Rejuvenated Pastrnak may prove to be game-changer for Bruins’ Cup hopes

David Pastrnak scored twice including the game winner as the Boston Bruins top the Columbus Blue Jackets 4-3 to take a 3-2 series lead.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — We should all wish to struggle like David Pastrnak.

This has been an up-and-down playoffs for the gap-toothed goal-creator, one where he was dropped from the Boston Bruins‘ so-called "Perfection Line" and seemed to be searching for confidence.

And yet … call up the NHL’s scoring chart and he’s right there with 11 points — just one more big night from matching or surpassing the leaders at 13. Then there was this juicy nugget from the NHL after Pastrnak help power Boston to a 4-3 win Saturday and a 3-2 series lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

He’s keeping company with the Crosbys and Ovechkins in playoff production to start his career. If it continues, you have to imagine he’ll eventually be lifting the Stanley Cup just like they did.

"Listen, he’s a proud guy," Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said earlier this week, when asked about Pastrnak’s struggles. "This is a young guy that’s still going through some of that maturity process and learning how to compete this time of year. He’s got good players around him to help him through it, he’s got the trust of his coaching staff, so we’re going to allow him to play through it.

"He’s a great kid, if you know him at all. He cares a lot."

That approach already looks prescient. The reunited "Perfection Line" terrorized Columbus on Saturday night, with Pastrnak generating seven shots on goal, producing six individual scoring chances and scoring twice.

That included a fitting winner for No. 88 with 88 seconds left on the clock to push the Bruins within one victory of the Eastern Conference Final.

Boston hasn’t played that deep into the spring since 2013, the year before Pastrnak was drafted 25th overall out of Sodertalje in the Swedish league. Along with Jake Debrusk and Charles McAvoy — first-round picks in 2015 and 2016 — he is the biggest reason why the grey-bearded core of the Bruins’ 2011 Cup team has a chance to follow Crosby’s Penguins by winning another championship a half-generation after their first.

Brad Marchand paid Pastrnak the ultimate compliment by saying he felt it was "inevitable" his teammate would manage a breakthrough performance against the Blue Jackets like he delivered in Game 5.

"These are the things we’ve come to expect out of him," said Marchand.

If it is a sign of Pastrnak reclaiming his swagger, or perhaps finally feeling completely comfortable following a five-week absence from a broken left thumb late in the season, the Bruins are a different animal entirely.

They might even be the favourite among the seven teams left standing.

That’s because the Marchand-Patrice Bergeron-Pastrnak line is capable of winning games on its own when it is running at high octane — something, surprisingly, that hasn’t consistently occurred during these playoffs.

The trio actually trails in expected goals, 2.98-3.26, during 77 even-strength minutes together. By comparison, Bergeron and Marchand own a dominant 3.43-2.17 expected goals edge and a ridiculous 62 per cent Corsi rating in their 75 minutes together without Pastrnak on the right side this spring.

The numbers have been pointing to a Pastrnak problem, especially late in the Toronto series and early on against Columbus. Even though the 22-year-old brushed aside the suggestion that he’s been carrying some extra weight on his shoulders, teammates tell a different story.

"They’ve been playing him hard and not giving him any time and space, and it’s tough," said goalie Tuukka Rask. "When you’re a player who wants the puck and wants those chances, it’s not easy when everybody is on you all the time on the ice, not giving you any room."

That’s where experience and maturity become a big factor.

It was the essence of a message ESPN’s cameras recorded Cassidy delivering to the Bruins during an intermission earlier in the series.

"We come to a time during that period where we have to decide if we’re gonna push through. This is last year all over again. We play against a heavier team. We decide maybe I don’t wanna … Wake the f— up. Alright? Play the f—— game the right way. It’s hard. It hurts to win. We’ve been through that 100 times. That’s life in April and May."

In taking back control of this second-round series with two straight wins over Columbus, there are signs of growth. Pastrnak took a monster open-ice hit from Adam Clendening early in Game 4, but played on and opened the scoring later in the shift.

Then he gave the Bruins a lead late in Game 5 and saw McAvoy — the 21-year-old who is logging two minutes more per night than any other Boston player — kick his right leg out to block an Artemi Panarin shot in the final seconds.

Afterwards, McAvoy stood barefoot in the dressing room and was asked if it stung.

"Yeah it did," he said. "In a good way."

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