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Question Marks with Young Blue Liners Will Hang Over Bruins’ Offseason

With the Canadiens coming into the TD Garden and beating the Bruins 3-1 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, the B’s hopes of hoisting a second Stanley Cup in four seasons came crashing down.

Looking back on the series as a whole, several issues will have to be addressed by the Bruins before the 2014-15 campaign starts up in October, with this year’s Bruins team falling well short of their preseason goals.

An area that could see some changes is that of the defense. Once a Boston stronghold, the blue line was weakened by injuries this season, most notably to Dennis Seidenberg and Adam McQuaid, leaving coach Claude Julien to thrust young players Matt Bartkowski, Dougie Hamilton, Torey Krug, and Kevan Miller into the everyday lineup.

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“One thing that really hurt us probably moving forward is we had a lot of first-year players in our lineup and you could see tonight that there was a lot of nervousness,” Julien said after the Game 7 loss. “At the same time, this time of year you got to play your best hockey of the year. And I don’t think we got to that point. I don’t think we played badly but we certainly weren’t playing as well as we could to be a team that would move ahead.

“No doubt it’s a disappointing night for us, but at the same time I think our young guys this year did a great job of stepping in for some serious injuries to certain of our players and had a real good season. So maybe it came back to haunt us a little bit, but certainly not disappointed with our team.”

Krug’s excellent power play ability and quick skating merited him a permanent spot on the blue line, as well as the vastly improved play of Hamilton, who seemed to get better and better each time he took the ice paired with Zdeno Chara.

Bartkowski and Miller, however, could be two question marks heading into next season.

There is no doubt that Bartkowski has talent, he showed that when filling in during the end of the Maple Leafs series and for the entire Rangers series last spring, as well as suiting up for 64 games this season with a plus/minus of +22.

But his youthful miscues were on full display in this year’s semifinal against Montreal. Taking two penalties in Game 1, he could only watch from the penalty box as P.K. Subban scored on both ensuing power plays, including the one that won the game in double overtime.

He was benched in favor of Andrej Meszaros for Games 2 and 3, and in the five games he played this series, he found himself in the penalty box for 10 minutes, with the Canadiens scoring on three of the five power plays he gave them.

In Game 7, Bartkowski just stood in front watching the puck as Dale Weise snuck into the crease and Daniel Briere found him wide open for the first goal of the game just 2:18 into the game.

Miller this season filled the role left when McQuaid went down, bringing a physical style to the third defensive pairing. Although the elder of the four young defenseman – he’s 26 years old – he has the least NHL experience, totaling just 47 NHL games going into the playoffs.

Miller’s most glaring error came in Game 6, when he had a pass from Torey Krug go off of his stick and in front of the Bruins’ net. Attempting to atone for his mistake, he accidentally tripped Tuukka Rask from behind, leaving the net wide open for Lars Eller to backhand the puck in.

Julien felt that the young blue liners learned some good lessons with this loss that can help make them into better players going forward.

“They got experience throughout the whole year but we didn’t play a Game 7 in Detroit; we played five games,” Julien said. “So this was their first Game 7 experience, and you know, say what you want — it’s a lot different than a Game 5 or 6 and all of a sudden there’s more — if you don’t play well, there’s a lot of pressure and you just got to hope that your young players will learn from that and go from there.

“Give those guys credit — they did a great job of allowing us to have a good year. So there’s no doubt that there was maybe a lot on their plate in these last few games and maybe could tell a lack of experience and the nervousness… I’m not using that as an excuse, I’m just saying that to me that stood out tonight as far as guys maybe not being at the top of their game.”

The Bruins currently have Chara and Seidenberg signed through 2017-18; Hamilton is still in his entry level contract; and Miller is signed for two more years. McQuaid and Johnny Boychuk’s contracts expire after next season, while Bartkowski and Krug's just ended.

GM Peter Chiarelli will have some decisions to make during the offseason on whether to resign Bartkowski and Krug, or whether to extend McQuaid and Boychuk before the year, or wait and see what happens, knowing that they have several capable defensemen waiting in the wings.