Torey Krug’s typically the diminutive defenseman among the Bruins’ blueliner corps that racks up points, and in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final against the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday he picked up three assists.
But fellow undersized defenseman Matt Grzelcyk stole the offensive spotlight from Krug in Boston’s 6-2 win, scoring two goals in a NHL game for the first time in his career. The Bruins now lead the series 2-0 heading to Carolina for Game 3 on Tuesday.
Krug enjoyed watching his less-heralded teammate have a coming out party.
“Yeah it was fun to watch,” Krug said. “You know I’ve been one of Grizz’s biggest fans since he came in the league and we joke about it all the time now that we have a couple of guys under 5-[foot]-10 winning games in the National Hockey League and three defensemen under six foot [with 5-11 Connor Clifton], we’re causing havoc and doing the job.
Krug and Grzelcyk, both 5-9, can joke around now because they and the Bruins are two wins from the Stanley Cup final. The lack of size on the Bruins’ left side behind 6-9 Zdeno Chara, though, wasn’t a laughing matter at this time last year when the Bruins were getting thrown to the curb by the Tampa Bay Lightning in five games in the second round of the playoffs. Even as recently as the start of Boston’s second-round series with Columbus, I was doubting whether Boston could get through heavier teams with Krug and Grzelcyk in their defense corps.
General manager Don Sweeney was clearly concerned about it too, because he invested $2.75 million over five years in 6-foot-2, 210-pound John Moore as an unrestricted free agent last summer.
Now the Bruins have a chokehold on their NHL semifinal series and Moore is an afterthought, relegated to eighth spot on Boston’s depth chart with Kevan Miller out injured.
Krug and Grzelcyk, meanwhile, are proving that there was no reason to worry about their size disadvantage because of their full tank of natural talent, hard work ethic and savvy. Evan against Columbus in the second round, and against a Hurricanes squad that has its own significant amount of bulk, Grzelcyk and Krug have not been exploited.
The Hurricanes clearly came out of the gate in Game 1 think they could rough up the Bruins’ pint-sized pair of defenseman Warren Foegele took a shot at him away from the puck not long after the game’s first shift. Krug still turned in 21:23 of strong two-way play.
It was Grzelcyk’s turn to take an early-game beating in Game 2, when Micheal Ferland ran him over near the Boston bench. Ferland didn’t discourage Grzelcyk, he only made him stronger.
“Well, it was terrific. I mean, I think it lifts our bench when you get drilled pretty good … scores a goal, whatever it was, two shifts later, so certainly gives us a lift,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “I’m not surprised. He’s a tough kid.”
Krug and Grzelcyk’s relationship dates back to Bruins development camp in 2012. Krug had just made his NHL debut that spring after signing with Boston as a college free agent, and Grzelcyk was drafted that June. They gravitated to each other and Krug, four years Grzelcyk’s senior, took the Boston University -bound Grzelcyk under his wing. They kept in touch while Krug’s pro career progressed and Grzelcyk matriculated at BU.
As a NHL rookie in 2013, Krug had the type of offensive performance – four goals and two assists in 15 games – during the Bruins’ run to the Stanley Cup final that foreshadowed the type of career he was going to have, and inspired an interested Grzelcyk.
“Watching him in the playoffs, that was inspiring to me,” Grzelcyk told WEEI.com. “I was only a freshman at BU and it was still kind of new. I think the way the game’s going now there’s a lot of smaller defensemen, but not really in a while. And he kind of made that impact that was very motivating for me to want to get to that level.”
Now Krug’ defensive game should also be inspiring to Grzelcyk and all smaller defensemen out there. As part of a defense pair with Brandon Carlo that usually goes over the boards a five-man unit with Patrice Bergeron’s forward line, Krug has helped stifle Carolina’s most fearsome offensive threat Sebastian Aho, and his linemates, through two games in this series. Aho had one shot on net in Game 2.
“I think we’ve limited their odd-man rush opportunities and I think that’s been a strength of not only our defensive pairing and that line but our team in general,” Krug said. “If we can squash this line in the neutral zone and really limit their chances off the rush then it doesn’t allow them to get any momentum going and then in the defensive zone it’s just clamping down on time and space.
This performance comes on the heels of Krug and Carlo bottling up Columbus sniper Artemi Panarin in the latter half of Boston’s six-game victory in the second round. Could it be that Krug is emerging as a “shutdown defenseman” rather than just an offensive blueliner? Perhaps the NHL game has changed just enough that speed and smarts can win over brawn and size, and opened the door for the Bruins to actually win a title with two 5-9ers in their defense corps.
We have a couple more weeks to find out, but so far Krug and Grzelcyk are proving people wrong and leading the small defensemen revolution.
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