BOSTON —Ben Harpur has been trying his best, but the towering presence on Ottawa’s blue line will admit he caught himself doing a little star-gazing in his NHL playoff debut the other night.
You can’t blame him, really: captain Erik Karlsson had just sent a tape-to-tape saucer pass from Ottawa’s goal-line to Boston’s blue line, sending Mike Hoffman on a breakaway. Just like that it was 1-0, Senators.
“I caught myself watching it for a second,” said a grinning Harpur, who stands six-foot-six. He’d been on the ice with Karlsson for the play.
“As a kid, I never thought I’d be playing in a playoff series in Boston, one of the best rinks in the league, playing alongside one of the best players in the game,” he added.
Well, here he is. And with defenceman Mark Borowiecki day-to-day with a lower-body injury, and Harpur impressing in his two games in this series so far, he may get a chance to make his home playoff debut Friday, as the Senators look to close out their series against the Bruins, now up 3-1 and one win away from the second round.
A fourth-round pick in 2013, Harpur spent most of this past season in the AHL and got called up in April when the Senators ran into injury trouble. Wednesday’s Game 4 victory was just his 13th NHL game, and he saw 16:35 of ice time and had a shot on net, his second of the series.
To hear the 22-year-old call the experience “kind of surreal” makes sense when you hear his back story.
Harpur grew up in Niagara on the Lake, playing his minor hockey with the Niagara Falls Canucks, which he called “not a very good team.” He was a forward until age 15, when his minor midget coach, Rick Ferroni, moved him back so he’d get more time with the puck.
Harpur had about two months of experience on the point when the Guelph Storm took him 43rd overall in the 2011 OHL draft.
“When I was 15, I barely knew what the OHL was,” he says. “Everything took off pretty quickly.”
So, too, did his frame. In Grade 10, Harpur stood about five-foot-nine. By the time he was drafted, he was six-foot-three.
“I had some growing pains, but I knew it was coming,” he said. “My dad’s six-foot-six, so I knew I was gonna shoot up eventually.”
That height and reach is certainly a welcome addition for the Senators. Harpur uses a custom-made stick that’s three or four inches taller than regulation (he’s not sure, exactly).
But what has impressed coach Guy Boucher most is Harpur’s composure. “He’s got so much poise handling the puck, and protecting it and making the play,” Boucher said.
“Since Christmas, all I kept hearing was 'this guy’s ready, this guy’s more than ready,'” the coach added. “We brought him up at the end [of the regular season] under a lot of pressure. We were missing three of our top four Ds, and he played up there longer than 20 minutes in all aspects of the game. And he was unbelievable.
“You look at him [in Game 3] he looked like a vet.”
Some of that poise might be hereditary. Harpur’s father, George, is a surgeon in Niagara Falls (and wasn’t able to attend his son’s playoffs debut because he couldn’t cancel a surgery.)
“He’s really laid back, and people always say we have similar personalities,” Harpur said. “I’m pretty laid back and calm, and that’s always been a part of my game.”
It’s a game he’s modelled in part after the captain on the opposing team, fellow big man, Zdeno Chara, and he’s picked up on some of the things Chara does. “I remember going through my junior days, coaches and my agent would tell me guys similar to him around the league that you can watch and learn from,” Harpur said.
Last season, Harpur played a game against Boston and found himself standing next to Chara during a scrum. “That was one of the few times in my life that I felt like a midget,” he said, grinning. “There’s not many guys that are taller than me, but he’s a big boy.”
Harpur had help growing into his body, thanks in large part to Ferroni. He was also a skills coach for Harpur, and the two worked together in the summers. Harpur said moving back to defence and working on backwards skating wasn’t a big challenge because Ferroni is big into “Russian figure skating stuff,” as he put it.
Just as it took him some time to grow comfortable in that frame, Harpur is feeling more comfortable with each playoff game. In Game 4, his second taste of the NHL post-season, there was a turnover at Ottawa’s blue line, and big No. 67 found himself charging up ice and into the Bruins zone with the puck.
“Thinking back on it now, I probably should have shot,” Harpur said. “[Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy] made a good play on the one-on-one to stand me up there…It all happened pretty quickly.”
You could say that about his entire career, really. Harpur is hopeful he’ll get a chance to play in front of the home crowd during the playoffs for Friday’s Game 5 after spending the first two in the press box.
“Being in the crowd for Games 1 and 2, especially Game 2, when the team made that comeback, it was pretty loud,” he said. “It would be a lot of fun if I’m in the lineup.”