SAN JOSE – There aren’t too many NHL players that have seen as much ice time as Dan Boyle since the end of the previous work stoppage.
From 2006-07 through 2011-12, Boyle finished in the top 10 in ice time in five of six seasons. In 2010-11, just two years ago, Boyle was second in the league with more than 26 minutes per game.
This year? The 36-year-old’s time has been scaled back dramatically. The defenseman played an average of 22 minutes and 47 seconds, which barely had him in the top 50 (48th).
“Some nights it’s an adjustment for me,” said Boyle. “I’m used to playing more, and sometimes I find myself sitting a little bit longer."
The decision by the coaching staff wasn’t because of Boyle’s age. Mostly, it’s because Boyle has not been used in shorthanded situations as much lately. In fact, he has yet to register a single second of ice time when the Sharks are down a man through the first two games against Vancouver.
That could be viewed as an indication that the Sharks know how important Boyle is to their team, as he’d be more likely to suffer some sort of injury while blocking a shot on the PK.
Boyle has been among the Sharks’ most effective players in the first two games of the first round against Vancouver. He scored the game-winning goal in the third period of Game 1, and assisted on Patrick Marleau’s late, game-tying goal in the third period of Game 2.
“It was a conscious decision to try and get him down a little bit, spread it out,” Todd McLellan said. “We knew the type of schedule we were going to face coming out of the lockout, and it’s hard to play 30 minutes a night or 28 minutes a night with that schedule.”
Boyle said: “At the end of the day, it’s probably a good thing that I didn’t play as much as I used to in the past. I feel good right now, that’s all I can say.”
So, who has picked up the minutes that became available with Boyle’s more frequent rests?
Justin Braun is averaging two more minutes of ice time through the first two games than he did during the regular season (aided just a tad by the five-minute overtime in Game 2).
Braun (20:59) even played more than Boyle (19:39) in Game 1. Along with Marc-Edouard Vlasic, he was frequently up against Vancouver’s line of Daniel and Henrik Sedin, and Alex Burrows.
“It hasn’t been a very good offensive season for me, so I tried to transform a little more defensively,” said Braun, who had seven assists but no goals in 41 games. “Playing with Eddy made me a little more shut down, and a simple game, and maybe I contribute more that way.”
When the Sharks traded key penalty killer Douglas Murray to Pittsburgh in late March, it was hoped that some of the younger defensemen would fill that void. Braun, 26, has helped to do that.
“I think after Cranky got traded they called on the younger guys to step up and fill a little of that role,” Braun said. “I can’t say I’ve blocked as many shots or hit as much as him, but I kill penalties and work hard out there. Just kind of find my role, and embrace it.”
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Much like they did with their forward group, the Sharks have uncovered three defense pairs that they consistently roll on the ice. Vlasic leads San Jose with 23:33 of ice time through the first two games, but no Sharks defenseman has played less than 15 minutes in either game.
Compare that with Vancouver, which played third pair Andrew Alberts and Frank Corrado just 12 minutes in Game 1 and is altering its pairs for Game 3, presumably searching for a better balance.
San Jose doesn’t have that problem.
“Very similar to what happened to our forwards, we’re just balanced,” Boyle said. “We have six d-men right now that can play in every situation. It’s just a balanced attack, not only with or forwards, but on the D side.
“Whatever works, as long as we’re winning hockey games.”