The Bruins couldn't come up with the victory in Washington Tuesday night despite a game effort from their youthful lineup against a Capitals roster comprised mostly of NHL regulars as Boston fell 3-2 in preseason action.
But the most important thing the Bruins may have taken away from the contest is a little more comfort in Blake Wheeler's ability to play center.
That's the position Wheeler played at the University of Minnesota, and that's not exactly ancient history for the 24-year-old third-year pro.
"I used to play there," said Wheeler after the morning skate at the Garden before departing for Washington. "It takes a little time to get used to all the skating. There's a lot more skating in the middle. That in itself is a little bit of an adjustment, but it's not that big of a deal."
Wheeler has played almost exclusively on the wing since turning pro and making the leap straight to the NHL with the Bruins in 2008. But Tuesday night, he spent much of the game at center between Joe Colborne and Jeff LoVecchio and didn't look out of place. He finished with two shots in 17:37 of ice-time, and handled himself well on draws, winning six of 11.
At the same time, both Colborne and Zach Hamill failed to seize the opportunity to lay claim to the club's opening for a third-line center. Hamill took a costly penalty late in the first period to negate a Bruins' power play and had no shots in 15:42, while Colborne had just one shot in 15:16 and found himself moved to right wing in favor of Wheeler for much of the game.
Wheeler admitted Tuesday morning that he's grown to like playing on the wing as a pro, but he's willing to do whatever the team needs.
"When I was younger I played a lot of center and I liked it better," said Wheeler. "But as I got older I kind of preferred the wing a little bit more. At this stage, you really don't need preferences. It's just wherever you can help the team. That's all that matters at this point."
With Colborne appearing to need some time to further develop his game in Providence, Hamill failing to distinguish himself and Ryan Spooner being returned to his junior team, it's looking more and more like either Wheeler or top pick Tyler Seguin will be moved to center to start the season.
Seguin is a natural center, but he's shown some early chemistry on a line with center Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi, and the Bruins may decide that keeping him with those veterans is the best course for his development. That appears a more palatable option now that Wheeler has displayed an ability to handle the job at center if needed.
The Bruins also have some intriguing options on the wing that could benefit from shifting Wheeler. Jordan Caron has had an excellent camp and Brad Marchand had a statement game on Tuesday as he tries to secure a spot with the big club to start the season.
Marchand scored Boston's second goal with a perfectly placed top-shelf wrister in the third period, while also creating several other scoring chances playing on a line with Hamill and Milan Lucic. Marchand's biggest asset is his ability to get under the skin of opponents and give the Bruins the kind of agitating presence they've lacked in recent years. But if he wants to play regularly in Boston, he also has to prove he's got the skill to contribute offensively.
"We like that element of his game," said coach Claude Julien after Tuesday's morning skate. "He can agitate and sometimes throw players off their games. … There's a fine line that exists there and if he doesn't go overboard, he's very, very useful. And, not only that, but he's also a guy when you look at him in practice and you look at him shoot the puck and everything else, he's got some skill. I think he just has to find that confidence in the game to be able to let that skill shine a little bit more."
Marchand was able to shine a bit on Tuesday night. Now it just a matter of finding out if it was enough to keep him on the big stage when the games start counting for real.
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