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Move Proves Good for Jurcina

by Staff Writer / Washington Capitals
As recently as three months ago, it would have been difficult to imagine defenseman Milan Jurcina playing a significant role for Team Slovakia at the 2007 IIHF World Championship in Moscow. But before Slovakia’s elimination from the quarterfinal round here on Wednesday, Jurcina was a top-four defenseman on the Slovakian squad, and he frequently found himself partnered with hulking blueliner Zdeno Chara, the centerpiece of the Slovak blueline corps.

“I had no idea that I could play with Z on the backside,” said Jurcina. “But the coaches are trusting us and I think we did a pretty good job [together].”

The tandem of Jurcina and Chara has to rank among the biggest in the game. Jurcina stands 6-foot-4 and weighs 235 pounds. Chara is 6-foot-9 and he tips the scales at 260 pounds. The two big rigs made life difficult for opponents in the offensive zone, using their unusually long reach to break up passes and shots and their imposing physiques to punish puck-carriers.

“We are always using our reach,” Jurcina said. “It’s a big ice surface and these guys can move the puck pretty well, so it wasn’t very easy this game. We try to use our reach to our advantage, and I think we did a pretty good job.”

Playing for his country in the World Championship put a nice coda on what had been an up and down season for Jurcina.

After an impressive rookie season with the Boston Bruins in 2005-06, Jurcina became the odd man out as a sophomore in Beantown. Changes in the front office and behind the bench left Jurcina playing for a new coach who was not familiar with him and his abilities. He spent the first half of the season playing sporadically, when he played at all.

For Jurcina, it was a frustrating follow-up to a rookie season in which he showed himself to be a promising blueline prospect in Boston. After averaging over 16 minutes a night in 51 games with the Bruins in 2005-06, Jurcina played just over 10 minutes a night with Boston in 2006-07. He also found himself watching the action from upstairs more often than he would have liked.

Jurcina was not happy in Boston and the Bruins weren’t happy either, feeling the 23-year-old had regressed in his second season. In late January, it became known that Jurcina was available for the right price. The right price turned out to be a fourth-round choice in the 2008 NHL Entry Draft, and the Capitals turned out to be the benefactor.

On Feb. 1, the Bruins sent Jurcina to Washington for the aforementioned draft choice. Two days later, Jurcina made his debut in a Capitals sweater, skating 20:23 against the Penguins in Pittsburgh. It proved to be indicative of the workload he would get regularly with Washington, a workload he proved worthy of and capable of handling. In 40 games with the Bruins in 2006-07, Jurcina logged as many as 20 minutes only once. In his 30 games with Washington, he came in under 20 minutes only twice.

Chosen with Boston’s eighth-round pick (241st overall) in the 2001 NHL Entry Draft, Jurcina was a bit of a project at the time. He had just turned 18 and was coming off a very pedestrian season with the Halifax Mooseheads of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. Playing in 68 games as a 17-year-old first-year player in the league, Jurcina registered just five assists and 56 penalty minutes. The Bruins likely saw him as a diamond in the rough and believed his maturing body and hard right-handed point shot might one day enable him to man the Boston blueline.

That maturation process began the season after he was drafted when Jurcina netted four goals while totaling 20 points with 58 penalty minutes in 61 games. In the playoffs that spring, he surpassed his regular season goal output with five lamp-lighters and eight points in 13 games. A season later, Jurcina totaled 15 goals and 28 points with 102 penalty minutes in just 51 games in his final year with the Mooseheads. He added six goals and a dozen points in 25 postseason tilts.

Jurcina showed more growth with the Providence Bruins in his first two seasons as a pro. He moved up and down a few times between Providence and Boston in the first half of 2005-06, but was a fixture on the B’s backline after the All-Star break. He exceeded the 20-minute mark in ice time on nine occasions in the second half of the season and his hard point shot produced six goals.

When Dave Lewis replaced Mike Sullivan as Boston’s head coach in 2006-07, Jurcina found his ice time cut drastically. The trade to Washington rejuvenated his career and it irked Bruins fans. At season’s end, Jurcina and fellow former Bruin Shaone Morrisonn comprised the Caps’ top shutdown duo. They frequently stymied the opposition’s top line while logging a heavy ice time load night in and night out.

“If you have a trusting coach and they give you ice time, you can show what you can do on the ice,” said Jurcina. “That’s the case for me. I am just working as hard as I can.”

Jurcina found several familiar faces in Moscow. Several of his Washington teammates are also here representing their respective countries, and Team USA Sullivan was his first NHL coach in Boston.

“We have talked a few times in the hallway, just saying things like ‘Good game and stuff like that,” says Jurcina of Sullivan. “We have talked a couple times. There are guys from Boston and guys from Washington like [Chris Clark] and [Brian Pothier]. We talk in the lounge or after games.”

Sullivan kept an eye on Jurcina after the trade and liked what he saw of him in Washington.

“I watched him and I thought he played well when he got there,” said the former Bruins bench boss. “I think he is a very good player who has a bright future ahead of him. He is a young kid who is still trying to figure it out a little bit in the NHL. He has size, mobility and a big shot from the point. And he’s a good kid. I would envision him only getting better for Washington.

Jurcina fared well in his World Championship play. He had a goal and two points, and his plus-6 was among the best at the tournament.

 “It’s up to you if you want to go [play in the tournament],” Jurcina stated. “If you are really tired you [don’t have to play], but I felt good and I am in good shape. Actually, I am feeling pretty good out there, too.”

He is also looking pretty good out there.

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