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Hunwick learning to stay within his game

10.05.09 at 2:23 am ET
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It ended up being nothing but an afterthought as the Bruins went all FEMA in shuttering the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night, but it was a significant third-period goal for second-year defenseman Matt Hunwick in extended garbage time. The 5-foot-10, 187-pounder struggled to regain his feel early in the preseason, but all it took was one aggressive offensive play to conjure up images of the playmaking defenseman that carved a spot for himself by the end of last season.

Hunwick scored the seventh and final goal for the B’s in the rout over the Canes, and tasted a bit of on-ice revenge despite never making it past one playoff game against the Canadiens. Hunwick was crunched against the boards in that brutally physical Game 1, and the defenseman quickly bowed out of the series with a ruptured spleen.

That seemed like a million hockey years ago, though, as the 24-year-old logged time on the penalty kill and even earned a few power play minutes in the weekend rout. He’s still clearly not where back to the level he finished at last season, but he’s getting closer to form when he’s logging minutes on Boston’s man advantage in the third period while playing in Julien’s meritocratic team structure.

“It’s nice to know that my role on the team is appreciated, and I’m just going to keep doing the things that got me here in the first place,” said Hunwick. “I think physically coming into camp I felt great, and I think on-ice it took me at least a week to feel comfortable. During the summer you try to emulate what you’ll do [during the season], but it’s never the same. It took a little while [to feel good in camp] but it’s getting to the point where I’m feeling pretty good.”

Saturday night’s power play tally was a solid reminder of the dynamic, unpredictable presence that Hunwick can bring to the B’s defenseman corps when he’s playing with confidence and surety. It’s a look that’s pretty varied from the skill sets employed by the other members of Boston’s defensemen crew. Hunwick employs a loose, freelance style on the offensive end when it’s permissible, and picks crucial spots to pinch in from his spot near the blue line.

It’s exactly how the young defenseman converged on his power-play strike. Marco Sturm spotted Hunwick moving in toward the backdoor from his left point position, and the young defenseman didn’t miss his mark when Sturm zipped it on his tape at the far post. Perfect executive. Perfect offensive aggression. Pretty damned close to a perfect power play possession.

There was a legitimate, built-in excuse for Hunwick, of course, when he progressed a bit slowly in the preseason while coming off the splenectomy surgery. The blueliner endured a busy offseason that was probably a bit more jumbled than even he might have liked. Hunwick spent the first half of his summer gaining weight and muscle back after losing more than 10 pounds following his emergency surgery, and then spent several weeks waiting for a new contract with the Bruins.

It all worked out as Hunwick regained full health and was back near his playing weight by the time September arrived, and he worked out an amicable agreement with the Bruins for a two-year, $2.9 million contract. The deal served as a healthy pay raise for a defenseman that finished tied for top scorer among rookie defenseman in the NHL last season, but it also had its price. The shiny new contract perhaps raised expectations for Hunwick within a team that’s already living in a world of raised expectations this season, and the results have been a slow process. 

“Practicing with his teammates certainly helped, and he’s just got to keep going about regaining that confidence,” said Julien of Hunwick. “With some guys they’re out there looking to justify their new contracts and other guys are going into their contract years. There are a bunch of different situations, but the bottom line is that you need to go out there and play.

“What you do as coaches is bringing them back and letting them know that you shouldn’t do more because you’re looking for a new contract. And you shouldn’t be putting more pressure on yourself because you’ve got a new contract, and think you should be helping the team more. You go out there, and you’re either rewarded or you will be rewarded for your play. Sometimes less is more. You’ve heard me say that quite a bit. With [Hunwick] he wants to show that he’s a big part of our hockey club, and all he has to do is play the way he did last year. For me, he was as good a defenseman as we had for a while there last year.  

Julien recognized a player in Hunwick that was perhaps trying a little too hard to justify the extra zeroes in his bank account, but the young defenseman wasn’t any kind of lost cause. He was instead quick to say that it’s only a matter of time before Hunwick settled back into his second-half game, and his first goal of the season and 17:16 worth of ice time were both encouraging starting points.

Read More: Claude Julien, Marco Sturm, Matt Hunwick,
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