PHILADELPHIA -- Dave Bolland is affectionately known as "The Rat" in the Chicago Blackhawks dressing room, a term of endearment that takes on an entirely different connotation the moment he steps out on the ice.
Just ask some of the top-line opponents he has faced.
Like Vancouver's high-scoring Sedin twins, whose faces turned a shade of red brighter than their hair during the second round when they were neutralized by Bolland and aggravated enough to get several front-row seats to the action from the penalty box.
Or San Jose's Joe Thornton, who insisted he wasn't getting irritated in the Western Conference finals by the "little guy" he kept lining up against. Funny thing is Jumbo Joe turned into Dumbo Joe by slashing Bolland off a crucial faceoff late in Game 2 and taking a penalty that contributed to a critical loss at home and the Blackhawks' eventual sweep of the Sharks.
"It was a love tap," Bolland recalled. "When the ref drops the puck, you're supposed to go for the puck. He went for a wrist. ... I think he got mixed up."
That could be, although there seems to be no confusion for Flyers captain Mike Richards in these Stanley Cup Finals now that he has gotten reacquainted with the player he faced often as a junior.
"He's a good player," said Richards, who is minus-3 and managed his only point in the first two games on a power play when Bolland wasn't on the ice. "I'll give him that."
Giving him that, however, doesn't begin to describe the impact the 23-year-old center is having on Chicago's run at its first NHL title in nearly a half century. While Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Dustin Byfuglien have been garnering most of the headlines for the Blackhawks in the playoffs with their scoring exploits, Bolland has been making an equally important, if more subtle contribution thanks in large part to his unique ability to be, well, a pain in the ass.
Bolland has matched up against everyone's top line and has consistently found a way to get in people's faces. You know, just to say hello, maybe exchange some tips about where to dine after games and always to take just enough liberties with his stick or glove to give the referees a reason to wonder if he merits a penalty or not. It is a graduate study in Pest-ology, a science perfected in the 1980s and '90s by Dale Hunter, who along with brother Mark happen to own and coach the London Knights junior team Bolland starred for.
|Gm 1||BLACKHAWKS 6, Flyers 5|
|Gm 2||BLACKHAWKS 2, Flyers 1|
|Gm 3||FLYERS 4, Blackhawks 3 (OT)|
|Gm 4||FLYERS 5, Blackhawks 3|
|Gm 5||BLACKHAWKS 7, Flyers 4|
|Gm 6||Blackhawks 4, FLYERS 3 (OT)|
|Home team in CAPS|
"They taught me a lot," Bolland said with a grin.
Apparently. Right now Bolland is putting those lessons into practice while quietly establishing himself as one of the NHL's premier shutdown artists. It's a talent that seems at odds with Bolland's reputation for being offensive-minded when Chicago drafted him 32nd overall in 2004, and it requires a little pride swallowing. But Bolland, whose nickname is a tribute to Ken Linseman, one of the NHL's premier agitators of the 1980s, says he doesn't mind playing a role that has become vital to teams with true championship aspirations. Even if it tends to go somewhat unnoticed by the masses.
"You do what you have to do to win for this team," he said.
In Bolland's case, the defensive prowess he is demonstrating is difficult to overlook because it has created opportunities for him to contribute on the offensive side. He is fifth on the Blackhawks in scoring in the playoffs with six goals and 12 points. Included in that total are two short-handed markers, a game winner and a primary assist on an overtime goal in the San Jose series that made Byfuglien a hero in Chicago for scoring it.
|Dave Bolland and his checking-line mates have been adding offense to their defensive work. (Getty Images)|
"Last year he was at that level where he was a top player. This year we were looking for that day where he got back to that pace and that standard that we look for him to be at. He's found that level here in the playoffs."
Fortunately for the Blackhawks, considering Bolland missed half the season while recovering from back surgery. Bolland got to Chicago for half a season in 2007-08 and became a full-time regular last year, helping the Blackhawks get to the conference finals and getting rewarded with a five-year, $18 million contract as a result. But he was suffering from a herniated disc at the outset of this season, managing only six points in 13 games before deciding to go under the knife in mid-November. Bolland returned in early February but struggled to get his game back in gear.
"It was definitely a challenge because I've never been off for that long in my whole career," Bolland said. "To do that and to come back, just to find out my speed, get my strength back and everything, it was tough."
Maybe that's why Bolland has described these playoffs as a second chance. And why he is relishing his role anchoring Chicago's third line with wingers Kris Versteeg and Andrew Ladd or Tomas Kopecky. Not only has the unit been effective keeping the other teams' best line off the score sheet for the most part, it has been creating what Quenneville describes as good offensive zone time, a luxury not usually associated with those whose primary responsibility is checking.
And Bolland is happy to do it, especially with the way he is getting to do it.
"When I know I'm in someone's head, there is a bit of an energy that comes to me," he said. "I don't know what I do to get in someone's head, but it's fun and I enjoy it."
So do the Blackhawks.