Once in a while, when a victorious player strolls to the front of the room for a press conference following a playoff win, it’s fair to wonder whether they had an alternate outfit ready to go had the score not turned out favourably. Would Russell Westbrook, defiant as he may be, really have rocked a light blue suit over absolutely no shirt had his Oklahoma City Thunder not defeated the Utah Jazz back in mid-April to win Game 1 of their NBA first-round series? Was there something even a little less (bare) chesty in his locker just in case the Thunder had taken it on the chin that night?
David Pastrnak didn’t push his flex to exposed pecs following the Boston Bruins’ first win of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but the 21-year-old’s dark windowpane suit and wide-brimmed hat were just as hard to miss as the three-point night he’d had versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. Forty-eight hours later, Pastrnak was all plaid again — navy and grey this time — minus the chapeau. He’d already pulled his hat trick for the night, netting three goals and the same number of assists against the Leafs for a six-point showing in Game 2. His nine points over the first two contests of the series tied an NHL post-season record. Production like that could empower anyone to opt for outspoken threads, let alone a guy who skews splashy to begin with. “He has that kind of personality,” says Boston defenceman Charlie McAvoy. “He can wear those outfits and pull it off. He’s a great teammate, someone who’s very well-liked.”
Pastrnak’s passion and warmth have a lot to do with his good standing on the Bruins. But it doesn’t hurt that he’s also making a rapid transition from the least-known entity on hockey’s best line to a player every opposing fan immediately recognizes and fears. After torching Toronto, Pastrnak has put up seven points in four games versus the Tampa Bay Lighting in Round 2. That offence hasn’t been enough to prevent the Bruins from falling behind in the series. However, if Boston is to claw back from its 3-1 hole, expect the man they call ‘Pasta’ to be front and centre in any comeback effort.
Pastrnak rocketed out to a scorching start — 18 goals in 23 outings — during his third NHL season in the fall of 2016, but his league-wide coming out party might have been that Game 2 explosion against the Leafs. Everything he can do was on display that night. On the game’s opening tally, Pastrnak corralled a bouncing puck in the slot, spun counterclockwise away from Connor Brown until he was on his backhand and slid the biscuit past goalie Frederik Andersen. As he glided behind the net, Pastrnak raised his left hand to his ear, urging an already-roaring home crowd to reach for another decibel. Early in the middle frame, he issued a perfectly paced slap-pass to David Krejci, who easily redirected it into the goal. His second score started with Pastrnak stripping Morgan Rielly at centre ice and ended when he darted in front of the net from behind the goal line and wired a short-sider between Curtis McElhinney’s shoulder and the top of the post. By the time he pulled a cheeky between-the-legs puck drag with 90 seconds to go in the game for his third tally, it was clear this effort was going down as an all-timer. “That night was a special night, no matter how you slice it,” says Boston right winger David Backes.
Becoming the type of player opponents had to sweat — and that’s defintetly been the case for the Leafs and Bolts this post-season — is exactly what Pastrnak had in mind when he left his native Czech Republic at age 16 to play for the same team Anze Kopitar skated for when he established a precedent for Eastern European youngsters relocating to Sweden to develop. Pastrnak was on his own in the blue-collar, immigrant city of Södertälje, trying to learn a new language — English, in his case — like many of the other newcomers there. Once he did, Pastrnak immediately established a connection with then-teammate William Nylander, who remains a good buddy.
At the time, some NHL talent hawks wondered if Pastrnak’s razzle-dazzle would be doused in North America when he started having to take the ice against ornery defencemen from Saskatchewan. The concerns were exacerbated by the fact he was skinny as the jeans at a Swedish nightclub and — in the mind of at least one observer from an NHL outift — seemed to pout a little at the 2014 World Junior Championship when he was on the Czech Republic’s second line as opposed to the top unit. Slavormir Lener, however, has a different view. A one-time assistant coach with the Calgary Flames and Florida Panthers, Lener notes Pastrnak killed penalties as a teen and, in his opinion, always exhibited a team-first approach. “He was very dedicated,” says Lener, a long-time figure with the Czech national program.
Lener affectionately refers to Pasternak as a “street kid” in the sense that he played with the imagination of someone who cut his teeth competing against kids of all sizes and ages in pickup games across a variety of sports. “They are different, the way they think, the way they play,” Lener says of kids who grew up with less structure. “They do unexpected moves, they play with a smile all the time. There’s a lot of charge in him.”
Pastrnak definitely seemed moved at the 2014 NHL Draft, where the Bruins were only too happy to select a player who’d slipped to 25th overall. Upon hearing Boston president Cam Neely call him up to the podium, Pastrnak immediately pointed to the sky with both hands, before hugging his mom, Marcela Ziembova. It was only about one year previous that his father, Milan Pastrnak, had succumbed to a cancer. “I was 17 years old in Sweden by myself [when my father died] so that was pretty tough,” Pastrnak told Sportsnet’s David Amber. “The only place I wasn’t thinking about it was the rink. Every time I went home I was there by myself. The walls were empty, I couldn’t call my mom 24-7. So I think I spent around six, seven hours a day at the rink.”
Logging huge amounts of time on the ice was nothing new for a member of the Pastrnak family, as Milan was a former pro who’d turned to coaching after his playing career ended. Pastrnak was too young to see his dad play, but has been told by people at home that Milan was also a speedster who could create something out of nothing. “But a little bit too crazy, they said,” Pastrnak adds with a chuckle.
Milan only coached his son when Pastrnak was very young. However, the summer before Pastrnak left for Sweden, he asked his dad for a training regimen. A father who never wanted to push his kid too hard just in case hockey wasn’t truly his thing could suddenly let himself go. “He said he was waiting for that moment,” Pastrnak says. Now that the son is realizing his potential — and Lord help the league if he improvesmuch more — he’d love nothing more than a chance to take stock of his place in today’s game with his pop. “I wish we could have a coffee or a beer together,” he says.
In true Pastrnak fashion, though, he makes the best of the cards he’s been dealt by maintaining an extremely close relationship with the parent he still has. That’s long been the case. While Milan was living in other cities coaching, it was Marcela who did most everything for Pastrnak and his brother, including driving to endless practices and games. When Pastrnak signed his new contract last September — a six-year pact worth $40 million — he posted a picture on Twitter of him at a restaurant scratching out his John Hancock on the type of wooden box that houses wine meant for a special occasion. Right beside him was Marcela, arm draped over her boy as they both wore what-a-moment expressions. “He loves his momma and he takes care of her,” says Backes. “When she came over on the mothers’ trip, you could just see that connection they have.”
The same can be said of the on-ice relationship Pastrnak shares with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand. Pastrnak remembers the trio being “horrible” together during his first couple practices. They’ve become positively terrifying over the past couple seasons, with each member hitting the 30-goal mark this year. Pastrnak, who’s gone from about 167 pounds in his draft year to nearly 190 now, has clearly picked up on the good two-way habits of Bergeron, the game’s premier defensive centre. “He’s obviously really skilled when he’s got [the puck] and he’s making some tremendous plays,” says Bergeron. “But when he’s away from it now — he wants it back, first of all, he hunts it — but he also positions himself really well defensively to get back on the attack. That’s something we’ve talked about a lot with him and our line, and he’s really taken a big step.”
Boston coach Bruce Cassidy guided Pastrnak in the American Hockey League when the latter came to North America for the 2014–15 season and split his time between the big club and minor-league Providence Bruins. Cassidy was hard on the 18-year-old, but Pastrnak appreciated the tough love because he knew it was pushing his limits. Now both are showing what they can do on the biggest stage. “I think mentally — this year [more than in previous seasons] — he’s been able to battle through being checked harder,” Cassidy says. “So, he’s mentally stronger.”
The result is dizzying. Pastrnak has six goals and 20 points in the 2018 playoffs, more than any other Bruin and second only to Pittsburgh’s Jake Guentzel. Since Feb. 1, 2017, just 10 NHLers have scored more regular-season goals than No. 88’s 49, and of those players, only Patrik Laine, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews are younger than Pastrnak. “There’s a lot of really good young guys, but [not a lot] of guys who are capable of turning a game upside down — he is,” says one of the people who scouted him back in Sweden. “If you’re the other team, you’re scared of him.”
If not, you’re probably all-in on the guy. Countryman David Krejci opened his house to Pastrnak when the youngster came to North America and they remain tight friends who still live close to each other, like the same food and share jokes that seem to land best in Czech. Maybe there’s an element of Krejci showing his age and dad status when the 31-year-old veteran marvels at how much energy Pastrnak brings to the rink each day, regardless of when the morning begins or how late the previous night ended. Backes, mind you, has been struck by the same thing. “I don’t think I’ve seen him have a bad day,” he says. “He’s always got a smile, he’s always chipper and coming to the rink happy. He just loves living life. He’s really had to work his way to where he’s gotten. He’s getting [some of] the fruits of his labour now and [that] brings a ton of joy to the kid.”
Everyone can feel good about that.
With files from David Amber.
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