I’ve always found it telling in all the important ways when a productive player makes a habit of performing at an equal or even higher level in the postseason.
During the dozen championships the Patriots, Red Sox, Celtics, and Bruins have so graciously delivered Boston sports fans this century, a number have earned a well-deserved reputation for being at their best when the stakes are the highest and the competition is toughest.
David Ortiz, the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history (with the plaque to prove it), is the ultimate example. He slashed .290/.386/.570 in his 14-year Red Sox career. In 76 postseason games here, he was slightly better than that at .291/.415/.560, including a ridiculous .455/.576/.795 line in 14 World Series games.
Remember, it’s extremely hard to equal, let alone surpass, regular season production in the postseason, since you’re playing only the best competition. Ortiz remained extraordinary, and often exceeded his usual greatness.
Since becoming a starting wide receiver in 2013, the Patriots’ Julian Edelman has averaged 69.3 receiving yards per game during the regular season while an integral part of the offense. He’s upped that to 97.6 yards per game over 14 postseason games in the same stretch.
We’ll never forget Tim Thomas taking his play in net to a Drydenesque level during the Bruins’ Stanley Cup run in 2011, when he posted a 1.98 goals-against average and four shutouts en route to the Conn Smythe Trophy.
The fairly recent Celtics version? How about Rajon Rondo, who delivered electrifying playoff performances, be it a 44-point, 10-assist effort against the Heat (Game 2, 2012 Eastern Conference Finals) and a 28-point, 18-rebound, 13-assist masterpiece against the Cavaliers (Game 4, 2010 Eastern Conference semifinals).
Rondo seemed to revel in befuddling fans — and especially the media, actually – but he came through so often in big spots, it became commonplace to refer to him as Playoff Rondo or National TV Rondo.
Which brings us to David Krejci. Or perhaps we should refer to the Bruins veteran centerman as his alter ego: Playoff Krejci, which is of course the hockey distant cousin of Playoff Rondo.
You call him that. I do too. I’m pretty sure Jack Edwards and Judd Sirott have done it. Even his teammates are in on it, with usual hockey nickname abbreviation.
“Obviously, we all love playoff Krech,’' said David Pastrnak after the Bruins’ series-clinching 2-1 win over the Hurricanes Wednesday. “He’s unbelievable.”
Pastrnak’s comment came after Krejci scored a tying power-play goal in Game 5, then assisted on Patrice Bergeron’s go-ahead score. Krejci finished the series with three goals, five assists, and a claim as the Bruins’ best player in the series.
On a roster with Pastrnak, Patrice Bergeron, and Brad Marchand among other nightly three-stars candidates, no one would claim Krejci is the Bruins’ best player during the regular season. But the playoffs are a different matter with him. He has a long history of playoff performance in his 14 seasons as a Bruin.
When the Bruins won their first Cup since 1972, Thomas, Bergeron, and captain Zdeno Chara were perceived, rightfully, as the frontmen of the band and, along with Brad Marchand, the stars of the parade. But it was Krejci who led all players in the postseason with 12 goals (including four game-winners) and 23 points. He set up Nathan Horton’s winner in the pristine 1-0 victory over the Lightning in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and that was after scoring a hat trick in Game 6.
Leading the playoffs in scoring once is never a fluke, but I suppose it could be the product of a well-timed hot stretch for a just decent player. But leading the playoffs in scoring twice? That’s when you join — and belong with — elite company. Krejci entered a club that includes Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Guy Lafleur in 2013 when he paced the postseason with 26 points (9 goals, 17 assists) during the Bruins’ run to the Cup Final.
Krejci ranks sixth in Bruins history in playoff goals (39), and only Ray Bourque tops Krejci’s assists (73) and points (112). If the 34-year-old continues to play at a high level in the postseason this year and perhaps a season or two beyond, there might be another number we need to remember: 46.
His sweater number, which could well end up in the Garden rafters.
This praise is not meant to double as a claim Krejci is always a phenomenon in the playoffs. In the Cup Final last year against the Blues, he had no goals and two assists in the seven-game defeat. His most memorable play was a kick save while covering for an out-of-position Tuukka Rask in the Game 5 loss.
Before finding the net in Game 1 against the Hurricanes, he had been on a 14-game postseason goalless drought, dating to the Eastern Conference Finals last year against Carolina. Krejci is an elite passer, a savvy all-around player, and a reliable defender, but his grace and calm, slow-the-game pace can make him appear laconic when the points aren’t piling up. But after 14 seasons, most Bruins fans understand and appreciate him. And he has a coach who absolutely gets him.
“He’s a real competitor, good team guy, well liked in the room, quiet, I think a good hockey mind,” said Bruce Cassidy after the Carolina clincher. “You can always talk to him about the game and get good responses and good dialogue. [He’s a] guy that loves the game, he just doesn’t show it maybe like some other people would because he is kind of more of a composed guy that way, but certainly one of the more fierce competitors in terms of inner drive that I’ve been around here.”
Maybe Krejci drives you nuts sometimes, when he seems bored or indifferent during a slog of a Tuesday night in one corner of Canada or another. (Or, say, during the round-robin portion of the Bubble Playoffs.)
But he’s one of those athletes with a history and habit of seizing the moment and being at his best in the postseason. Like Ortiz, and Edelman, and yes, Playoff Rondo, among many others in these Boston sports good ol’ days.
Playoff Krejci is here again, and when the spotlight comes on, he makes you grateful that he’s on your side.