Rerun a hit for Rolston
WILMINGTON - Brian Rolston figures he is up to speed, which isn’t to say he’s the same lightning-legged winger who broke into the NHL with New Jersey nearly 20 years ago and saw his name etched on the Stanley Cup with the Devils in ’95. But he’s here, at age 39 and with ample gray marbled through his emerging postseason beard, and thus far his second tour of Bruins hockey has been a near-perfect fit.
“I had to get in game shape, obviously, and get comfortable with what was expected of me,’’ he said Monday, shortly after the Bruins concluded a brief tuneup at their practice facility with the Stanley Cup playoffs about to begin. “But it wasn’t a long learning curve, because this is a defense-first type of team, and after playing for Jacques [Lemaire] . . . Claude [Julien] has a little different approach, of course, but overall it’s the same school.’’
Lemaire and Julien, longtime pals who once were neighbors at the same summer vacation spot, both made their coaching bones on low-risk, defensive hockey. That approach has always played to Rolston’s strengths, though it may have held back some of his career offensive numbers (761 points in 1,256 games). For his combination of blazing speed and booming shot, a different mind-set, different teams and different coaches along the way might now have him closing in on 500 career goals (vs. 342) and 1,000 points.
His role here and now, with the Bruins set to defend the Cup they won last June, isn’t really to be a prolific producer, even if he did emerge as one of the club’s top point-getters soon after being acquired from the Islanders at the March 27 trade deadline. In 21 games, Rolston picked up three goals and 15 points, most of them while working right wing on a trio with Benoit Pouliot and Chris Kelly.
For the most part, Rolston was acquired to add veteran depth to the forward corps, help on the penalty kill if so required, and provide Julien with another option on the power play, usually parked at the point. He has done all of that for the last six weeks, and he has also provided surprising offensive pop, often while the top two lines, anchored by David Krejci and Patrice Bergeron, struggled to put up points.
“He wasn’t playing a lot on Long Island,’’ said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, noting that Rolston wasn’t one of Boston’s primary targets leading up to the trade deadline. “But that’s often the way it is with guys. If you remember, [Mark] Recchi was struggling in Tampa when we traded for him; [Chris] Kelly wasn’t doing a lot in Ottawa, and Atlanta was shuffling [Rich] Peverley in and out of the lineup. So it’s our job to figure out what part of a guy’s game can help us, and [Rolston] had the legs and the shot. But let’s be honest. It’s not like we can claim him as some great discovery, because a lot of clubs knew they could have him if they wanted him.’’
In fact, some 48 hours before Chiarelli swapped for him, Rolston was placed on waivers. At his age, to be dropped on waivers is essentially to go from red line to pink slip.
“I’ll tell you what, to be honest, it definitely crossed my mind,’’ mused Rolston, asked after Monday’s workout if he felt waivers signaled the beginning of his end. “I thought when I got to the Island that I’d have a little more responsibility than I did. But it didn’t work out that way. Then all of a sudden it didn’t look like I had anything. So to get this new opportunity has been great. I feel like I’ve taken advantage of the opportunity, and I feel great. It’s been rejuvenating.’’
As trade day approached its 3 p.m. close, Chiarelli, with few options in the market, swapped for Rolston and fellow Islander Mike Mottau, surrendering only prospects Yannick Riendeau and Marc Cantin.
“Both [Rolston and Mottau] have worked out very well for us,’’ noted Chiarelli. “With Rolston, it looks to me like his shot’s gotten a little bit better since he joined us, and his skating, too. That’s usually the way it is: you skate more, you skate better.’’
“He’s been a good addition to our hockey club,’’ added Julien, also noting Rolston’s skating and shooting skills. “He joined that Kelly line and that’s a pretty solid third line for us right now. When we picked him up, we were hoping [Nathan] Horton’s situation would be better, but it hasn’t been quite as bright as we hoped.’’
Horton, the club’s top right winger, has been sidelined because of concussion-related issues since late January. The odds are slim he’ll play this postseason.
The Washington Capitals, who’ll be in Boston Thursday for Game 1 of Boston’s 2012 playoff season, could force the Pouliot-Kelly-Rolston line into more of a defensive role. The underachieving Caps have had limited playoff success, in part because they’ve lacked overall defensive structure so critical at playoff time. They nonetheless have some of the game’s most dynamic forwards, including superstar winger Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. To keep all of those guys in check, Rolston and company may have to forfeit some of their newfound offensive ways for old-fashioned checking.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons,’’ acknowledged Rolston, whose first tour with the Bruins began in March 2000, when he was acquired in the deal that sent Ray Bourque to Colorado. “So as a penalty killer, you’ve got to be looking around a lot, be aware of where those guys are all the time. Ovechkin’s gifted, and he knows how to score goals. No question, they can be tough.’’
It all begins Thursday. For all the years he has been around, Rolston has never played more than 10 games in a playoff season. Since 2004, he has played in only 23 playoff games. The Bruins needed 25 last spring to win their first championship since 1972.
“This has been good,’’ he said. “To be put in this situation, and feel like you’ve got a purpose . . . what more can you ask for?’’