BOSTON – Bruce Cassidy never intended for this to happen.
The man who built the most dominant line going in the Stanley Cup playoffs – a trio the hockey lifer now describes as the best he’s ever seen – only put David Pastrnak beside Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron in a dire situation.
His Boston Bruins were down 3-0 before the halfway point of an Oct. 30 visit to Columbus. The lines went in a blender and spit out the Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak grouping, which immediately sparked a comeback in a 4-3 shootout loss. Even then the coach wasn’t sold on rolling out such a top-heavy formation.
“Ideally for our team to be successful that’s what we’ve determined – that we need to spread out the offence,” Cassidy told reporters that night at Nationwide Arena. “We’ll also move back to it if need be. Tonight, I thought it need be and it worked out.”
Six months later, it’s more than working out.
Circumstances conspired to keep that No. 1 line together. The Bruins were decimated by injuries in the early part of the season and sat at a pedestrian 4-3-3 after the first month. Cassidy stuck with Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak for games against Vegas and Washington that followed the visit to Columbus and saw them tilt the ice considerably.
He went right back to them when Marchand returned from a concussion absence on Nov. 29 against the Tampa Bay Lightning and they outclassed what was then hockey’s most dominant line – controlling about 75 per cent of the even-strength shot attempts against Vlad Namestnikov, Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov while outscoring them 1-0.
They were officially a thing.
“Once they started playing well together, it was hard to break them up,” Cassidy said recently. “I think that’s what it came down to. I think the plan, at some point, was see if we could go back to what we started because we thought we’d be more dangerous, but it kind of evolved into where we started to win games, and that line could skate together.”
The Bruins finished 46-17-9 from November onwards and are tied 1-1 heading into Game 3 of their second-round series with the Lightning.
Looking back, you can understand why Cassidy was reluctant to place all of his golden eggs in the same basket. The trend has been to spread offensive wealth throughout a lineup – like how the Pittsburgh Penguins kept Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on separate lines while winning the 2016 Stanley Cup.
The Bruins coach initially thought he’d have more success with rookie Anders Bjork beside Bergeron and Marchand while Pastrnak paired up with David Krejci and Jake DeBrusk. But with the injuries and a slow start, it never materialized that way.
What’s made Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak so effective is the line’s ability to control the puck and make plays despite being the central focus of every opponent’s game plan. They’ve produced 11 even-strength goals in eight playoff games together – the most of any line this spring. And they’ve done it while controlling more than 60 per cent of shot attempts.
Pittsburgh’s No. 1 line of Jake Guentzel, Crosby and Patric Hornqvist has scored nine goals at evens while Washington’s Alex Ovechkin-Evgeny Kuznetsov-Tom Wilson trio has eight. The Vegas Golden Knights line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith has controlled nearly the same amount of shot attempts as the Bergeron group (CF is 60.80-60.71 at 5-on-5) but hasn’t scored as frequently.
There was no hyperbole when Cassidy was asked if he’d ever personally seen a line tip the scales so decisively and answered “no.”
“I don’t think I have right now the way they’ve gone in the playoffs,” said Cassidy. “Now in Toronto [in Round 1] – Toronto kept them off the scoresheet a couple of games. But to answer your question, when they’re on boy are they on. That I haven’t seen with my own eyes up front, behind the bench.”
The addition of Pastrnak has made them special. The 21-year-old came into his own in his fourth NHL season – playing with a reckless abandon that helps keep plays alive long after they appear to have fizzled out. It’s a nice complement to the strong edge work and puck-hounding ability of Marchand and Bergeron’s next-level spatial awareness and ability to read a play.
You can trace the Marchand-Bergeron pairing all the way back to before the 2011 Stanley Cup championship, but even the Boston veterans concede they’ve found something special and unique with Pastrnak.
“He wants to make those plays and if we don’t have the puck he hunts it back. That’s what amazes me with him,” said Bergeron. “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.”
It’s allowed three players to shoulder a disproportionate amount of the load. They’ll ultimately be responsible for how deep the Bruins play into the spring.