a constant work in progress,” he said recently. “And when you get those minutes, it's a different kind of game for me as well, so it's a work in progress, yeah.”
The Bruins knew what they were getting in Miller when they saw him during a series of callups throughout November and December. Though they would have loved to keep him up in Boston, he had to be sent back down to Providence in order to avoid waivers. But when he was called back up on Dec. 30 — just after Seidenberg went down for good — he would be here to stay, solidifying it with a two-year, one way contract in late January that kicks in next season.
Since then, Miller has continued to prove his worth on a young defensive corps that has wrestled with a seemingly constant stream of injuries throughout this season.
“We talked the other day about Kevan Miller coming in halfway through the season, and he’s playing like he’s a seasoned vet right now,” Julien said. “I don’t see him making too many mistakes and I don’t see him losing too many battles.”
Miller’s impact may not always be the most obvious on the score sheet, but the most significant aspect he has provided to this team has been consistency.
There was a time, after Seidenberg went down, when consistency on this blueline was far from a given. Later, an injury to Adam McQuaid would force the Bruins to start three defensemen who are all in the midst of their first seasons in extended NHL roles.
Miller is one of those three (along with Torey Krug and Matt Bartkowski), and during a stretch in which the Bruins have not lost in regulation for more than three weeks — and a stretch in which they haven’t lost in regulation on the road since mid-January — his impact has been implicit.
“I’m still kind of trying to find my bearings here,” said Miller, who is still making adjustments in his routine from the usual three-in-three weekly schedule in Providence, to the NHL layout. “I think with anybody in their first season in the NHL, it’s a lot going on, so game by game, it’s just trying to figure that out.”
Defensively, the Bruins haven’t been perfect. Julien has constantly stressed that there are areas that need improvement — too many breakaways allowed, too many miscommunications. But Boston has continued to improve, and most importantly, it has continued to win as it has improved.
Even though Monday’s shootout loss technically snapped the Bruins’ winning streak, it didn’t snap their points streak, and Boston had to show character and grit in order to forge another third-period comeback, courtesy of a power-play goal with just over five minutes remaining in regulation.
The last two times the Bruins have played Montreal, they have held the Habs to two regulation goals in total. That, in itself, speaks for the performance of this young defense.
“Our young guys have been really good, and people may argue about the lack of experience, but those guys proved last year that they could do the job when we played against the Rangers,” Julien said. “So I’m feeling pretty confident right now with our group. I have no concerns, and at the end of the day, you have what you have and you move forward with those guys.”
“They’ve allowed us to have confidence - by their play - in them. Even at this stage, when there’s a lot at stake for a lot of teams that we’re playing against, they’re still pretty composed. So I like the direction of our Ds.”
Injuries can break a team, but in the case of the Bruins, their depth on the blueline has made them even stronger in the face of adversity. Miller is a testament to that.
“You know, when you lose a guy like McQuaid for as long as we've lost him — big, strong, physical body — and you replace him with Kevan Miller, who’s done an unbelievable job, I think it makes things a lot easier,” Julien said. “You know, we've lost Seidenberg, and then you lose McQuaid on top of that, but when you have guys like…Miller coming in to replace them and doing the job they've done, it's really bailed us out quite a bit.”
“Millsy's just been so confident. He makes smart plays. Nothing is fancy, but everything is efficient. Ninety percent of it is battles along the wall. He’s such a strong individual, and that's what our team's built around.”