Improved as a D-man, Miller still defending Bruins teammates to forge bonds

Matt Kalman
October 12, 2018 - 5:32 pm

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The most important thing Bruins defenseman Kevan Miller did during the Bruins 4-1 win against Edmonton on Thursday was team up with defense partner Matt Grzelcyk to shut down the Oilers’ second line of Leon Draisaitl, Milan Lucic and Kailer Yamamoto.

Playing against the Miller/Grzelcyk pair most of the night Draisaitl landed one shot on net during 5-on-5 play while his linemates failed to land a 5-on-5 shot on net.

But Miller, a 30-year-old veteran who has an alternate captain’s A in the past, did something else against the Oilers that resonated during the game and could continue to in Saturday’s game against Detroit and the 76 games plus playoffs after it.

It took nearly 10 minutes of playing time in addition to the 18-minute intermission between the first and second period to take place, but Miller delivered retribution to Edmonton forward Jujhar Khaira for a borderline hit thrown at Bruins defenseman John Moore late in the first period.

Although Moore wasn’t seriously injured on the hit, Miller couldn’t let Khaira get through the game without answering for his actions. Despite a 3-1 lead, Miller challenged Khaira after a faceoff in the Oilers zone and two hard-nosed players brawled for close to 20 seconds, with Miller probably winning the fight on points because of numerous jabs landed with his left hand, which was also holding the collar of Khaira’s sweater.

“I think it’s a precedent that you want to have as a team that we have each other’s backs and we all do in here,” Miller told after practice at Warrior Ice Arena on Friday. “Not every time you’re going to be able to go out and give retribution or fight the guy ... once we set that precedent that we all have each other’s back, it’s good for the group, I think.”

Through hard work in the offseason with skills coaches and a personal trainer, Miller has transformed himself from a fringe NHL player to a defenseman the Bruins trust in many crucial situations at even strength and on the penalty kill, and one that had a career-high 16 points last season.

But Miller hasn’t abandoned the physicality and blood-and-guts play that helped him make it to the sport’s highest level after going undrafted. He’s averaged about three or four fights a season and his bout with Khaira was his first this season.

Miller said that when a scenario like the one with Khaira comes up, there are positives and negatives to he weighs. A loss in a fight could shift momentum of the game. There are also health risks, as Miller has experienced and witnessed. He was injured in a fight with Buffalo’s Nicolas Deslauriers in 2014. And Arizona’s Joe Vitale’s fight with Miller in 2015 was Vitale’s last act in the NHL before he had to retire due to concussion complications (although Vitale has said his struggles weren’t directly related to just the fight with Miller).

These days Miller has a wife, Haley, and 10-month-old daughter, Remi, to consider too. But the California native still has a job to do between and after the whistles.

“To be honest with you, it’s part of my job. It’s whatever you have to do to help the team. You definitely are aware of it, but I try to live with that ‘hey, I have to worry about getting injured,’” Miller said. “You block a puck, you can get injured. You get hit, you can get injured. It’s just kind of the way it is. There’s so many ways you can get injured, you just have to play the game in front of you.”

It’s well established that fighting, especially the premeditated kind, has vastly declined the past several years in the NHL. Despite what analytics devotees and pacifists will tell you, fist-throwing still has a place in the game. It’s not just about retribution; it’s about establishing a culture.

The younger Bruins players, most of whom are skilled players, need to know they’re going to be defended by their older, more rugged teammates. Newer Bruins, like Moore, have to know that month after signing up with Boston they’re part of the family. Brothers have each other’s backs.

Bruins forward Anders Bjork, now in his second NHL season, comes from college hockey at Notre Dame, where fighting is prohibited. He’d heard how fighting can resonate with a team, but he’s learned firsthand that’s it’s even more important than he realized.

“He’s going to battle for us, so I think that inspires everyone else to kind of want to battle for each other more,” Bjork said.

Championship teams are made up of players of all different types that provide the lineup with different ingredients. Miller has become a player that can impact a game by making a play or messing up an opponent.

He showed that Thursday, and his actions against the Oilers could pay off all the way through May and June.

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