- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- It was a concerning moment for the Boston Bruins.
Defenseman Johnny Boychuk was slammed into the end boards midway through the second period of Tuesday's 3-1 win over the Vancouver Canucks and glided gingerly off the ice. It was similar to the hit he took against the Montreal Canadiens on Dec. 5 at the Bell Centre in Montreal. Early in that game, the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty sent Boychuk into the end boards and he needed to be taken off the ice on a stretcher after suffering a back injury that forced him to miss two games.
On Tuesday, the hit motivated Boychuk something fierce.
"Absolutely," he said. "When something like that happens to you, you get a little ticked off and you want to just crush people. I mean, it's not a big secret. You just have to try and do it cleanly."
Boychuk's game energized his teammates and helped Boston improve to 7-1-1 in its last nine games, with only two games remaining before the Olympic break.
"Any time, especially in this building, our team comes up with a big, clean hit, it really gets the crowd into the game and it really picks up your team," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "That's the way we play the game. We like to play a heavy game, and to me Johnny was at his best here tonight.
Not only did Boychuk provide plenty of bone-crushing, teeth-shattering body checks, he also registered his 13th assist of the season when he connected on a long stretch pass to Daniel Paille, who broke in and scored to give Boston a 3-1 lead at 17:06 of the second period.
"I was really tired," Boychuk said of his long shift prior to making that pass. "I am not going to lie, we were out there battling and I just looked up and Danny was coming off the bench. It's not as easy as it looks, especially when you're at the end of a long, long shift."
The Bruins already are without veteran Dennis Seidenberg, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in December, and will not have captain Zdeno Chara for the next two games because he's been given permission to leave early for Sochi in order to carry the Slovakian flag during the Olympic opening ceremonies. Also, Adam McQuaid has missed the last seven games with a leg injury.
Chara averages 25 minutes per game, a hefty load to replace. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Bruins are 7-6-3 without Chara in the lineup, and 320-197-62 with their captain.
The Bruins recalled rookie defenseman David Warsofsky from Providence of the AHL to make up for Chara's absence. That means Boston will have Boychuk, Dougie Hamilton, Matt Bartkowski, Torey Krug, Kevan Miller and Warsofsky on the blue line for the next two games.
Boychuk's presence and contributions will be even more important as he'll be the veteran member of the team's blue-line crew.
"They are going to expect a lot out of me," Boychuk said. "As a defensive core, we have to step up and not try to replace what [Chara] brings to the table, but just step our game up individually and just try and keep it simple out there."
Julien said he hopes Boychuk doesn't feel any added pressure to perform with Chara out of the lineup.
"You're going to need a lot more than Johnny to be solid the next two games in order to win," Julien said. "It's going to be important our whole D core does a really good job, so you can't put all the burden on one guy's shoulders. As much as Zee is a big part of that back end, other guys have done a great job in making our whole D core pretty solid. We all know when you lose a guy like Zdeno it's a big, big piece of your team and you move forward. To me, it's an opportunity for us to demonstrate even more how good we are as a team versus just looking at individuals."
With the Canucks trailing Tuesday, coach John Tortorella decided to tweak his line combinations and put Ryan Kesler with Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Julien answered by putting Chara and Boychuk together. Even though Boston had its two top defensemen as a pair, the coach made sure to credit the other pairs of Krug-Miller and Bartkowski-Hamilton for their contributions.
"These guys are doing a great job, so as much as we give credit to those two veterans shutting down the top line, those younger guys are doing a great job at dealing with the rest of the stuff," Julien said.
It's going to be interesting to see how this young blue line reacts without Chara's presence, especially against a team like the St. Louis Blues, whom they'll face Thursday.
"That's a good test for us," Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. "They're a great team. We know what the situation is and everybody has to step up when you're missing a guy or two. That's going to be the case in St. Louis and we're up for the challenge for sure."
At the start of the season, a lot of the focus was on the Bruins' young defensemen. With everyone healthy, the thought was Krug, Hamilton and Bartkowski would compete to stay in the lineup. Things have changed since training camp, and due to numerous injuries, opportunities have been earned.
Everyone has responded and contributed in different ways, and even though Julien trusts his current defensive unit, it will be tested in the next couple of games without Chara. We'll also get a better idea of how well Boychuk can handle the veteran role.
"These guys that we have back here, they don't play like rookies, that's for sure," Boychuk said. "I am pretty sure that they will do a great job."
Spoken like a true leader.
Johnny Boychuk will be asked to fill a bigger role on the Bruins' defense.