David Pastrnak

Younger Bruins ready to follow the lead of vets with Game 7 experience

Younger Bruins ready to follow the lead of vets with Game 7 experience

BRIGHTON, Mass – To hear David Backes tell it, a Game 7 is a completely different animal.

“I liken it to almost a 60-minute overtime intensity kind of game. Playoffs are a notch up and a Game 7 is another notch up where every play is magnified and every hit matters,” said Backes, who was on the winning side of a pair of Game 7s in the St. Louis run to the conference finals in 2015-16. “Every puck needs to get in and every shot needs to get blocked with all of our bodies in front.”

It’s something that young hockey players dream about growing up with game-winning goals scored in their driveways and those scenarios dancing through their heads along with the imaginary adulation and visualized glory.

That’s the message that Bruce Cassidy was trying to get across to his team prior to a pressure-packed Wednesday night Game 7 against the Toronto Maple Leafs at TD Garden that will decide who faces Tampa Bay in the Stanley Cup playoffs second round.

Certainly, there's a lot on the line for the Bruins and Leafs, but it’s also the kind of big stage any athlete worth their salt fully embraces.  

“Game 7, they talk about pressure versus embracing the moment. Pressure to me is [Monday] in Toronto with those first responders. They were under pressure. That’s pressure to me...real-life pressure. This is a game that players dream about being in this situation...Game 7,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Playing road hockey in a small town in Canada or playing in a big city in the United States or somewhere in between, that’s what it’s all about. Enjoy the moment. Prepare to play well and now you’ve got to go out and embrace it. That’s the simplest message we can give to our players: Do your job, do it well and trust the guy beside you that’s done it all year. That’s the mentality we have to have for a full 60 minutes.”

All of the leadership and the wise words from Backes, Zdeno Chara (tonight will be his 12th career Game 7, tops among all active NHL players) and Patrice Bergeron (nine career Game 7s before tonight) can certainly be a difference-maker for the Bruins as opposed to the younger, less experienced Maple Leafs. 

That leadership and experience come into play in a major way to get the young, inexperienced Bruins ready for their first Game 7. Rookies Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen, Jake DeBrusk, Matt Grzelcyk and Sean Kuraly will all be playing in their first career Game 7 and even David Pastrnak. a more experienced young player, will participate in his first do-or-die Game 7.

“It’s do-or-die for both teams now. It’s two good teams going at it and we’re going to be ready to play our best hockey. That’s the only way to approach it,” said Kuraly. “We tried to approach each of the last two games like a Game 7 and a must-win, but now it really is that. It’s higher stakes and we need to compete at the highest level we can and have faith that what we’ve done all year is going to work.

“We know we can follow the lead [of the veterans] and if we follow their lead, trust in them and follow them like we have all year, it’s going to work out just like it has all season for us.”

Clearly, there will be nerves and jitters with their playoff lives on the ice, but to a man, all of those young players pointed toward their proven, grizzled, veteran leaders that who have been on the winning and losing sides in their distinguished careers.

“You realize that this game is important. The pressure, though, you don’t want to feel any of that. You know what’s on the line and you know you have to show up and play. You have to break through and I think we will,” said McAvoy. “There is a lot of confidence in this locker room still. We’ve had such a good year and we still have the confidence in this room that we can get the job done.

“I know [Zdeno Chara] will be ready to go, so I’m going to have to lean on him. I know it’s going to be very emotional with the home crowd, and with what’s at stake. But you grow up dreaming of playing in these moments in a Game 7, so I’m going to enjoy every single moment of it.”

On the other side of it, Toronto's Jake Gardiner, James van Riemsdyk and Patrick Marleau have all been on the losing end of plenty of Game 7s and their younger guys Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander have never been there before. 

Boston’s experience and leadership married with their strong rookie class should be the major difference-maker in this high-pressure game. Then again, that’s why they go out and play the games. Game 7 experience will go by the wayside once both sides are sucked into the pace and style of the deciding game in a series that’s been a bit of a rollercoaster ride.


Bruins are banking on their experience advantage in Game 7

Bruins are banking on their experience advantage in Game 7

TORONTO – The Bruins have always done things the hard way in the Stanley Cup playoffs and that often means pushing playoff series all the way to a Game 7. That’s exactly what the B’s have done again in their best-of-seven, first-round series with the Toronto Maple Leafs after dropping a 3-1 decision in Game 6 at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night.

The Bruins certainly can look back with regret that they were up 3-1 in this series with a couple of chances to close it out before it got to this point and even further back at the commanding lead they had after a couple of blowout wins at home to start things out. Perhaps they thought it was going to be easier than it was before Toronto goalie Freddie Andersen stole a couple of games and before the Toronto defense managed to hold Patrice Bergeron’s line down for three games while also scoring goals with them on the ice.

Now, it’s all about a winner-take-all Game 7 on Wednesday night, where none of the rest of that matters and the Bruins are still the better team despite the way things have played out in the past couple of games. Zdeno Chara will be playing in his 10th Game 7 with the Bruins and he’ll be leading his Black and Gold group with the knowledge that he’s been there and done it before.

The same with Bergeron, who will also be playing in his 10th Game 7. He is really the heart-and-soul player that everybody knows will be bringing his best into that do-or-die contest and will be leading a wave of youngsters in their first experience with it as well. Even David Pastrnak. who's viewed as a tried-and-true, 21-year-old veteran at this point, will be experiencing a Game 7 for the first time in his NHL career when he takes the ice against the Leafs.    

“It’s always how it should be. When you’ve lived it, you want to share that experience,” said Bergeron. “We have some amazing young players in this locker room and I know they’re going to step up. That’s the approach that we have.

“Everyone just needs to go out there and play, and step up their game up and rely on everybody else to do the same. Do your job, I guess, is kind of the cliché, but that’s how you have to approach [a Game 7].”

Brad Marchand hasn’t played in as many Game 7s as Bergeron or Chara and his time in those games has led to very mixed results. Marchand scored memorably in the Game 7 win over the Vancouver Canucks in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and was a big factor in that game and teamed with Bergeron for the game-winner vs. the Leafs in the 2013 first round. But Marchand also self-destructed in the Game 7 loss to the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of 2014 when he took a penalty for giving Carey Price a snow job on a quick hockey stop at the net and has never really been a dominant player in those instances as he is so much of the rest of the time.

With that in mind, Marchand is trying to take more of an even-handed approach to Game 7 while knowing that his team’s fate rests very much in the hands of his line: In the Bruins three losses, Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak have been shut out with a minus-16 rating while getting contained by Toronto. The Bruins agitator and leading scorer knows none of that stuff matters now, however, and it’s all about the one game still sitting in front of them.

That’s one big thing that experience will teach you in the playoffs. What happened yesterday doesn’t matter anymore and it’s all about that present moment while there’s still playoff life still left to be lived in the series. It’s those kinds of lessons where the Bruins should have a massive experience advantage over a young, inexperienced Toronto team that really hasn’t been there before, but at the end of the day, it’s all about how the players, both veteran and inexperienced, operate on the ice under the winner-take-all pressure.

The Bruins will host the Game 7 in a building where they’ve been extremely good this season (28-8-5 in the regular season) and where they should have the confidence that things will tilt back in their direction.  

“That’s playoff hockey. Regardless of what’s happened tonight or any other game, we’re going to let it go. It doesn’t matter. We just have to worry about the next one. We’ll focus on that and let this one go,” said Marchand. “If anybody would have told us at the start of the year that we’d be going into a Game 7 in the first round at home, we would have taken it. Obviously, it’s tough given the position that we’re in, but you look forward to that next game.

“It’s the only thing that we can control. Whatever has happened in the last six games doesn’t mean anything. We’re going to be out there fighting for our lives and it’s going to be fun. It’s going to be a challenge. They’re a great team and they’ve played really well in this series. It’s gonna be fun and we’re looking forward to it.”

It might be a challenge for the veteran Bruins to convey the “fun” of a one-game scenario where their season could come to a sudden end, but that’s where the leadership comes in for Bergeron, Marchand, Chara and David Krejci, who have been there many times before in Game 7s for better and for worse.