BOSTON – For most of the Bruins, this week’s four-day wait between games has been excruciating.
For Johnny Boychuk, it’s a piece of cake. After all, he had to wait 48 days between his last two games.
This fall, Boychuk earned a full-time NHL job out of training camp for the first time in his sixth season as a professional. But that full-time job came with very part-time hours. Boychuk is the Bruins’ seventh defenseman, which has left him sitting up the press box for most of the year.
He filled in for an injured Dennis Wideman for three games in October, but once Wideman returned, Boychuk was back in a suit on game days until Saturday. That was when Bruins coach Claude Julien opted to give struggling Matt Hunwick a night off, and Boychuk finally got his chance to play again. He made the most of it as he scored his first career goal in a 7-2 win over Toronto.
“I never even thought about it until it happened,” said Boychuk of the goal, which made it 6-0 at 12:26 of the third period. “You always think that you’re gonna go end to end and put it top shelf, but that usually never happens.”
Boychuk’s goal wasn’t quite a Bobby Orr-esque coast-to-coast rush, but it was an impressive tally nonetheless. He took a feed from David Krejci and blasted home a one-timer from the right point.
“I don’t know that too many goaltenders would have stopped that shot to be honest,” said Julien immediately after the game. “It was a rocket. It was a great pass and he stepped into it. What a great way to come back into the lineup and get some confidence from things like that. I thought he played well.”
Julien amplified his praise for Boychuk during the week as the club prepared for Thursday’s rematch with the Leafs.
“He’s a good physical presence,” said Julien of the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Boychuk. “He didn’t try to do too much, but did the right things.”
What Boychuk did right most of all was how he handled being a healthy scratch for so long. Many players would have sulked or pouted, or even whined and complained about the lack of playing time. Not Boychuk. He instead contributed what he could in practice and helped create an enjoyable atmosphere in the Bruins locker room with his positive attitude.
“The guys really respect him for having to go through that and keeping a good attitude,” said Julien. “He’s well liked in the dressing room. His practice habits are pretty good. He works hard. He’s not afraid to any extra (work). When those guys do those kind of things eventually they get rewarded for it and you feel good about seeing them being rewarded for those sacrifices that they make for the betterment of the team.”
For Boychuk, staying upbeat was a no-brainer. While he would have loved to have been playing every game, he was still living out a dream just being in the NHL after toiling for half a decade in the minors.
“I just figure if you’re going to be negative, you’re just going to put yourself behind the 8-ball,” said Boychuk. “Keeping positive always helps everybody no matter what. If you get in, you’ve got to stay positive. If you’re a negative person, you’re probably going to play bad anyway, so you might as well give yourself a chance to play good.”
Boychuk has played well when he’s been in the lineup. He’s a plus-2 with four blocked shots in his four games while averaging 15:21 of ice-time. He’s used his size effectively to provide a physical presence with 12 hits, and he’s done it wisely. He has yet to put the Bruins short-handed, with his only penalty a fighting major as he tried to spark the club by taking on Phoenix heavyweight Paul Bissonnette back in October.
Boychuk’s more than willing to do such dirty work, but he’s also got plenty of skill. He won the Eddie Shore Award as the American Hockey League’s top defenseman last year with Providence after tallying 20 goals and 66 points in 78 games.
With his cannon from the point, Saturday’s goal shouldn’t be his last, but in typical Boychuk fashion he downplays his potential offensive contributions.
“Hopefully I do score another goal, but you can’t really think about it, you just play the way that you’re going to play,” said Boychuk. “If you do score or get a point, that’s great. You just want to help the team win. That’s what comes first before your own stats no matter what. If you do it the opposite, I guess you’re not a team player.”
That’s one thing no one will accuse Boychuk of. He proved that with his attitude throughout the season, even agreeing to go back to Providence last week on a conditioning stint to get in some game action. He was called back early from that when Julien decided to sit out Hunwick following Friday’s rough outing in a 5-1 loss at Montreal, ending Boychuk’s stint with the Baby B’s after just two games.
Boychuk did manage to tally one goal for Providence before he left, blasting a shot eerily similar to Saturday’s score Friday night in Portland.
“More or less the same exact play, except I hit the water bottle and it popped up and broke in pieces,” said Boychuk with a smile. “I was trying to do the same thing (Saturday). It didn’t quite go that well.”
Boychuk may not have sent the water battle soaring again, but it was still a pretty sight – even if Boychuk gave all the credit to Krejci.
“He just put it right in my wheelhouse,” said Boychuk. “It was right in the perfect spot. I just had to hit the net because I was going to shoot as hard as possible, so I just wanted to hit the net.”
With that, Boychuk had his first career NHL goal. Now comes the bigger goal – keeping his spot in the lineup.
“That’s the whole goal, just try to play as well as possible and if you do come out, you can’t really whine and complain about it,” said Boychuk. “It’s for a reason, obviously. So you just have to go back to practice and work hard. That’s what you have to do, make it tough on them so it’s a tough decision for them so hopefully they don’t want to take you out.”
It won’t be easy. Hunwick is a team-worst minus-4, but he also leads all Bruins defensemen with four goals and the club isn’t going to give up on up any time soon. Wideman and Derek Morris were both shaken up on Saturday and have missed some practice time this week, which could open a temporary opportunity for Boychuk. If not, he’ll just keep biding his time, and do it with a positive outlook no matter how tough sitting out can be.
“It’s hard,” admitted Boychuk. “You’ve just got to come and have a smile on your face all the time, no matter what.”
Douglas Flynn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.