The Bruins dodged a bullet on Sunday night against the Montreal Canadiens.
No, we're not talking about the three goals they scored in the third period to power up for a 3-1 comeback win against the sputtering, struggling Habs at TD Garden. Though the phrase could certainly apply aside from the fact that the Bruins are again rolling and have won six games in a row, and a loss wouldn't have been "end of the world" type stuff for them.
Instead we're talking about David Pastrnak scoring his 25th goal of the season and getting out of Sunday night's game in one piece when Montreal clearly began to target the 23-year-old sniper with some bone-rattling hits.
It started with the 6-foot-4, 236-pound Shea Weber knocking down Pastrnak in the neutral zone, and immediately escalated when Pastrnak popped back up and went right at Montreal's big, bad captain. Then it continued a few minutes later when 6-foot-3, 205-pound Joel Armia drilled Pastrnak from behind on the ensuing Bruins power play, and hit the B's right winger hard enough that he popped off his helmet and forced him to leave the ice with the top PP unit out there.
It was a late, cheap hit from Armia that could have done damage to Pastrnak, but luckily for the Bruins, No. 88 skated quickly to the bench, finished out the period and was just fine. To his credit, he also wasn't expecting anybody else to fight his battles for him even though that's probably the best deterrent to keep it from happening over and over.
"I need to be careful when I get into certain spots, but you also know that it's hockey and that it's coming," said Pastrnak. "Sometimes you need to make sure you don't try to do too much and try to protect yourself."
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It's even better when your teammates can help do some of the protecting, but the game-breaking winger scored Boston's first goal of the game in the third period to get the B's back into the game. It was Pastrnak's 25th goal of the season and it was a beauty with the winger bombing one off the rush in the kind of throwback goal you don't see much these days.
It was also the only way that Pastrnak can gain revenge when opponents put a target on his back as they are going to do with more and more frequency. Nothing else has worked against a player leading the NHL with 25 goals this season and on pace for an amazing 76 goals for the season, so the Bruins should expect teams are figuratively going to try to punch Pastrnak in the mouth.
"[Montreal] played him hard. I didn't see the last hit by [Ben Chiarot]; it looked clean from where I was, so listen, he's arguably the best player in the league right now or the hottest anyway. [He's] certainly a guy that drives our offense a lot along with Marchy [Brad Marchand] and Krech [David Krejci], and you know, Bergy [Patrice Bergeron] when he's in, so I expect that will happen more and more," said Cassidy. "Obviously, he'll have to keep his cool, but I thought he did a good job with it; he just kept playing, and good for him. He pushes back when he has to; guys were trying to take advantage of him on little faceoff setup, so he's a big boy, and he kept his discipline and did a good job."
Cassidy referenced a punishing hit by Chiarot on Pastrnak against the sideboards by the benches in the third period, and it was indeed clean as well. All's well that ends well for the Bruins as Pastrnak scored, stayed healthy and the Bruins eventually won the game.
But it's also playing with fire if the Bruins continue to allow their star offensive player to be pounded physically without standing up for him. The Bruins run the risk of Pastrnak going into a shell offensively if he continuously gets targeted, or the NHL's leading scorer getting hurt because teams are taking liberties against him.
There were some big boys in the B's lineup with Zdeno Chara and David Backes out there, and an entire fourth line of players who are with Boston to provide energy, physicality and a willingness to pay the price when it's needed. Somebody needs to protect Pastrnak when opponents are taking runs at him, or it will simply embolden more teams around the league to do the same exact thing with the idea that it will eventually slow him down.
Clearly it is no longer the old days where teams will skate a tough guy with their star player, something that Cassidy himself referenced after Sunday night's game.
"That's hockey, right? That's sports. You can't really protect him. I mean, you can get matchups where you keep him away from certain people, but that's just going to take away from his game. You can put him on the ice with certain type of players, but I think those days it used to be, well, you've got [Wayne] Gretzky and [Jari] Kurri, we'll put [Dave] Semenko out there. You just don't see a lot of that anymore," said Cassidy. "Some of it is, when he's receiving the puck, he's going to have to pre-scout, work back some of these more physical guys so he doesn't put himself in vulnerable positions.
"Certainly, we can push back and I thought we did, it upped our emotional energy. We got in there and battled as a group, and that sometimes tempers it as well. If you don't back each other up, teams feel like they can take liberties. I wouldn't go as far as saying liberties on [the Bruins] tonight. I thought they just played them hard. Part of that's just hockey."
There are no Semenko-types in the league anymore really, so that's not going to be an option regardless for a Bruins team that is reluctant to break up the Perfection Line when everybody is healthy. But there are ways to get a message across that running star players won't be tolerated, and that message wasn't loud and clear from the B's to the Habs this time around.
It all worked out for the Bruins on Sunday night, but they might not get off so easily next time if they don't react with force and swiftness when anybody starts missing with the most explosive player in the NHL. Pastrnak has earned that title by getting halfway to 50 goals by Dec. 1 in a season that looks like it's going to be one for the ages.
Now it's up to his teammates to do their part and make sure the 23-year-old stays hot - and in one piece - as opponents are looking for new and unpleasant ways to throw Pastrnak off his game.
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