When it began, the Boston Bruins prospect was just that: a prospect. But after two successful seasons under his belt in Providence, the defenseman entered the 2009-10 campaign in the final year of his contract with one goal in mind: getting his first taste of the NHL.
Little did he know back then where he’d be sitting now.
September's training camp went well for the then 22-year-old McQuaid, who saw consistent ice time during preseason action. Still, on Sept. 26, he was assigned to Providence. Boston was heavily represented on the blue line at the time with Johnny Boychuk slotted as the club's seventh defenseman, and that certainly played a role in McQuaid's trip down I-95. Plainly, though, he also needed more seasoning at the American Hockey League level.
But a funny thing happened in the first two-and-a-half months of the AHL season. McQuaid picked up right where he left off after Providence's deep playoff run a year ago — playing reliable, shutdown defense against the opposition with his partner, Andrew Bodnarchuk. As the D-men grew into their roles and established themselves as plus players, the pair also began adding offense.
In McQuaid's first 29 games of the season, he scored three goals while dishing out seven assists. Sure, 10 points in 29 games may seem insignificant for a top-scoring forward, but for a blue liner with 27 career points in 172 prior contests, 10 points was substantial. The steady, physical, stay-at-home defenseman was rounding out his game.
And then the phone rang. At a youthful 23 years of age, McQuaid was heading to the National Hockey League for the first time.
On Dec. 19, just four days after his recall, McQuaid made his NHL debut on the road at Toronto. He played a fair amount, just under 10 minutes, and settled in with nerves coming and going throughout the night. After seven more games, four more weeks and a cameo in warmups at the Winter Classic at Fenway Park, McQuaid returned to Providence.
From there, the season turned into a whirlwind. From the time McQuaid was assigned to Rhode Island on Jan. 18 to the NHL's Olympic break less than one month later, he went up and down between leagues three more times, appearing in another seven games for Boston while scoring his first career NHL goal, a game-winner in Montreal.
Then, McQuaid's year took an unexpected turn. After a fourth trip back to Providence while the NHL took its scheduled February hiatus, McQuaid found himself eager to return to the club’s shutdown tandem with an increased role and responsibility. But one night, on his way back to bed after a bathroom visit, he tripped over his still unpacked suitcases and hit his head on the nightstand. The fall forced the smooth skater to miss Providence's next seven weeks of action, amounting to 22 games. Suddenly it was April, a mere one week remaining in the AHL’s regular season and, seemingly, McQuaid's season as well.
"I wasn't even really thinking about [going back up]," reflected McQuaid on his time off the ice. "I wanted to get back in games, but mostly, I wanted to get back skating and feeling good again."
After missing Providence's first two games during the opening weekend of April, McQuaid made his return to the ice that April 4 at Portland, his first game action since Feb. 13. With Boston's defensive corps decimated by injuries, a one-game AHL tuneup was all that was required of McQuaid, who was summoned by the Bruins the following morning.
"To be honest," recalled McQuaid, "At times, I would've thought there wouldn't be any more chances this year, but fate would say otherwise."
With four games remaining in Boston's regular season and a playoff push still in play, McQuaid returned to the parent Bruins' lineup for the fifth time, growing in confidence and comfort with each passing shift. After spending nearly 17 minutes on the ice in Boston’s regular-season finale at Washington, it was playoff time.
Because of injuries to fellow defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Mark Stuart, McQuaid became much more than another practice body or set of eyes on the Garden's ninth floor. McQuaid represented the only 2009-10 P-Bruins regular to begin a chase for the Stanley Cup.
"I never gave it any thought, especially after having been out hurt for a while," McQuaid said of the opportunity to play in the NHL postseason. "I was just hoping to get into some games before the year was over. The whole year, I tried not to think too far ahead and just take things as they come."
That's been a learned skill for McQuaid in what has been a very unique season.
"I've never really had the opportunity to settle down anywhere," said the third-year pro. "It's been a lot of ups and downs, literally, but I haven't really thought about it much. I think once the season’s over and I have some time to just relax and reflect on everything, I’ll be pretty happy with how the season went … a lot of firsts and a lot of great memories."
Among those memories, McQuaid's first call-up, first NHL game, first goal and the playoff games, which he says have been an unbelievable experience. The best possible memory at season’s end, though, is not yet a memory but rather a dream — a chance to raise Lord Stanley's Cup and bring the Bruins their first championship since the 1971-72 campaign.
With Boston holding a firm 3-1 series lead over Buffalo after Wednesday's double-overtime win, the Bruins are poised for a second straight trip to the second round of the postseason. That said, McQuaid, who played a career-high 17:55 in the Game 4 victory, isn’t thinking ahead. It's now his nature to focus solely on the task at hand. In this case, that’s winning Game 5 in Buffalo and preferably going unnoticed along the way.
"Since I've turned pro, I’ve worked hard on my game," he said. "Obviously, coming in I knew that I was going to be more of a shutdown guy, and I’ve wanted to excel in that role. I take a lot of pride in my responsibilities on the ice, and, especially now, I'm realizing that if you play a simple game, then a lot of the time that’s probably the best-case scenario. It keeps me out of trouble, and sometimes, if you go unnoticed out there, it can be for the better."
This season, no matter the level, the adversity or the stakes, the mild-mannered McQuaid has done his job quietly, simply and efficiently. But he definitely hasn’t gone unnoticed.