David Pastrnak had gone five straight games without scoring a goal. The last time that happened, the Bruins assigned the 18-year-old to Providence.
This time, a drive down 95 South is not in Pastrnak’s future.
The Bruins may well acquire beefier help on the right side before the trade deadline. They’ve been hot for Chris Stewart, both during the offseason and in the fall. If Buffalo’s asking price goes down, Stewart may find himself in Boston.
Pastrnak, however, is giving the Bruins options.
Saturday’s 3-1 win over the Kings was not easy on-the-job training for a teenager just north of 170 pounds. The Kings have won two of the last three Stanley Cups. They are more than happy to dump opponents on their backsides and have a good laugh while doing so. They play grown-up hockey, not the kind that is merciful toward boys who are younger and lighter than some high school seniors.
Loui Eriksson learned this the hard way. In the third period, Robyn Regehr finished his check by driving his right elbow into the back of Eriksson’s head. The right wing retired to the room at 15:18 of the third and didn’t return. After the game, coach Claude Julien said Eriksson had a stiff neck.
“They play the game the right way,” the Bruins’ Chris Kelly said of the defending champions. “They play hard. They’re very structured. They don’t give you much.”
In the defensive zone, where some 18-year-olds would have cracked against such teams, Pastrnak held his own. Pastrnak played with Kelly and Carl Soderberg on the third line. For the most part, they avoided LA’s top-six heavies, including Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter. Even though Pastrnak played mostly against LA’s third and fourth lines, he didn’t do anything that drew nasty looks from his coach.
“I thought in our own end, Dave did a great job getting pucks out and making plays,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “The offensive part of his game is there for me. Where we’re hoping he gets better and more experienced is on the defensive end. Tonight, he showed exactly that he’s very capable of handling it. That’s why a player continues to play. A coach feels confident and can rely on him.”
Julien isn’t one to change his lines often. Especially when his team is winning.
But on Thursday against the Islanders, Julien took Pastrnak away from Milan Lucic and David Krejci and placed him with Kelly and Soderberg. Julien recognized that coaching counterpart Jack Capuano was eager to roll out John Tavares, his all-world center, against Krejci’s line. Julien didn’t want Pastrnak taking on such defensive responsibilities against Tavares, one of the game’s elite pivots.
So Julien mixed his three top lines. Reilly Smith went with Lucic and Krejci. Eriksson, who’d been making sweet music with Soderberg and Kelly, moved up with Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins beat the Islanders, 5-2. Those lines carried over into Saturday.
Pastrnak was quiet early. His line didn’t have many chances in the first two periods.
But he improved as the game progressed. In the third, Pastrnak’s vision saved him from a headache.
Pastrnak controlled the puck in front of the LA bench. Brayden McNabb closed on Pastrnak and was ready to blast him into Charlestown. Pastrnak saw McNabb approaching and slowed. McNabb missed the check and nearly tumbled into his bench. The Bruins right wing accelerated and passed to Soderberg in front. The center couldn’t turn the pass into a chance.
Later in the third, Pastrnak was on the ice for Kelly’s game-winning goal at 14:33. He took six shifts in the third for 4:32 of ice time. Just three games earlier against Dallas, Pastrnak was given only two third-period shifts before ceding his position to Craig Cunningham.
“He wasn’t a liability,” Julien said. “It’s when you’re stuck in your own end, he’s not getting pucks out, he’s getting outmuscled, and there’s some panic in his game, you say, ‘Maybe I’ve got to cut my bench down.’ Tonight, I thought he was solid along the walls. Not only that, he was patient. Instead of just chipping it out, he made some plays. That’s something, at the beginning of the year, was a real issue for him when he went to Providence. I give him so much credit for improving so quickly in that area.”
This is not a straightforward way to learn for Pastrnak, a point-per-game player in Providence. It’s not easy for Julien either. He has to monitor Pastrnak’s development and make sure he learns things right to become a good player. At the same time, Julien has to coach for 2 points.
It’s a tricky balancing act between short-term results and long-term growth. They can go hand in hand. Julien can mix his lines to shelter Pastrnak from heavy defensive lifting. He can bench him in certain situations and use Cunningham, currently a more reliable defensive right wing, as his replacement.
Pastrnak’s skills are on offense. He is the team’s fastest player. He can make plays at high speed. His slap shot is powerful for a player of his size. He’s getting better at breaching defensive perimeters and sneaking inside the dots.
Ironically, Pastrnak’s offense has gone quiet. Since his back-to-back two-goal outbursts against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, Pastrnak’s has shot blanks for six straight games. All seven of the shots he’s landed in that time have hit goalies instead of the back of the net.
These are expected valleys for a player who won’t turn 19 until May 25. The best way Pastrnak will learn is if he and his teammates are still playing when he blows out the candles on his next birthday cake.