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Pouliot forming new identity

Left wing using his size, strength

By Fluto Shinzawa
Globe Staff / December 30, 2011
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GLENDALE, Ariz. - For Bruins left winger Benoit Pouliot, Wednesday’s game-winning play in overtime against the Coyotes started with defense.

Dennis Seidenberg had pinched down low on the right side. Pouliot, reading Seidenberg’s rush, rotated to the right point to cover for the defenseman. But when the puck came out to the point, Pouliot instantly transitioned from defense to offense.

Pouliot lugged the puck down the right-side wall. He turned his back to shield the puck from Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle, and after curling around the net, he fed a backhand dish out front to Chris Kelly.

The two couldn’t connect, but the puck landed on Seidenberg’s stick. An instant later, Seidenberg’s shot had glanced off defenseman Derek Morris and bounced past goaltender Jason LaBarbera to give the Bruins a 2-1 victory.

It was a power move by a player who is becoming a power forward.

“It’s something I’ve needed to work on,’’ Pouliot said of the skills - hard skating, puck protection - required of his current role. “Since I’ve gotten here, I think I’ve gotten a little better at that.

“I’m using my size and my strength down low. I can protect the puck. It’s just a matter of sticking with the play.’’

Pouliot proved in junior that he had the size, speed, and shot to be a top-six skilled forward. Those characteristics prompted the Wild to select Pouliot with the fourth overall pick in 2005, three slots behind Sidney Crosby.

Pouliot showcased those talents last Friday in a head-turning sequence against the Panthers at TD Garden. After the Bruins won a defensive-zone draw, Pouliot raced forward with the puck, going one-on-one against Florida defenseman Dmitry Kulikov. Pouliot dangled around Kulikov, tucked the puck between his legs, then beat goalie Jose Theodore with a backhand swipe.

With the Bruins, his third NHL organization, Pouliot has settled into a third-line role. And not necessarily as a skilled player. The 25-year-old is establishing an identity as a grinder. It is no coincidence that with a more focused sense of self, Pouliot is making his biggest impact as an NHLer.

In 29 games, he has seven goals and three assists while averaging 11:01 of ice time. Once a healthy scratch battling with Jordan Caron for a regular lineup spot, Pouliot has settled in on Kelly’s flank on the No. 3 line. He has even earned shifts on the No. 2 power-play unit of late, serving as a net-front presence.

This current role is not one that Pouliot initially expected upon his introduction to the NHL. But it may be the one that will suit him best for the rest of his career.

In terms of former Bruins comparables, Pouliot may have expected to be more like Blake Wheeler - a big, clever, offensive forward. Now, he projects to be a wing like Peter Schaefer - a bottom-six grunt who uses his size and puck-protecting abilities to contribute offensively.

“Over time, some things change,’’ he said. “I like what I’m doing and the job I have to do right now. It’s been a big change. At the same time, if I get a chance to go on the power play, I’ll do my best out there. But that third line’s been awesome.’’

It hasn’t been the smoothest transition. Even now, Pouliot is a herky-jerky skater. But he doesn’t fall as often as he did earlier this season.

Pouliot is improving his positioning in all three zones. He has become a more dependable player, which is a quality that has earned him more of his boss’s trust.

“His confidence is certainly getting better,’’ said coach Claude Julien. “I think he’s finding his identity as far as what it needs to be to fit in with this hockey club.

“It’s just playing within his strengths. He’s a big, tall guy that can protect the puck well. He’s got some high-end skill. He showed that a few games ago.

“All that just comes into a package that really helps him become the player that he is.’’

Rich Peverley, out the last two games because of an undisclosed injury, made it through the entire practice yesterday at Arena. Peverley said he should be ready to play tomorrow against Dallas. “Everything feels good,’’ said Peverley, who has been nursing his ailment all year. “The team’s playing pretty well, so you don’t want to mess anything up. But hopefully I can get back in on Saturday. I’m ready to go.’’ If Peverley can play, Zach Hamill will be the healthy scratch . . . Johnny Boychuk had no limitations in practice after taking a puck below the belt Wednesday that left him doubled over in pain, both on the ice and on the bench . . . Following practice, the Bruins retreated to their hotel in nearby Scottsdale. They will travel to Dallas today.

Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeFluto.

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