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Bruins seamlessly integrating new players on defense

by Matt Kalman

BOSTON -- Teams can boast about their depth until they're blue in the face.

Under perfect circumstances that depth never will have to be tested and observers never will discover if it's capable of living up to the hype.

The Boston Bruins haven't had perfect circumstances during the 2013-14 season. But a rash of injuries to their defense corps hasn't stopped them from reeling off 12 straight wins heading into their game against the Montreal Canadiens at TD Garden on Monday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, TSN, RDS), or from allowing the second-fewest amount of goals per game in the NHL entering play Monday.

Obviously the goaltending of Tuukka Rask (2.07 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) and Chad Johnson (2.04, .925) deserves a lot of credit for Boston's stinginess. But even the goaltenders would admit they need help from the players in front of them.

Matt Bartkowski
Defense - BOS
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 15 | PTS: 15
SOG: 77 | +/-: 22

"I don't know. I mean, it's just a system that we have and we all try to stick to it and it tends to work if we do," defenseman Matt Bartkowski said. "If we worry about our own jobs and we do our own jobs well and collectively, we play well."

This season Johnny Boychuk has missed five games because of injury. Dougie Hamilton left the lineup injured for 14 games. Captain Zdeno Chara has been healthy but even he missed two games to head to the 2014 Sochi Olympics early to carry the Slovakian flag in the opening ceremonies. Most glaringly Adam McQuaid has missed 40 games because of injury and hasn't played since Jan. 19, and Dennis Seidenberg, the Bruins' rock-solid No. 2 defenseman the past four seasons, hasn't played since he injured two knee ligaments Dec. 27.

Yet the Bruins have kept on trucking and have been near or at the top of the Eastern Conference throughout the season.

Bartkowski is the poster child for the depth general manager Peter Chiarelli and his staff bragged about being a reality. The 25-year-old was the seventh defensemen when the Bruins broke training camp and skated in four of Boston's first 16 games. He's now in a top-four role and averaging 19:33 of ice time per game while playing at even strength and on the penalty kill. He has 15 assists and a plus-22 rating in 55 games.

"This is what you work hard for in the summer, what you want in your year, in your career. ... So it's not daunting. It's exciting. I look forward to it," Bartkowski said.

Like Bartkowski, the other younger defensemen who have had to help make up for Seidenberg and McQuaid's long-term absences have embraced a greater role and done their best to hide their inexperience.

Hamilton, 20, is averaging 18:58 of ice time per game and playing many nights on a regular pair with Chara against some of the opposition's best offensive players. He's plus-21.

Rookie Torey Krug, 22, is averaging 17:20 of ice time per game and has quarterbacked one of Boston's power-play units all season. He has 14 goals, 37 points and a plus-14 rating.

Bartkowski, Krug and Hamilton all began to prove their worth to the Bruins last season when injuries forced them into Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers. But there was no telling how they would respond though the rigors of an 82-game schedule.

Kevan Miller, a rookie that didn't make the Bruins during training camp, also has been a pleasant surprise. The 26-year-old, who was undrafted and signed as a collegiate free agent, has averaged 17:16 of ice time per game and played in 27 consecutive games despite the ranks of the Bruins' available defensemen swelling to eight and coach Claude Julien having been forced to use something of a rotation for who plays and who sits.

With the Bruins adding veterans Andrej Meszaros (trade with the Philadelphia Flyers) and Corey Potter (waivers from the Edmonton Oilers) at the NHL Trade Deadline, Julien has been able to cut back minutes and experiment with different combinations during much of the Bruins' winning streak. Competition also has hit a fever pitch with eight players battling for six jobs.

"I think it's good in a way, but sometimes it's a little bit frustrating," Hamilton said. "But I think it's good that you have that competition and somebody behind you to push you … but at the same time it's tough when you don't really know what's going on, and it'd be nicer if you knew you were playing or not and it's not always in the back of your head."

That doubt is what ensures every player is trying his best and not taking anything for granted. The Bruins' plan has worked despite the loss of two veterans with Stanley Cup championship experience. It hasn't always been a smooth road, but the bumps along the way have been minimized. Although there won't be any chance to eradicate the miscues when the Bruins start their trek through the playoffs, Julien is certain he has enough quality defensemen to get the Bruins deep into the postseason.

"To be honest with you, I don't know that I'm worried about it now," Julien said. "I think they've progressed really well. We talked the other day about Kevan Miller coming in halfway through the season. He's playing like a seasoned veteran right now. I don't see him making too many mistakes and I don't see him losing too many battles. But our young guys, Bartkowski's been extremely good for us. And Krug, just watching him, he's made our power play that much better this year.

"Our young guys have been really good. And you know, 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. So I'm feeling pretty confident right now with our group. … I like the direction of our young [defensemen]."

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