There’s a lot going on right now with the Li’l Ball o’ Hate. His stick is hotter than his temper. Brad Marchand nailed in his 11th goal of the season Saturday afternoon, the game-winner in the Bruins’ 3-2 edging of the Lightning at the Garden, and if this were a standard 82-game season, the 24-year-old left winger would be on pace to score 50 goals.
Kind of mesmerizing, isn’t it? Brad Marchand, a 50-goal pace, a feat we haven’t seen around here since Cam Neely scored 50 in 1993-94. The Bruins have won a season-high six games in a row, and Marchand has potted four game-winners in that stretch.
“Yeah, four,’’ a grinning Marchand said after the win, sounding a bit mesmerized himself. “I don’t think I’ve had four game-winners in my life.’’
But the numbers keep growing, Marchand keeps delivering, the overall tenor of his game tempered somewhat this season. He still gets to the dirty areas on the ice — the places where elbows and cross-checks are delivered with disfiguring malice — but he seems to be spending far less time trading shots, applying face-washes, giving wedgies, talking trash.
He looks more like an offensive lover than a hater, and as the NHL’s slate of night games was about to start Saturday, only seven other players could boast more goals. Marchand is running with the top scoring dogs now, finding the net with the best in the game.
He says nothing has changed. Same stick. Same skates. Same ol’ same ol’ overall, although he does concede maybe he has toned things down a bit.
“The more quiet you are,’’ he said, “teams will kind of forget about you.’’
The winning strike came as the finish to a two-on-one break with Patrice Bergeron that snapped a 2-2 tie with 2:16 remaining in regulation. With Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman backing in toward goalie Mathieu Garon, Bergeron had control of the puck down the right side of the slot, with Marchand matching him stride for stride. Bergeron held, held, then held for that extra split-second, something Marchand has grown to expect from the ever-subtle Patrice The Thief.
“He gave me a wide-open shot — nice,’’ said Marchand, later adding, “I don’t want to give our secrets away; then other teams will know what we’re doing. But he’s really good [at holding the puck]. He can sell a fake better than anyone.’’
Finally, Bergeron tossed left with a tape-to-tape relay, and Marchand snapped it home, beating Garon glove side.
Less than nine minutes into the matinee, Garon held a 2-0 lead on goals by Steven Stamkos and Alexander Killorn. With 2:16 left, he had an L being inked next to his name and Marchand wrapping a man-hug around Bergeron in a doorstep celebration.
“Garon was cheating to my side, a lot,’’ said Bergeron. “So I thought if I held it a little bit, it would make it easier for Marsh to shoot it. We’ve had a lot of two-on-ones, so we kind of know where each of us is going.’’
Bruins coach Claude Julien has worked to temper Marchand’s on-ice antics, in part because he spotted from the start the kind of scoring talent Marchand possessed. Along with guile and grit, Marchand has deceptive speed and a nasty snap/wrist shot with an equally nasty quick, tight release.
Most of what everyone notices first about Marchand is everything else — his grit and yapping and junkyardery — but Julien and others long have felt that he could emerge as a consistent, dangerous goal scorer. Maybe not a big-shooting sniper, but deadly nonetheless.
“I don’t see that he can’t,’’ Julien said when asked postgame if Marchand could hold his place among the game’s top scorers, keep his name among their ranks perennially. “He scores. He plays the PK as well. It’s not like he’s just an offensive player.
“He’s pretty impressive, I think, and in my view, what he’s shown over the last couple years and improving his numbers every year . . . possibly.’’
This is Marchand’s fourth NHL season. We sometimes forget that he was the 71st pick in the 2006 draft, 66 picks after the Bruins made superstar-in-waiting-and-waiting-and-still-waiting Phil Kessel the No. 5 pick. Kessel, by the way, has 4 goals and 16 points.
In this 48-game season, Marchand is on a pace for 29 goals, one more than the career high he scored last season across 76 games. He never has been this hot. Had Kessel stuck around, bought into the disciplined program, dared to go to the badlands on the ice where good things happen, no telling what numbers he would be posting these days.
To get better, Marchand figures he has to shoot more, something else Julien has told him for years. With his shots going in more frequently than ever, maybe that’s finally getting the message home.
“I know I’ve got a few goals, but I do have to shoot more,” he said. “Especially early on, I wasn’t shooting enough. I think it’s just how it goes sometimes. Sometimes they go in, sometimes they don’t. I’m not doing anything different this year.’’
Oh, but he is. The game sheets prove it. The Li’l Ball o’ Hate is still dishing out the hate ’n’ hurt, but now it’s flowing from the business end of his stick. The little devil has become a lovely scorer.Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.