Injuries not holding blueliners back

The Boston Bruins received some great news Monday when Marc Savard was cleared to return to game action in time for the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Even though the Bruins' opponent in the second round has yet to be determined, having Savard's playmaking presence in the lineup will be a huge boost to the offense.

On the defensive side, however, the Bruins will again be without Mark Stuart, who continues to recover from a hand infection that forced him to miss the entire quarterfinal series against the Buffalo Sabres. During a conference call Tuesday morning, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli did not sound too optimistic about Stuart's return.

"He's still a little bit a ways away," Chiarelli said. "I don't anticipate seeing him in this next round."

Fellow blueliner Dennis Seidenberg (lacerated forearm tendon) has been working out for the past week, but he won't be able to return to the lineup unless the Bruins reach the Stanley Cup finals.

"They probably won't want me to play if they reach the finals," he said recently with a smile.

With Stuart, Seidenberg and Andrew Ference battling injuries down the stretch and into the playoffs, the rest of the defensive corps has stepped up and been terrific for the Bruins. Ference, who has dealt with a groin/hernia problem all season, was able to return for the first-round series against the Sabres. But it's been the standout play of Zdeno Chara, Johnny Boychuk, Dennis Wideman and Matt Hunwick that has solidified the blue line for Boston.

The pairing of Boychuk and Chara has logged most of the ice time, followed by Wideman and Hunwick, with Ference and Adam McQuaid finishing it off.

Boychuk, especially, has been a key component for the Bruins this season. He started the season as the team's No. 7 defenseman, spent time in Providence (AHL), and did not dress for a total of 24 games (coach's decision) for the Bruins this year.

When he was needed, however, he took control of his opportunity and has become a top defenseman for Boston.

It seemed after every game of the quarterfinal series against the Sabres, Bruins coach Claude Julien was asked about Boychuk's contributions. On Tuesday, Chiarelli was asked the same thing.

"He had a tremendous year last year [in Providence, where he was voted the AHL's top defenseman] and I have to give him credit in that he came in as a seven and didn't get a heck of a lot of ice time -- if any -- to start the year," Chiarelli said. "He worked hard and I think he benefited from working with the group and practicing with the coaching staff. You've seen his game grow since he was given the chance."

Chiarelli used the word "enthusiastic" when describing Boychuk's game, and that's a perfect way to put it. He's solid on the defensive side and has a blistering slap shot. He's physical and enjoys laying guys out with the ability to deliver an open-ice hit (just ask the Sabres' Matt Ellis).

Anything the coaching staff has asked him to do, Boychuk has done.

"Johnny has been great for us," Julien said. "He's just a determined individual and he wants to make his mark. He's doing a good job making his mark."

Being paired with Chara has certainly helped Boychuk's cause this season.

"He has the required skill set, so to speak, and physical skill set to play with Z," Chiarelli added. "He's really contributed and makes a difference on the ice. Most of all, I like the fact he competes and has a big body and he crashes and bangs in D-zone coverage."

Boychuk, 26, has also shown the ability to know when to jump into the play offensively and has the speed to get back on defense when necessary.

"He's been a very good contributor for us," Chiarelli said.

Boychuk hasn't been the only young defenseman this season who has stepped up for the Bruins in the wake of injuries.

Hunwick was also given an opportunity, and he has succeeded, too. The 24-year-old played 76 games for the Bruins and posted six goals and eight assists for 14 points. Chiarelli noticed earlier in the year that Hunwick would hesitate with the puck, but now the young blueliner is skating with it and making plays. As a result, he collected four assists in the first round of the playoffs.

Boychuk and Hunwick have proved to be important factors.

"We're really counting on everybody," Chara said. "It doesn't matter if the guy's playing 10 minutes or 30 minutes. Everybody's important on this team and we play as a team, so the age doesn't really matter."

Wideman also deserves a lot of credit for his quick and much-needed turnaround.

The 27-year-old struggled mightily during the season. It got to a point that he was being booed at the Garden every time he touched the puck. When he did have the puck, he would turn it over or wouldn't be able to make a play. In the last few games of the regular season, however, he turned a corner and has been very good in the playoffs, posting one goal and three assists against the Sabres.

"Dennis had a very serious confidence problem," Chiarelli said. "He was bobbling pucks, and he wasn't competing the way we were used to seeing. You know what? He just found his game. That happens. Confidence can turn things quickly, and guys find their game."

Wideman has been another player Julien seems to be talking about after every game of late.

"When he puts his mind to it, and he's determined, that's what you get out of him," Julien said.

Joe McDonald covers the Bruins and Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.