By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — The Bruins don’t need 6-foot-5, 208-pound defenseman Brandon Carlo to be The Incredible Hulk.
They don’t even need him to be Zdeno Chara or Adam McQuaid.
They just need the second-year pro to play with enough snarl to maximize his effectiveness while attempting to shut down some of the opposition’s biggest offensive stars and move the puck with accuracy and authority up to Boston’s forwards.
During Carlo’s resurgence the past couple weeks, the Bruins coaching staff hasn’t had to flog Carlo or make him eat screws and bolts with his cereal. Easy enough, all they’ve had to do to get him to play with an edge is coach him.
Coach Bruce Cassidy and his staff have implored Carlo to play more aggressively, and it’s paying off.
“Definitely, I feel like listening to that advice has brought my whole game around,” Carlo said. “I feel like I’m moving the puck a little bit better in aspects. I feel stronger in front of the net and stuff like that. I love when they talk to me like that and give me that advice. I feel like I have a lot of respect for those guys and whatever they say I’m going to take to heart. And it’s a good time to do so as well.”
For the mild-mannered Carlo, playing mean admittedly doesn’t come naturally. It takes a lot of self-awareness, in addition to coaching and encouragement from his teammates, to get him riled up for the betterment of the Bruins’ cause.
“Occasionally it’s something that I’ve got to bring myself up to do, I won’t lie about that,” he said. “I feel like I definitely have it in me, it’s just a matter of thinking about it a little bit more and applying myself to the game.”
The 21-year-old, who has six assists and a plus-10 rating this season in 75 games, had potentially his best game of his sophomore NHL season Thursday. If I told you earlier this season that the Bruins would take over first place in the Atlantic Division with a 4-2 win against Tampa Bay, and the line of J.T. Miller, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov would combined for one even-strength shot on net, you would have assumed that Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy were playing the shutdown role.
But with the Bruins playing without their two defensive stalwarts because of injuries, Carlo and Torey Krug grabbed that prime assignment and aced it while matching that Tampa Bay trio nearly shift for shift. The Lightning’s top line won the Corsi battle by finding room on the perimeter to fire shots wide and into Boston’s bodies in front. Carlo and Krug (with help from Patrice Bergeron’s forward line), however, made sure the best line of the league’s top offensive team rarely tested goaltender Tuukka Rask.
“That was great. A heavy matchup. Obviously they’re one of the best lines in the league and they can definitely put pucks through the net,” said Carlo, who led the Bruins with 23:47 of ice time. “I feel like we did a really good job of keeping them to the outside, and communication between me and Torey for closing off the post was good when they were wheeling around the net. So I felt like we had good chemistry.”
After apprenticing as Chara’s defense partner as a rookie last season, Carlo was expected to take the next step in his development this season. He was a frequent partner of Krug’s early on, but sometime around midseason Carlo’s play dropped way off. He was a healthy scratch Feb. 25, a game that was sandwiched between two games he played under 16 minutes.
The Bruins’ recent four-game road trip against challenging Central Division teams reinvigorated Carlo to the point where he was able to start and finish the game against the Lightning paired with Krug, as opposed to the game in Winnipeg on Tuesday, when Cassidy broke up that pair after the first period.
Carlo had plenty of chances to exert his newfound physicality on the trip and he showed it off in Dallas, where he picked up a boarding penalty (a sign he was looking to bash some bodies) and even got away with the type of things aggressive veterans can get away with.
“In that same game I was in front of the net and was boxing a guy out after the play and kind of cross checked him in the face a little bit,” Carlo said. “Those are the little things that [the coaches] appreciate and if that’s what they want I’ll do it.”
Carlo’s recent play has impressed Krug.
“It seems like he’s just playing, he’s not worrying about what’s going on,” Krug said. “If he does make mistakes he’s going to make hard mistakes and the other team is going to pay for it later on. For him he’s skating well, he’s got a little bit more confidence with the puck. And if I can help him in any way with that, I try to do my best.”
A concussion prevented Carlo from getting his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs last spring, so these past five games have given him a glimpse at the future. Every time he tried to move the puck up the right wall against the Lightning, Carlo took a hit to make a play. He’s actually starting to thrive on that type of play.
“I didn’t really get blown up too much,” he said. “I think letting those guys bounce off of me is only going to tire them out as well. So I don’t mind if they come down and hit me and take themselves out of the play. I prefer that, honestly.”
For a while it looked like Carlo might miss this year’s playoffs because of ineffectiveness as opposed to the injury that kept him out last year. Now as long as he stays mean enough, he could combine with Krug to give the Bruins the type of No. 2 defensive pair they had in their glory days with Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.