Early in the first period of Tampa Bay’s road game at the Staples Center against the L.A. Kings, Lightning defenseman Luke Witkowski took a hard hit behind the Bolts’ goal, getting sandwiched between Kings centers Anze Kopitar, who tips the scales at 224 pounds, and Trevor Lewis, a couple donuts shy of 200.
Witkowski remained motionless on the ice for a minute before rising to his knees and eventually skating off under his own power and into the Lightning locker room.
Just eight-and-a-half minutes into the game, Tampa Bay found itself down to only five defensemen versus the defending Stanley Cup champions, a team known for its physicality and strong forward play.
How would the Bolts recover?
Enter Brian Boyle, the fourth line center who played mostly defense as a Boston College Eagle and again for a few games early in his professional career while with the Manchester Monarchs of the American Hockey League.
Boyle skated the remainder of the opening period in L.A. as a defenseman, a period in which the Lightning didn’t give up a goal and led 1-0 at the first intermission.
“It’s cool because it gets you into the game,” said Boyle, who has skated spot shifts on the blue line on a couple of occasions this season for the Lightning. “I know (center and defenseman) are two different positions and two different perspectives of where the puck is and how you’re playing, but it’s also more shifts, which I’m never going to complain about.”
Boyle’s position switch was temporary as Witkowski returned to play the second period.
But, the versatility he’s provided all season for the Lightning has been permanent.
“I can’t sit here and say we knew he was going to play defense for us…when we signed him, but it is really nice to know that you have a guy that shows up every night and can play every position,” Tampa Bay head coach Jon Cooper said. “We’ve needed that.”
Boyle was signed by the Lightning during the summer free agency period after playing five seasons with the New York Rangers. He’s been a welcome pickup for a Tampa Bay team in search of grit and toughness and playoff experience.
Boyle’s contributions this season haven’t always shown up on the score sheet, though, but his indispensability is a major contributing factor to the Bolts’ sustained success in 2014-15, a season in which they’ve found themselves at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for virtually the entire year.
“He’s a great penalty killer, great faceoff guy, so he brings the intangibles that sometime fly under the radar but every team needs those types of guys,” Lightning captain Steven Stamkos said. “He’s been willing to do whatever it takes on this team, and he’s a great guy, fits in great.
“It’s been a great pickup for us.”
Penalty killer, end of game lead protector, emergency defenseman, no role is too big for Boyle to handle.
If the Lightning found themselves down a couple of goaltenders at some point this season, no doubt Boyle and his 6-foot-7 frame could fill the net too.
And he’d probably be just as effective keeping pucks out of his net.
“If I can be used in those areas, I want to be good at it,” Boyle said. “I’ve had work in certain areas along the way coming up and even in college. Not everyone can be on the PP and playing 20 minutes, so if you can have some other tools that could help us, I try to do that…Wherever they need you, you get on the ice, it’s a good thing if you’re thinking from a personal standpoint. You want to be able to help, especially if you’re not necessarily a go-to offensive guy.”
Lightning All-Star center Tyler Johnson recalls going up against Boyle last season when the Hingham, Mass., native was with the Rangers, remembers how hard it was to get a shot through on the power play, how much better it is now to line up with Boyle rather than versus him.
“I like to joke around with him, he’s Mr. Utility,” Johnson said. “He just does it all. He plays defense, offense, PKs, scores big goals for us. He’s one of those guys that you really want on your team. Even off the ice, he’s a great teammate, one of the easiest guys to talk to, which goes a long way.”
Boyle watched the Lightning from afar last season and knew the team was building something special, the emergence of goaltender Ben Bishop combined with a plethora of young, skilled forwards enticing him to join the Rangers’ Eastern Conference rival in the offseason.
“We knew there was a lot of speed in the room,” he said. “Getting to know the guys now, the talent’s obviously there. We’re winning games, but we have a blast in here together. It’s a good group of guys. I didn’t know that about the team. I didn’t know how tight it was and how awesome it is.
“I’ve been fortunate.”
As valuable as Boyle has been for the Lightning, his greatest worth has yet to be realized.
Boyle, an eight-year veteran of the NHL and former first round draft pick (26th overall) in the 2003 NHL Draft by the Kings, was a member of a New York team that advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals a season ago, and in four straight playoff appearances with the Rangers, he’s played in 58 postseason games, scoring nine goals and assisting on 10 more.
The Bolts made an active push during the offseason to sign players with postseason experience, mostly because they were a team without much of their own.
“He’s always good down the stretch and in the playoffs,” Stamkos said. “I think that’s the main reason why we brought him in.”
Experience and versatility, two qualities the jack-of-all-trades Boyle possesses in spades.