BOSTON -- For much of Brad Marchand's young NHL career, he has been at his best when he’s seemingly everywhere on the ice regardless of what’s going on in the game, whether play is still going or the whistle has been blown.
So there was the Boston Bruins left wing continuing to practice his mantra early in the third period of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday night. It saw Marchand earn matching minor penalties with Chris Kunitz for an exchange involving a kneeing attempt by Marchand and a slash by his Penguins counterpart.
Then there was Marchand again skating down the left wing knowing his center of three seasons, Patrice Bergeron, would drive to the net. When Marchand found Bergeron for the game-winning goal in double overtime, the Bruins earned a 2-1 victory and a 3-0 lead in the best-of-7 series, which they’ll take into Game 4 Friday at TD Garden (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, RDS).
Since helping the Bruins dispose of the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Marchand has elevated his production and his feistiness, two things the Bruins rely on from the 25-year-old forward whenever they draw up their game plan. At his best, the man President Obama once called the "little ball of hate" draws outside the lines.
"He's just more involved, more confident," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of Marchand. "But every year in the playoffs, not only does he become a target for other teams, but he responds to it. What he's got to do is respond to it in a positive way. We saw him score that goal, the fourth goal, in Game 2 where he took off, scored a goal. I think that's a great way to respond.
"As long as he doesn't cross the line -- we've said that before -- we've got to keep him in check. His emotion is what makes him a real good player. You have to let him play with some emotion. Again, as long as he doesn't cross the line."
Marchand has nine points (four goals) in his past eight games, including two goals and one assist in this series. He didn’t start the Stanley Cup Playoffs performing like a one-time 30-goal scorer who buried 18 in 45 games during the shortened 2012-13 regular season. Instead of frustrating opponents, Marchand was aggravating himself.
"I think the most frustrating [thing] was [how] the series was so close and you want to be able to produce," said Marchand, who recorded two assists in the Bruins' seven-game series win against the Maple Leafs. "Thankfully, [David Krejci's] line was getting four goals a game and they won the series for us. So I didn’t need to be there, but it was definitely frustrating not being able to produce."
Something was awry, and Marchand needed a few extra games to iron things out.
"A lot of it is confidence. But the other part of it was I didn't feel like I had my legs," he said. "I couldn't really do things I'm normally able to do. And it kind of played on my mind there a bit, my confidence wasn't there and thankfully it came back a bit."
The Bruins eliminated the Maple Leafs series by overcoming a 4-1 third-period deficit in Game 7, which ended when Bergeron scored an overtime goal Marchand assisted on. Three days later in the opening game of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, Bergeron set up Marchand for the game-winner in overtime against the New York Rangers. Marchand hasn't looked back since.
Though Marchand's verbal and physical shenanigans weren't on full display against Toronto and New York, Pittsburgh has provided him with ample targets for his special brand of aggravation. Practically every time Marchand has been on the ice, he has spent a stoppage in play jawing with Matt Cooke, Brenden Morrow, Kris Letang or Kunitz. The banter, shoving and other assorted exchanges of pleasantries actually keep Marchand on top of his game.
"[I'm] more involved," he said. "Your head gets more into the game. You feel it when tempers flare out there a little bit. It's more exciting and your adrenaline gets going and I feel like I’m more involved in the game when I play like that."
"I laugh. He's my mood light on the bench," said Bruins forward Tyler Seguin, a close friend of Marchand's who used to play alongside him on the line with Bergeron. "But I think that's when [Marchand's] at his best, when he's playing his game and being a little rat out there. It seems to work. He gets under guys' skins pretty easily. I don't know if it's because he's ugly or he says good things. It works for him and he's always playing a good game offensively as well."
When Marchand arrived in the NHL, his reputation was that of a grinder, or a "rat" in hockey parlance. He started the 2010-11 season as a rookie on the fourth line. By the season's midway point, he'd worked his way up to a unit centered by Bergeron and Mark Recchi. Marchand blossomed in the playoffs, with 19 points (11 goals) in 25 games during the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup championship.
All the while, Marchand maintained his knack for driving opponents to distraction, which nicely complemented his goal-scoring prowess. In fact, the lasting images of Marchand from the 2011 Stanley Cup Final against the Vancouver Canucks are of his two goals in Boston's Game 7 win, and of the several rabbit punches he delivered to the face of Canucks center Henrik Sedin after a whistle earlier in the series.
That's not to say Marchand's approach to the game hasn't cost the Bruins now and again. He's been suspended twice for a total of seven games, fined at least once, and reprimanded a couple of other times. And it hasn't just been the League that has dropped the hammer on Marchand. There have been plenty of backroom discussions (some more heated than others) and a couple of benchings over the years.
In the end, Julien and the Bruins know they need Marchand to be at his best, at everything he does.
"I've been hard on [Marchand], but hard like any parent would be on their kid growing up," Julien said. "My job is about hockey. He's been really good about those things. He gets it. That's why he's kept improving."
Wherever the rest of this postseason run takes the Bruins, you better believe Marchand will be right in the middle of things.