David Pastrnak is leading the National Hockey League in goals and he’s made some teams look silly in the process. So it’s no surprise that teams are targeting him for some borderline physicality right now.
There was no question that was the Chicago Blackhawks’ game plan going into their controversial 4-3 overtime victory Thursday night. The same was also true of the Carolina Hurricanes, Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers.
Now, it’s up to the B’s and Pastrnak to figure out what to do about it. It might help if the league’s refs keep an eye out for it, too.
Now don’t be mistaken. To these eyes, Zach Smith’s hit in the third period that riled up John Moore looked clean, though I guess you could debate that Smith may have left his feet. And the Jonathan Toews’ stick-check that brought Pastrnak to the ice, setting up Toews’ game-winning breakaway goal in overtime? That would have been a ticky-tack call, and perhaps referees Dan O’Halloran and Chris Lee kept their arms down because they saw a dive.
But Pastrnak has been treated to some out-of-bounds rough stuff over the past week. There was the blindside hit from the Rangers’ Brendan Lemieux at the end of regulation on Black Friday that could have resulted in a much worse outcome for the Bruins’ sniper. And Thursday night, Pastrnak was the only guy to go to the box following a net-front skirmish in the second period when Chicago defenseman Connor Murphy crosschecked Pastrnak in the back.
There have been times when Pastrnak — suffering through a downright glacial two-game goalless streak — has looked frustrated over the past week and paid for it. Against the Hurricanes, Warren Foegele got away with an excuse-me interference and Pastrnak responded with a horse-collar tackle that earned him two minutes in the box.
If Pastrnak responds to being targeted that way, it will only encouraging teams to do more of it.
Coach Bruce Cassidy thought the game-ending play — after another furious third-period comeback to erase a 3-0 deficit — was a toss-up. He also wanted to get another look at the Smith hit before he commented on it (“That one was more concerning,” Cassidy said). But he sees the frustration in his young star, and not just with the physical play.
“Him and (Brad Marchand) both, they’re used to scoring,” Cassidy said. “We haven’t finished as much. Our power play is part of that right now (0-for-4 on Thursday). It’s not executing at a high level. I don’t know if that’s cyclical. I’ve always said special teams can be. Ours has been pretty good for a while, so maybe it’s just one of those cycles right now where we have to simplify.
“We’ve left some plays on the table out there where we’ve game-planned for and we’ve tried to force plays. But these are high-end players that make things happen so you want to let them play their way out of it, so I think that feeds into part of (the frustration).
“They’re used to getting their looks. They’re spending a lot of time doing wind sprints. We’re going back to our end and back down the ice again. And I think teams are just recognizing that these are the leading scorers in the league and we have to pay a little more attention to them.”
Pastrnak, not surprisingly, thought there should have been a penalty on the Toews play.
“I had a free lane to the net,” he said.
He also wasn’t happy going to the box by himself in the second period.
“The ref told me I started it. I don’t know that I started it. I got a crosscheck in the rib. I’m going to push him back,” Pastrnak said. “A little stupid by me, but tough luck. But I’m going to push back if I’m getting pushed around.”
Pastrnak didn’t know if the Smith hit was a penalty (“I just felt the hit on my head”). But given what Pastrnak has been taking recently, the reaction by John Moore — in his first game back from shoulder surgery — to drop the gloves was clearly the right one, whether it was a penalty or not. And it was appreciated by Pastrnak and the rest of the Bruins.
“You can’t say enough about him,” Cassidy said. “Here he is coming off shoulder surgery and it’s a reaction thing. He’s not thinking about anything but protecting his teammates, so that tells you all you need to know about his character.”
Said Moore: “I can’t speak for past games. All I can say is it was my turn there. I was right there. I saw it and didn’t like it, so I thought something had to be done.”
The willingness and togetherness is clearly there with this group. It’s brimming with character players like Moore. But these are not the Big, Bad Bruins of old. They’ll have to figure out a way to combat the rough stuff without dropping the gloves every night.