BOSTON — The Bruins have been searching for a long-term combination for the first-line throughout the 2014-15 season and they might have found the best possible trio in Tuesday’s 4-3 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
David Krejci and rookie forward David Pastrnak have played on the top line for the last few games, and this duo was joined by Milan Lucic, who has played with Krejci for most of his even-strength shifts over the last four-plus years, during the second period against the Lightning.
Head coach Claude Julien’s decision to reunite Krejci and Lucic alongside a skilled right winger in Pastrnak paid immediate dividends as the line scored on two of its first three shifts. Pastrnak scored an incredible goal and Lucic added another tally nearly four minutes later.
“We got (Lucic) back on our line and he’s really big and a smart player,” Krejci said. “That helped and it gives me and (Pastrnak) confidence to hold onto the puck knowing that Looch is going to come help you out if there’s a battle with the puck, and he never loses battles. I thought we played a pretty strong game and hopefully we’ll continue playing the same way.”
Jarome Iginla’s free-agent departure last summer created a hole at right wing alongside Krejci and Lucic. Losing a 30-goal scorer and an important part of the NHL’s third-best power play is a tough hole to fill, and the B’s have tried a few different players in that position this season, including Loui Eriksson, Seth Griffith, Craig Cunningham and Simon Gagne.
Pastrnak has impressed the most out of that group and his chemistry with Krejci is building with each game. Tuesday’s matchup was his second straight game with two goals, and he drew high praise from his center.
“I thought today was his best game even though he scored two goals in Philly,” Krejci said. “I didn’t think we played that well, but today I thought we played pretty good as a line and especially his first goal was pretty amazing, and he was also important for our team. I thought he played well and hopefully we’ll build on that and we’ll be even better next game.”
The next game is the last one Pastrnak is able to play before the Bruins must decide to burn the first year of his entry-level contract or send him back to the Providence Bruins. At this point, keeping him at the NHL level is the most logical choice.
Boston’s offense, which has seen decreases in 5-on-5 and power-play scoring compared to 2013-14, has needed another a right-handed shot all season. Pastrnak’s right-handed shot features power, accuracy and a quick release — all attributes the B’s need more of in their top-six. The 18-year-old winger also is a skilled playmaker with the hockey IQ of a veteran.
“He’s a good skater, he’s a skilled player, he’s got a good shot and whenever he gets an opportunity to join the rush and attack he attacks the net and challenges goalies that way,” Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask said. “A good example is that goal, the one goal he scored kind of coming off the wing with speed and going around. We don’t necessarily have too many guys like that, so it’s a really good sign and he’s been red-hot now. Just got to find a way to keep that going for him.”
Pastrnak also isn’t a liability defensively, and his two-way ability gives him an edge over other young Bruins prospects.
“His speed, his skill level, was never an issue,” Julien said. “But he’s becoming more reliable in other areas as well and he’s not afraid to go in the corners. He doesn’t have to lay hits he just has to be smart enough to come up with the puck and not afraid to go to the front of the net. So, I’ve seen a real big improvement in his game.”
A Lucic-Krejci-Pastrnak trio gives the Bruins physicality, playmaking skill and goal-scoring ability on the top line, which is a versatile combo that puts pressure on opposing defensemen. Acquiring top-six wingers before the trade deadline is expensive, which is one reason why filling the first-line right wing spot with Pastrnak makes sense.
That said, asking Pastrnak to be Boston’s savior is unfair. While he’s certainly capable of providing offense, the Czech winger has never played in more than 36 professional games in a single season. Pastrnak also doesn’t have the ideal physical frame (5-foot-10, 170 pounds) to withstand a ton of physicality over the rest of the regular season and playoffs.
Regardless of which decision is made, Pastrnak’s development from the summer to now is very encouraging. He’s going to be a focal point of the Bruins’ attack, whether it’s this season or some time in the near future.
“That’s not my decision,” Pastrnak said. “I’m just trying to play my best for the team and that’s all that I’m focusing on.”
Thumbnail photo via Winslow Townson/USA TODAY Sports Images