At this point of the season, there is winning and then there is everything else.
So while it seems like Providence Bruins rookie center Zach Hamill
is being magnanimous with his time when he stays after practice for three-on-three games with the extra players, he's actually keeping in playoff character. And if he has to recruit fellow regular Jordan Knackstedt
to his side to guarantee that he walks off the ice as a victor over the young scratches, well, tough.
"It actually gets pretty intense," Hamill said of the skirmishes. "It gets pretty heated out there. Guys want to win, right? Sometimes there's a little bit of contact, trash-talking. The more you get creative in practice, the more it carries over to the game."
Whatever momentum Hamill builds up or continues during the shinny games, he can use every drop he gets. Instead of the fresh beginning that playoffs bestow upon many skaters, this postseason has been a too-familiar stretch of stop-and-start hockey for Hamill.
Mirroring the pattern of his regular season, Hamill plowed through a tough beginning of the playoffs to step up with six points (1-5) in his last seven games. That mini-run followed a seven-game pointless streak to begin his playoffs for the Bruins, who are battling Hershey in the Eastern Conference final.
"It snowballed a little bit. Close isn't good enough," said Hamill, 20. "Ever since (getting his first point), the points are coming more. I'm proud of myself for not packing it in. I didn't stop going."
If Hamill had ever harbored that mindset, it would have already revealed itself at the start of this season.
Hamill breezed out of juniors as well over a point per game man in each of his last three seasons with Everett of the WHL, and was the No. 8 overall pick by Boston in 2007. He contributed five assists in seven regular-season games with Providence last year, then added a goal and three assists in nine playoff contests.
"You could see his vision, his ability to see plays that a lot of other guys don't see," said Bruins coach Rob Murray
. "Sometimes he was high risk in that area. Sometimes there's a time and place when not to try things."
Murray told the 5-foot-11, 190-pound Hamill that he might want to add a little in the strength department, and the prospect took him to heart with an amped-up summer workout schedule.
"If you want to make it to the NHL one day, that's what you have to do," Hamill said. "If you're not working hard, someone else is."
Unfortunately for Hamill, he couldn't sweat away bad luck. While killing a penalty during the preseason, he took a shot off his thumb and broke it. That put his season on pause until late November.
"The team's getting established. Not being part of that was tough," Hamill said. "I started off slow."
Through his first 20 games back with the Bruins, he managed just three goals and two assists. And he never found his footing on the power play - in one of the more amazing stats of the season, the playmaker recorded not a single point all year on man-up situations.
But Hamill recovered to put together enough of an offensive effort to finish with 13 goals and 13 assists in 65 games.
"It took him a long time to recapture where he was in training camp," Murray said. "One of the things he did was bring a consistent commitment to defensive play. As the season went on, he got stronger and stronger. His game started to evolve."
Playoffs usually demand a different sort of spin, however, and when they started for Providence Hamill found his progress slamming into a wall for the second time in a few months. The Bruins won a five-game opening-round series against Portland without the benefit of a point from their second-line middleman.
"It (playoffs) is a little more physical. You get taken back by that," Hamill said. "It's a different game. You get used to it as the game goes on. As time goes on, I've felt better."
"One of the things he did was bring a consistent commitment to defensive play. As the season went on, he got stronger and stronger. His game started to evolve." -- Providence Bruins coach Rob Murray
Hamill finally hit the score sheet with an assist vs. Worcester in Game 3 of the Atlantic Division final, then added another in Game 5 and one more in the clinching Game 6. In the first game of the Hershey series, Hamill put up a pair of helpers.
"His playoffs are shaping up the same way (as the regular season). He's getting stronger as we're going deeper into the playoffs," Murray said. "Hockey players are momentum-minded athletes. You don't score, you get a little (upset). You do score, you get a little jump in your step."
Hamill will need to tap into even more of that energy if Providence hopes to advance to the Calder Cup final. There's no cutting corners at this point, though. Hamill has no intention of putting the "optional" in optional skates or skipping out on his post-practice scrums.
"I like going out there. I think, yeah, if we go to the finals, I'd definitely be out there as long as I could," he said. "It's such a good life. You want to take advantage of it. Being so young, being able to do this every day, it's a good thing for me."