By Matt Kalman, CBS Boston
The Bruins’ first line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak has reduced Auston Matthews to a score-less pedestrian player on the ice.
Off the ice, he’s been downgraded to a low-rate t-shirt slogan maker.
“I don’t know, [bleep] happens I guess,” Matthews responded to a question about the Bruins’ top line getting 14 points in a 7-3 Game 2 win in the Eastern Conference first round on Saturday at TD Garden.
Unfortunately for Matthews and the Maple Leafs, they’re not likely to be printing t-shirts with his slogan unless his team makes a miraculous turnaround and wins this series, which will continue with Game 3 in Toronto on Monday.
If things don’t change, what Matthews was unable to answer for in the postgame locker room on Saturday will continue to haunt him between the boards and in his nightmares.
Like Rocky II following up on the glory of Rocky, and actually being better than the best picture winner at the 49th Oscars, Game 2 was a championship performance by Pastrnak, who followed up on his three-point Game 1 with a franchise record six points (three goals, three assists). He tied a NHL record for points through the first two games of a series with nine (also done by Phil Esposito in 1969).
This is not the way a playoff series is supposed to go. First lines are supposed to be kept in check by top defense pairs and the secondary scoring is supposed to determine the outcome. Everyone remembers Nathan Horton’s two overtime goals in the first round against Montreal in 2011, but it’s easy to forget those were the only two goals his line scored in the series. David Krejci and Milan Lucic were held to a combined three assists mostly by the defense pair of P.K. Subban and Hal Gill. Marchand and Tyler Seguin didn’t have a goal and Patrice Bergeron had one through six games before his two-goal outburst in Game 7 in the first round against Toronto in 2013.
Bergeron’s line isn’t just producing, it’s dominating possession. The line’s Corsi For percentage is through the roof even when the Bruins are in the lead, when the Maple Leafs are supposed to be gunning for any opening to go on the attack and the Bruins are supposed to be sitting back in a protective shell. When the Bruins have had the lead (almost the whole series) Bergeron is at 64.3 percent, Marchand is at 61 and Pastrnak is at 56.3
“We are playing great as a line and we’ve been together for a while,” Pastrnak said. “We’ve faced it every game this season and we want to get better every game. We don’t think about the other team we try to do our best and play simple and play pretty fast. I think we don’t think about what’s going to happen, just what we can do and what we can control.”
Ever the veteran, Bergeron didn’t want to dig too much into what his line has accomplished but wanted to talk more about what’s ahead.
“I think we’re moving our feet well, but we’re communicating after almost every shift about what we’re seeing and trying to change things up,” Bergeron said.
“But that being said, yeah we had some good looks in the first two games, but we can’t stop there. We had the proof in the second period when we were up for four goals, we got away from it a bit. … So I think they’re going to adjust, we’re going to try to adjust, that’s the type of game that playoffs are, so we’re going to keep going at it I guess.”
It’d be easy to credit the formation of Bergeron’s line to a stroke of genius by coach Bruce Cassidy, and he deserves accolades for relenting in his pursuit of balanced lines and deciding to just load up his top three offensive performers on one trio. But this season started with Pastrnak skating next to Krejci, and Jake DeBrusk and Anders Bjork trying to fill a wing on each line. Injuries thinned the Bruins lineup, especially with Krejci out, and Cassidy decided it was time to ride one line to as much offense as his tight defense and stingy goaltending needed.
Once Krejci came back, DeBrusk and other younger players got their games going and Rick Nash came in a trade, there was no reason to consider a new third man for Bergeron and Marchand. Pastrnak fit the bill on his way to a career-high 35 goals. And now one year after dull four points (two goals, two assists) in six games during his NHL playoffs debut against Ottawa, Pastrnak has raised his game beyond where anyone would expect considering the competition and the magnitude of the situation.
“He’s got that confidence … 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,” Bergeron said while his linemate tried to hold back from blushing after Game 2. “That’s what amazes me with him. I think there’s 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. So I think he’s taken a tremendous step this year by the way that he plays away from the puck and … we learn just as much playing with him than he’s learning from us.”
The Bruins’ top line has taught the Maple Leafs some lessons through two games. Assuming Bergeron and his mates keep producing at one end and shutting down Matthews, the Maple Leafs center may have to come up with more than a couple words to explain his going on early vacation.
Matt Kalman covers the Bruins for CBSBoston.com and also contributes to NHL.com and several other media outlets. Follow him on Twitter @MattKalman.