They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and that most certainly applies to the competitive world of the NHL.
The Bruins didn’t end up hoisting the Stanley Cup last summer, but they did end up as one of the final two teams playing for Lord Stanley’s chalice at the very end. They made it that far partially because of the incredible circumstance of all four top playoff seeds amazingly ousted in the first round, but also in large part due to the high-powered, dominance of their top line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak.
Of course, the Perfection Line was effectively bottled up in the Stanley Cup Final by the Blues and that turned out to be a major storyline behind Boston’s ultimate defeat in the ultimate playoff.
Still, that didn’t discourage the Black and Gold from continuing with the Perfection Line setup this season and the results are impossible to argue a little more than a month into the regular season.
Pastrnak is tearing up the NHL with 14 goals and 29 points in 14 games, Marchand is right behind with 28 points after his second five-point game of the season (three assists and two goals, including the game-winner in the final two minutes in the 6-4 win over the Penguins on Monday night) and Bergeron is on pace to be a 40-goal scorer and point-per-game player as the NHL’s best two-way center.
The trio has been the best line in hockey the past two seasons, but they are taking it to a different level lately after getting bottled up against the Blues last spring.
They are a handful for any opponent on any night and unstoppable on nights such as Monday when they have their chemistry working and one of them goes off, as Marchand did, when the opponent doesn’t have adequate defensive assets to neutralize them. All three forwards scored against the Penguins.
Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak have combined for a ridiculous 31 goals in 14 games, meaning their line averages more offense (2.21 goals per game) than the entire Detroit Red Wings (2.13 goals) and has scored as many as the entire Chicago Blackhawks team this season.
“The way that they can pass the puck, and you even see it in practice that they always make the extra pass. I’d focus on taking away those chances to make the extra pass to each other, but that definitely would not be an easy task,” said Brandon Carlo, when asked how he’d approach shutting down the Perfection Line as a shutdown D-man. “I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it. I think they set a great example and they obviously have a lot of success with putting pucks in the net. Their chemistry is unbelievable and unmatched in a way. I don’t think it’s a surprise to see other teams trying to emulate what a top line in the league would be doing. It’s fun and it’s a challenge when teams put their top players on a certain line.”
So, it looks like the Perfection Line is going to be the NHL’s best trio for the third year in a row, but now they are starting to attract a lot more company. Other teams have clearly taken note of the damage a front-loaded top line is doing and they've moved to make themselves more like Boston’s best.
In an NHL that routinely copycats those achieving success, those teams are attempting to replicate the Bruins successful formula with varying degrees of success compared to the real thing in Boston.
Colorado has obviously been doing it the past couple of seasons with Mikko Rantanen, Nathan MacKinnon and Gabriel Landeskog. That’s been a part of the Avs resurgence into a playoff team. Similarly, the Tampa Bay Lightning started the season with Steve Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov headlining the Bolts attack, and injuries forced Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander into a top line for the Maple Leafs for a time while John Tavares was out.
Given the early-season matchups between the Bruins with Tampa Bay and Toronto, the B’s got a bird's-eye view look at other top teams loading up on their forwards due to both design and circumstance, and took note of it. It certainly upped the level of challenge for Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak knowing they’d be locking up against the other team’s best, and it brought out their best in the season’s first month.
“I think teams are seeing the benefits of doing it. Not everybody has the ability to do it on every team, but when you have the depth we have it’s great to keep certain guys together if they have great chemistry on a line. I think the biggest thing is you find the recipe that makes your team successful and you stick with it,” said Marchand. “It’s something that’s working and that’s the way it’s been here. It’s fun to see the different talent and abilities in the league nowadays.
“Every night there’s a team with a very good top line and if we end up against them we enjoy it and take pride in playing against them.”
Out in Edmonton, Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl have been teamed with the resurgent James Neal to push the Oilers to the top of the Western Conference. There are plenty of examples of other teams at least attempting to go heavy offense on their top forward line, so that’s a testament to what the Bruins have been doing the past few seasons.
“I could see teams doing it and the argument becomes ‘Do you have enough balance [in your lineup]?’ Each team has to decide that, but we’ve decided to stick with our guys [on the top line] right or wrong for the most part,” said Bruce Cassidy. “It’s a copycat league and if that’s what they feel works then I could see [more teams going top-heavy].”
As we’ve all see in Boston, it can turn from strength into exploitable weakness against high-caliber teams in the biggest moments as well. Nobody needs to look any further than the Stanley Cup Final when a big, strong and physical Blues team pushed a banged-up Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak to the outside and took advantage of individual issues bothering each of the three after the two-month playoff grind.
If a team can shut down the super-powered line at the top, then it becomes a little easier to shut down a team such as the Bruins as a whole. Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were held to just two even-strength goals in the seven-game Cup Final. The Bruins were so reliant on their Perfection Line that they didn’t have enough other assets to get by St. Louis. A similar thing played out two postseasons ago when the Bruins went out in the second round against a similarly big, strong and physical Tampa Bay defense that also frustrated the Perfection guys in 5-on-5 play.
Still, nobody is shutting down the B’s Perfection Line right now no matter which opponent is put in front of them.
“We don’t really pay attention to what’s going on around us,” said Pastrnak. “We just focus on our team. There are challenges along the way and it’s good motivation for us to face [other super lines] and get us going.”
That’s all Pastrnak needs is extra motivation when the 23-year-old looks like a lock for 50 goals and 100 points this season.
There will be times when the offense won’t be coming so easily for Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak, and there will be instances when the Bruins philosophy to stack their top line will be challenged. It was good enough to get to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final last season, but not good enough over the course of the grueling seven games to finish the job.
It’s worth noting, though, that while local hockey fans might decry the one-dimensional slant of the Bruins offense and the sporadic nature of their secondary scoring, other organizations around the NHL are intently watching what the Black and Gold are doing and attempting to adapt it to their own programs.
The Perfection Line is the envy of the rest of the NHL and is truly unstoppable when going through the kind of stretches they’ve enjoyed in the first 14 games of this season.
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