BOSTON – There is no question that at only 23, David Pastrnak is even better this season than he was last season when he scored a career-high 38 goals and 81 points despite missing 16 games with a thumb injury.
The game-breaking B’s right winger joined some pretty elite company by scoring his 12th goal in November on Friday in the 3-2 overtime win over the New York Rangers at TD Garden. Pastrnak became just the fourth player in NHL history to score 12 goals in each of the first two months of the season and joined Mario Lemieux, Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky on an exclusive list that highlights his goal-scoring prowess.
The guy is on pace for 76 goals and 129 points this season, which would tie Phil Esposito for the Bruins franchise record for single-season scores that Espo set in a monster 1970-71 season where he finished with 76 goals and a ridiculous 152 points. The goal-scoring part of it all is well-established for Pastrnak in a season where even an extended slump should see him make a legitimate run at 50 goals, and where it appears he’s going to be setting the goal-scoring pace for the NHL.
The one-timer shot is lethal on the power play, the skating and high pace of play are at a dominant level and in recent years, Pastrnak has also done a much better job of being strong on the puck as he’s physically matured from his early days as an 18-year-old in the league.
“I think he’s hitting his one-timer cleaner this year, so his execution is better on his shot. I think he’s stronger on pucks with his second effort. He’s been stronger using body position around the net,” said B's coach Bruce Cassidy. “He’s scoring more goals at the top of the crease rather than just relying on his shot or scoring off the rush.
“I think that’s one area where his game has improved in terms of the offensive side of things. We talked about that in training camp where that was what ultimately hurt us last year [in the Stanley Cup Final against the Blues]. We couldn’t get inside. So, as a group, we tried to reinforce that more and he’s taken on a little more of the responsibility in that area.”
Still, there's one area where Pastrnak continues to be underrated.
It’s his playmaking and setting up teammates. He is understandably viewed as a shoot-first sniper, but he still is creative and his passing can do damage against teams worried about his scoring ability.
“You get it anywhere around [Pastrnak] right now and he’s going to make something happen because he’s so gifted,” said Brad Marchand of his linemate, who have been able to flourish as a pair the past two seasons even when center Patrice Bergeron has missed time with injuries. “He’s so confident right now. He’s so much fun to play with.”
Pastrnak has become so much more than that, though, as he showed on the overtime game-winner Friday when he dangled around a pair of Rangers defenders before dropping a tape-to-tape pass back to a wide-open David Krejci for the winning goal.
“[Krejci] dropped it to me and I felt like I had two guys on me, so the slot was wide open,” said Pastrnak. “I just kind of threw it there, and obviously when you play with one guy for a while you get that chemistry going and expect where he should be.”
It was a slick passing play that Pastrnak probably doesn’t perfectly execute a few years ago, and really it’s something he might not have even seen developing on the ice in the recent past. Now, Pastrnak’s awareness, vision and hockey intelligence are all heightened by his five-plus seasons of experience in the NHL, and his ability to anticipate plays in the offensive zone is every bit as dangerous as his sizzling shot or top-flight skating ability.
“It’s his overall game. He’s strong. Not only can he shoot, but he can pass. He’s got so many moves one-on-one. It’s just his overall game,” said Krejci. “He’s on pace for what, 70? We haven’t had a scorer like that in a long, long time. I want him to score every game. Obviously, he would like to score as much as he can, but he’s definitely a team-guy first.
“He practices [the one-timer] every day before practice and after practice. He keeps going out there and doing his thing. But when you play with guys like Marchand and Bergeron, their chemistry is pretty awesome and fun to watch. He’s the same guy [as he’s always been] in the room, but he’s just elevated his game.”
Pastrnak has elevated his skill level when it comes to breaking games open with his goal-scoring, and that has helped open up doors for his passing and playmaking as evidenced by game-winning OT plays, and by his ranking second on the B’s roster with 17 assists through the first 26 games of this season.
“I think he’s getting more,” said Cassidy, when asked if Pastrnak gets enough recognition for his passing ability. “I think he’s known first as a guy with pace, a guy that’s one-on-one and a guy with a big shot, but I think it’s out there now if you play him just to shoot [the puck], that he’ll make plays.”
Pastrnak still has some hurdles to jump when it comes to maintaining that game-breaking ability in the playoffs after he was effectively bottled up in the Cup Final against the Blues. And he'll need to show he can stay healthy this season to put up the gaudy numbers after the off-ice thumb injury wrecked his chances of 50 goals and 100 points for the Black and Gold last season.
Still, it’s clear Pastrnak once again has become even better and more dangerous this season, and it’s made him one of the NHL's biggest offensive forces at the ripe, young age of 23. It’s scary to think how much better Pastrnak can become given everything he has going for him just as he reaches the prime of his career and invokes names such as Gretzky, Lemieux and Bossy with the season he's having.
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