While Dougie Hamilton was in the midst of playing 17 straight games to finish the regular season, the Boston Bruins defenceman couldn't help but think back to last year.
"I was kind of in and out at this time," he said. "Right now I'm trying to earn my spot in the playoffs and be physical and trustworthy and things like that and make them want to play me in the playoffs."
Mission accomplished, and then some. At the tender age of 20, Hamilton is a mainstay in the Bruins' Stanley Cup playoff lineup and isn't going anywhere when the second round starts against the Montreal Canadiens later this week.
Hamilton isn't a rookie anymore and though his recent concern about playing time had to do with Boston's absurd depth on the blue line, he's not afraid to use "C" words to describe the difference a year makes.
"I'm just more experienced and more comfortable with everything and kind of playing more consistently and not in and out and stuff like that, so it makes it a lot easier and more fun as well," Hamilton said last week in Detroit.
Calm, cool and collected can also describe the Toronto native, who had a goal and three assists in the five-game Atlantic Division semifinal series against the Red Wings. Hamilton had a pretty end-to-end goal in Game 3 and then took the shot that Jarome Iginla tipped for the Game 4 overtime winner.
But his impact goes beyond production.
"He's got a real good vision making plays and finding those holes," coach Claude Julien said. "He's really come along. We've been working with him as far as the defensive part of his game, and he's improved a lot there, too."
Hamilton being an offensive dynamo isn't surprising. In his final two seasons with the OHL's Niagara Ice Dogs, he was more than a point-a-game player.
The instincts have always been there, but now the six-foot-five, 199-pounder is getting some polish to his game. A couple of times when he pinched in Game 3 of the Detroit series, Hamilton said he made the same play he would have a year ago but thought a bit more about the risk this time, positioning his stick correctly to make sure he didn't get beat.
On the ice, Hamilton doesn't think about his gradual improvement very much. He simply feels better about his game.
"It's just you get used to things and more comfortable around your teammates and everything like that," he said. "It just happens and you keep getting better and more comfortable and the game slows down and everything just gets a little bit easier."
Hamilton is making it look easy despite having just over 100 games of NHL experience. That probably shouldn't be a surprise given that he was a highly touted prospect and the ninth overall pick in 2011.
That's a selection that could have belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but it was one of the two first-rounders then-general manager Brian Burke sent to Boston in exchange for Phil Kessel. The other one, of course, was used second overall in 2010 on Tyler Seguin.
Seguin is gone, dealt to the Dallas Stars in the move that got the Bruins Loui Eriksson and Reilly Smith, but Hamilton could grow into the kind of player who makes Boston the winner of the Kessel trade. And while it's hard to compare Kessel, 40-goal scoring winger, with Hamilton, puck-moving defenceman, the latter's growth is a boon to the Bruins.
"He's gotten stronger," Julien said. "A young player last year coming in the league halfway through the season — you had the lockout. This year, he knew what to expect, and I think he's playing with more and more confidence all the time."
Hamilton appeared in just seven playoff games during the Bruins' 2013 run to the Cup final after playing in 42 of 48 regular-season games. He had reason for apprehension late in this season only because Boston had a plethora of extra bodies on the blue line with the acquisitions of Andrej Meszaros and Corey Potter.
But it's not like either of those defenceman has the ability to unseat Hamilton, especially the way he has been playing for the Presidents' Trophy-winning Bruins.
"It's obviously fun to be a part of it and contribute," Hamilton said. "I think for me just trying to keep doing the same things and keep working hard and just keep having fun that way. It's more fun when we're all playing well and winning."