No matter how this regular season played out, the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs were going to be incredibly important for David Pastrnak.
The 24-year-old was coming off last spring’s playoffs where his numbers weren’t terrible (nine goals and 19 points in 24 games with a zero plus/minus rating), but the overall performance was erratic at best as an off-ice thumb injury very clearly bothered him when he was shooting the puck.
He was flailing at one-timer attempts, passing up chances to shoot the puck altogether and served as a shadow of his game-breaking self while grinding through four rounds of playoff hockey for the first time in his young career.
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Given the narrow margin of defeat for the Bruins in a seven-game Cup Final series against the St. Louis Blues, Pastrnak could have been a difference-maker had he been better than two goals and four points along with a minus-7 in seven games. Naturally there was some second-guessing of Pastrnak given the dubious nature of his off-ice injury that put the team in a bad spot, but the carefree, likable right winger avoided big-time criticism despite everything being on the line.
Pastrnak deserves full credit for responding in a big, resounding way to any of last season’s shortcomings by putting together a breakthrough NHL campaign this year.
The explosive Pastrnak led the NHL with 48 goals and would have hit the 100-point mark had the regular season not been shortened, and was in the Hart Trophy conversation with eventual finalists Leon Draisaitl, Artemi Panarin and Nathan MacKinnon. He answered the bell with a consistent, electric regular season that elevated him to the biggest scoring threat on the Boston roster.
With so much for Pastrnak to still prove when it comes to the playoffs, the excitement level was high to see what he could do this time around as the Bruins were steaming toward the No. 1 overall seed in the postseason.
Instead, Pastrnak didn’t arrive in Boston early enough to begin Return to Play training camp on time, managed to get in just one practice and then was forced into quarantine after being in close proximity to somebody who tested positive for COVID-19. The likelihood is that Pastrnak won’t be seen on the ice until the team travels to Toronto and he might not even be ready to play at the start of the round-robin games given the rust factor.
The good news is that things should come back quickly for Pastrnak given his longstanding, established chemistry with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand, and his one-timer will immediately revert to the No. 1 weapon on the B’s power play. His teammates have even said on the record that they don’t think it’s a big deal.
“It’s kind of news to me about Pasta. I thought he was just on a two-day hangover,” said a joking Marchand. “Pasta is going to be back for the playoffs, I’m not really looking too much into it. It doesn’t take long for chemistry to bounce back with us. Even when I’m going down [the ice] with Bjorky now and Bergy, we’re kind of looking [to pass] into the areas where Pasta normally sets up.
“I’m just out there trying to fine-tune my skills and what I need to work on to get back to where my game [needs to be] on the ice. That chemistry stuff, when we do line drills it comes back very quickly. It’s not something that [Patrice Bergeron] and I are concerned about.”
But through all this Cam Neely admitted the organization is second-guessing the decision-making of Pastrnak and Ondrej Kase given the way things have played out for both right wingers being “unfit to participate” thus far. Given all that’s on the line for the Bruins and that everybody else on the roster was ready to go at the start of camp two weeks ago, this whole thing once again has not been a good look for the enormously talented Pastrnak.
"Of course. When we had the day that camp was starting and we knew that some players were going to have to quarantine when they got here, you'd kind of hoped they would have gotten here [to Boston] a little earlier. But we really didn't have any say in that. That was really left up to the players,” said Neely, when asked if the B’s organization had second-guessed some of the decisions made by Pastrnak and Kase heading into camp. “Obviously with what has played out and transpired, you would have hoped that some different decisions were made. But in the long run, I don't know if it's going to affect us once we get into Toronto. I think we'll be fine."
What does it all mean?
There’s a massive amount of growing pressure on Pastrnak to atone for mistakes he’s made and to make it up this postseason to teammates who are fully committed and Cup-driven, to the organization that’s backed him and to the Bruins ownership that signs his paychecks. The missed Return to Play camp and his failure to make it to Boston early will be long forgotten if Pastrnak goes on a scoring tear in these Stanley Cup Playoffs and helps lead Boston to a Cup.
As it is, the young right winger knew he had something to prove coming off last June’s Stanley Cup Final and that has only become a bigger truth for Pastrnak after everything that’s happened over the last couple of weeks.
“It was definitely tough. I wasn’t feeling great, but that’s why this was such a good group because we were always picking each other up. It was obviously challenging for me, but I had 25 guys to help pick me up just like I would do the opposite [for them],” said Pastrnak, a year ago in June after the Cup Final was over in comments that bear repeating given how much the expectations have been raised for him on and off the ice. “It was the mental stuff, you know? In this kind of life, even if you don’t want to see stuff, read stuff and blah-blah with the media, it’s tough. You’re always going to see it. And that’s fine, you know?
“I will take a lot of positives from this. I’m just going to get stronger mentally. It was a good experience. It’s a big mental experience. I gained a lot this postseason. The mental stuff is what I learned the most. [I learned] that it doesn’t [expletive] matter if you play a bad friggin’ game. It’s the playoffs. Or if you have a bad shift. It’s the playoffs and you just need to come back to the bench and make sure you’re ready for the next shift no matter what happened behind you. It’s the tough part of hockey sometimes when you get stuck on something instead of looking forward and focusing on the next shift. Sometimes you get stuck on thinking what happened before and that brings you down kind of.”
Perhaps Pastrnak needs to figure out how to get motivated by things rather than “getting stuck on something” like this latest bump in the road. Whatever the case, Pastrnak has a lot to prove going into this postseason based on what happened last year and what’s happened over the last two weeks getting ready for a pivotal Stanley Cup playoff these next few months.
The good news is that Pastrnak has the awesome power to change the conversation as long as he comes in and performs for the Bruins like he did as one of the most electric game-breakers in the game during the regular season. It’s in Pastrnak’s power to make everybody forget the prologue to this postseason and now it’s on him to do just that.