BOSTON - Could it be that Brad Marchand has finally made that final step of development toward being a fully realized NHL superstar?
Marchand has long possessed the toughest part, the elite-level offensive ability and inner makeup that allows him to consistently dominate in the NHL. He has the numbers to back it up with more goals scored in the NHL the past three seasons than anybody not named Alex Ovechkin. He’s also got it with a couple of All-Star designations and mentions in the Hart Trophy conversation in the past two seasons while being a point-per-game player. The Bruins left winger has also refined his ability to pass the puck given all the defensive attention paid to him, and this season he’s been a certified overtime weapon with five game-winners for the Black and Gold in the extra session.
Despite all those unmistakable signs of greatness, however, there were still a few areas that have eluded the Nose Face Killah from being a finished product.
Marchand entered the playoffs with one goal in his previous 18 playoff games and zero goals in his past 16 home playoff games, so he hadn’t effectively translated his regular-season game into the postseason. That was a significant problem for Marchand, who has become a Black and Gold pillar relied upon by the B's.
It also didn’t take into account some of the agitating actions that backfired on Marchand in the postseason the past few years, whether it was spraying ice chips into Carey Price’s face, limping on the wrong foot trying to embellish for a call against the Red Wings or simply trying to be a good little Marchand, and not being engaged enough in a quiet series last spring against the Ottawa Senators.
All of that seems to be a thing of the past, though.
It would seem that Marchand has finally found the range this postseason and he showed in Boston’s Game 1 win he could toe the delicate, balanced line between NHL star, in-your-face agitator and ultimately winning playoff hockey player. He scored the game’s first goal against the Leafs on Thursday night with a roofed backhanded finish in tight, and he did his whirling dervish thing in the corner to torture Kasperi Kapanen before dishing to David Pastrnak for the back-breaking insurance goal at the end of the second period.
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Marchand was completely in control, dominant in the offensive end along with the rest of his line and looked every bit the game-breaking player he’s become in the regular season.
“I thought [Marchand] was excellent. He’s going to be a guy that teams are going to circle, because he’s an elite player,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “In the past, you’ve been able to get him off his game at times. The good players that play with passion, you see that with a lot of them. How quickly can you get it back, and where do you keep your discipline not to hurt your team?
“I thought he did a real good job with that [in Game 1]. I’m sure he’ll get tested again Saturday, but that’s what Marchy’s up against. You want to be a good player, you better be prepared for extra attention. He’s not the only one of our guys, just like they’ve got some guys over there that we want to make it hard for them to earn their ice. That’s hockey in general, but it’s even more magnified this time of the year.”
So not only was Marchand keeping his head and not feeding into Toronto’s poking and prodding with ill-timed penalties, but he was playing mind games right back with the Leafs. The B’s left winger continued his bizarre rivalry with hard-hitting Toronto winger Leo Komarov and opted in the second period to nuzzle his trademark nose into his opponent’s neck while appearing to lick the Toronto player. This came after a regular-season meeting back in January where Marchand gave Komarov a big kiss on the cheek when he tried to get into No. 63’s face.
Just call him the Little Ball of Hugs from this point moving forward, apparently.
Cassidy called it “goofy” after Friday morning’s practice and Komarov doesn’t seem to like it very much, and that’s exactly why Marchand keeps doing it while staying on the right side of the discipline line in the sand.
“I thought he wanted to cuddle, so I was just trying to get close to him,” said Marchand, with a giant smirk on his face. “He kept coming after me after whistles. I thought if he kept touching me we were going to get a little closer than maybe he would want to.”
Perhaps the NHL will come up with some unsportsmanlike conduct penalty where you can’t kiss, nuzzle or lick unsuspecting opponents, but for right now Marchand is going right up to the line for agitating and provoking without stepping over it. He’s not throwing head shots and he’s not slew-footing or tripping players while targeting their bottom-halves, and he’s at least temporarily toeing the line while gaining an edge. It’s something that Cassidy approves of behind the B’s bench as long as it A) effectively gets Marchand into the game emotionally and B) doesn’t hurt the team at a time of year when discipline mistakes can be critical ones.
“Sometimes I think he’s a little goofy. But I don’t mind goofy. It’s just part of [Marchand’s] personality. It’s when it starts going the other way that it’s tough. If it keeps him on course then it’s great, but if we start to see the other types of behavior then as a coach I try to recognize it and help pull him back in,” said Cassidy. “I’m not sure if other guy likes it very much, but in terms of the league and the big picture, you laugh it off and move on.”
The trick now for Marchand and the Bruins is to keep the B’s pest right in the same good place he was in for Game 1 while moving forward, and keep fresh the reminder of where it can go wrong after watching Nazem Kadri completely lose control in the very same playoff game.