Bruins

Pastrnak is turning playoff pressure into a historical start

Pastrnak is turning playoff pressure into a historical start

BOSTON - -David Pastrnak isn’t going to ever have to worry about people wondering whether he’s a playoff performer ever again.

The 21-year-old broke Wayne Gretzky’s record for the youngest player to ever record a six point playoff game when piled on the three goals and three assists in Boston’s 7-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 2 on Saturday night. He also became the first Bruins player of any age to record a six point playoff game since all the way back in 1983 when Rick Middleton turned that trick against the Buffalo Sabres.

The Bruins right winger now has four goals and nine points in two playoff games this spring, and has clearly made the jump to prime time performer with the Black and Gold after plenty of ups and down inconsistency in last year’s postseason debut. Pastrnak admitted after Saturday’s game that taking a step forward was his goal this spring, but nobody, himself included, envisioned him breaking the Great One’s early career outburst.

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“Well a lot, you know?” said Pastrnak, when asked how much he wanted to be a difference-maker in this spring’s playoffs for the Bruins. “Especially after last year, I felt a little bit of pressure to be honest but I liked it. I played with great players on a great team and we’re playing well now.

“It’s very easy for me to follow up the team. I think our leaders do a great job with us young guys. You guys know we have a lot of them. So, they prepare us well so do the coaches and I think that’s huge. We have a lot of guys who want it and they know what it takes.”

Clearly the Bruins have an excellent group of veteran leaders with guys like Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and David Backes leading the way among others, but a successful hockey club also needs young players willing to follow, take direction and work toward greater success. Pastrnak has always had the blazing skating speed, the rocket one-timer from the face-off dot and the hands to finish plays around the net, but the work he’s done to become physically stronger and more willing to battle has turned him into a lethal game-breaker.

It also means Pastrnak is much more comfortable attacking the net, and that’s where the first and third goal arrived in Saturday night’s hat trick where his hands dangled their way to successful scoring chances all alone in front. It’s really become a situation where Pastrnak can do offensive damage from any number of areas around the offensive zone, and he’s been hitting on every cylinder over the last two playoff games.

“[He’s] more comfortable in NHL playoff hockey, for one. I think last year was his first go-round.

Ottawa plays a stingy game, as we know, so it’s harder for those skill guys to find their ice and find creases and time and space. I think he was aware going in that it’s not easy [in the playoffs], so I’m going to have to make sure I take advantage of my opportunities when I do find the ice,” said Bruce Cassidy. “Breakthrough night? It’s a good term. You could look back and say it is. Six points in a Stanley Cup Playoff game with a hat trick? That’s special. Maybe it is, when you look back, but time will tell.

“Certainly, I think he’s more mature because of his previous experience last year. He’s stronger in general. We’ve talked about the difference in his game this year on pucks. He can escape some hits, and he can absorb 20 percent of a hit, stay on his feet and keep his momentum, 30 percent, 40 percent, whereas, in the past, some of that knocked him off stride. Some of it is maturity physically, some of it is maturity mentally knowing what to expect in the playoffs.”  

Certainly Pastrnak has always been a talented forward in his own right as a 21-year-old really coming into his own as an NHL player in the last two seasons, but he’d also been kind of looked at as the third musketeer with Bergeron and Brad Marchand on their top line. Pastrnak is the young up-and-comer learning from one of the NHL’s best duos, to be sure. But it also looks like Pastrnak is taking his own talent to a whole different level in this postseason, and still has unlimited potential given how he good he already is at an extremely young age with four NHL seasons already under his belt.

“He’s got that confidence growing, so he wants to be the guy, he wants to make those plays and if we don’t have the puck he hunts it back. That’s what amazes me with him,” said Bergeron. “I think there are a lot of skilled players that are skilled when they have the puck; when they don’t have it they don’t necessarily want it as much as this guy right here. I think he’s taken a tremendous step this year by the way that he plays away from the puck.”

The challenge now for Pastrnak is that the bar has been raised, and the rest of the NHL is taking notice of No. 88. He’ll see even more attention paid his way through the rest of Boston’s playoff run this spring, so it’s up to Pastrnak to bust through that and continue creating offense while serving as one-third of the best forward line the NHL has to offer this spring. That’s probably a lot of pressure for a youngster like Pastrnak, but as he himself said about any pressure facing him this postseason, “I liked it.”

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Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

Haggerty: With Jaroslav Halak in place, dealing Tuukka Rask shouldn't be out of the question

There are a couple of inalienable facts about next year’s goaltending situation with the Boston Bruins.

The first is that the B’s have most definitely upgraded in that area with 33-year-old Jaroslav Halak as the backup to Tuukka Rask. Halak is a flat-out better goalie than Anton Khudobin, and should be a little more consistent than the Russian backup, who was admittedly excellent last season while racking up a 16-6-7 record as Tuukka Rask’s understudy.

Halak, on the other hand, has won less than 18 games in a season only twice in his 10 full seasons at the NHL level, and has been a starter with the Canadiens, Blues, Capitals and Islanders with a career .916 save percentage over his NHL career. In case anybody hadn’t noticed that’s also been Tuukka Rask’s save percentage over the last three seasons for the Bruins.

Which brings us to inalienable goaltending fact No. 2: Halak is going to push Rask like he hasn’t been challenged since truly taking over as the top goalie in Boston.

The last truly competitive situation with Rask between the B’s pipes was in 2011-12 in Tim Thomas’ last season with the Bruins when the Finnish goaltender was backing up a reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner. Rask had temporarily taken Thomas’ job away from him two years prior during the 2009-10 season when he was a rookie goalie, and that sparked the best season of Thomas’ NHL career where he led the Black and Gold to a Stanley Cup victory.

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Since then Rask has had “just another guys” like Chad Johnson, Niklas Svedberg, Jonas Gustavsson and Anton Khudobin backing him up, and none of those backups had the kind of juice to truly take Rask’s job away from him. The best Khudobin could do was start four straight games for the Bruins back in November of last season, and that turned out to be one of the turning points in a 112-point campaign where Rask was significantly motivated from that point onward.

Halak could legitimately get on a hot streak in the regular season and force the Bruins coaching staff to sit Rask for weeks, or even a month, at a time, and that’s something no backup has ever been able to do behind Boston’s Franchise Finn. That should be a good thing and that is something the B’s are already counting on to happen for next season.

“We’ve talked about internal competition. Maybe it puts Tuukka in a better mindset. There were nights when Tuukka [played] back-to-backs. That’s a lot of stress on the goaltender knowing… I think two years ago we didn’t have a win by our backup at Christmas time,” said Don Sweeney, on July 1 after signing Halak to a two-year contract. “I’m not sure you guys wrote about it, but I did, and I lost sleep about it.

“I think we have two guys that have carried the ball for their teams, [and] that will push each other, that will complement each other, and we feel good that now going in every night. That is an area we aren’t going to be concerned about, hopefully. Obviously, it’s [about] the performance now.”

Now here’s the fork in the road where the inalienable Bruins goaltending facts and some good, old-fashioned speculation go their separate ways.

It doesn’t mean that it’s going to happen, but the addition of Halak for multiple years also opens up the possibility of trading away Rask if the right deal comes across Sweeney’s desk. The $2.75 million per season that the Bruins are paying Halak is the going rate for a top-of-the-line goalie, but it now also means the B’s are paying just under $10 million per season over the next two years for their goaltending tandem. That’s a whopping 12.5 percent of the $79.5 million in salary cap space, which is much less than either of the teams in this spring’s Stanley Cup Final (Vegas paid $6.4 million for their goalies and Washington paid $7.6 million for the Braden Holtby/Philipp Grubauer combo) shelled out for their goaltending.

In fact, only Montreal is spending more money on goaltending than the Bruins this season thanks to the awful Carey Price contract, and – along with the Bruins -- only the Panthers, Canadiens and Avalanche are paying north of $9 million in cap space for their goalies next season. For a Bruins team that was just barely in the NHL’s top-10 in save percentage and where the goaltending wasn’t really a demonstrable strength in the playoffs, that feels like a lot.  

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Rask has a limited trade clause for this upcoming season where he can be traded to eight NHL teams, and that “can be traded to” list gets bumped up to 15 teams in the following season. The Bruins did everything possible last season to make sure that Rask was mentally and physically rested with the 54 appearances, which was right around the targeted 55-60 games the Bruins had him penciled in for at the start of last season.

But even after all that rest and being given the high maintenance treatment, Rask still responded with a shaky postseason that was the worst statistically of his career. The 2.88 goals against average and .903 save percentage were the worst playoff marks of his NHL career, and Rask was an absolute disaster in their Game 7 showdown with the Maple Leafs. If the Bruins hadn’t completely shut down Toronto in the first half of the third period where they didn’t allow a shot on net (and didn’t allow Rask to even be a factor in the balance of that game), they probably wouldn’t have even advanced beyond the first round prior to their second round smack-down at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Rask was better in the second round vs. Tampa and added to his career highlight reel when he angrily fired a broken skate blade at the boards, but there are still some of the very same, nagging questions about Boston’s top goalie when it comes to big games.   

So why not start to explore what Rask could yield in a hockey trade, and even pull the trigger if the price is right given that Halak is there as a proven starting goaltender? There has been plenty of talk about Torey Krug being on the move if the right trade comes up to fit Boston’s needs, and there’s no reason why Boston’s All-Star, $7 million a year goaltender shouldn’t be part of that roster improvement conversation as well.

Nobody is saying to ship Rask simply for the sake of doing it, and clearly the Bruins would need to find themselves a young goalie they could groom as the eventual No. 1 guy to go along with the older, declining Halak. But the signing of Halak officially opened the door for the Bruins to at least toy with the idea of moving Rask in a good hockey trade to a team desperate for goaltending help (Carolina, the Islanders and the Flyers immediately come to mind), and that might not be such a bad thing for the Black and Gold.  

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