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Bruins top line has been first-rate in playoffs

Marchand-Bergeron-Pastrnak unit looks to keep Boston's Cup dream alive in Game 5

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / NHL.com Staff Writer

BOSTON -- It took a while for Brad Marchand to speak up. There, in the middle, was Patrice Bergeron, a talented center who at age 25 already seemed wise beyond his years. 

There, on the right side, was future Hall of Famer Mark Recchi, 43. There, on the left wing, was Marchand. 

He knew enough to keep his mouth shut and his ears open. 

"It was more for me just questions at first," Marchand recalled. "I asked them where they wanted me and what I can do, different or better, and they were always very good at just talking to me and not being hard on me."

 

[RELATED: Bruins frustrated after Game 4 loss | Complete Lightning vs. Bruins series coverage]

 

Marchand was young, then 22, in 2010-11, a rookie who had graduated from a fourth-line role to a line with Bergeron and Recchi. It was a line that began a partnership -- Marchand and Bergeron -- that has lasted for seven seasons and counting, won a Stanley Cup in 2011 and survived a parade of right wings, including Tyler Seguin, Loui Eriksson, Reilly Smith and Brett Connolly.

The latest right wing might be the best, with David Pastrnak stepping onto the line and into the role once held by Marchand, all those years ago. 

"For sure," Marchand said when asked if the 21-year-old Pastrnak is what he was once on the line. "With a lot more skill and talent than I had."

Marchand, 29, talks more these days, with the communication standing as one of the most notable things about the Bruins top line. They are always talking, always huddled, heads together ahead of a crucial offensive-zone face-off, or on the bench after a shift. They are usually listening to Bergeron, now 32, but sometimes these days it will be Marchand directing, advising, helping. 

Though, as he added, "I still don't think I've ever said anything to [Bergeron] to do different." 

Seven years after they were first paired together, this might just be the best line they have ever formed, one that has taken the Stanley Cup Playoffs by storm, with 52 points (16 goals, 36 assists) in 11 games. 

They have been the engine that makes the Bruins go, the answer to why the Bruins have made it this far, at even strength, on the power play, even on the penalty kill, where Marchand-to-Bergeron provided a shorthanded goal in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Second Round on Friday. It was Bergeron's second goal of the game and third for the line, with Pastrnak scoring the other.

Video: TBL@BOS, Gm4: Bergeron nets SHG to put B's ahead

When they're on as they were Friday, combining for five points (three goals, two assists), they have been as much fun to watch as any line in the postseason. 

But with the Bruins trailing Tampa Bay 3-1 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference Second Round and facing elimination in Game 5 at Amalie Arena on Sunday (3 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVAS), they will likely need to be on again if Boston has any chance to keep its season alive. 

"It's not over until it's over, right?" Bergeron said after Game 5. 

***

Perhaps the most formative time for the Bergeron line came when the line was without Bergeron. 

It was at the start of this season, when Bergeron missed the first five games with a lower-body injury. When coach Bruce Cassidy, beginning his first full season with the Bruins, was desperately searching for lines that might work without Bergeron and without David Backes (diverticulitis), he threw Marchand on a line with Pastrnak. 

That was when Marchand began to see the potential they could have together, even though Cassidy's original plan had been to pair Pastrnak with David Krejci, the fellow Czech Republic countrymen seemingly a natural fit.

But there was something about Marchand and Pastrnak. 

"I think it was big for [Pastrnak] and I, with [Bergeron] being out," Marchand said. "That allowed us to build that chemistry. … You never hope for injuries, for anybody, but honestly, that's how a lot of things come together, is through injuries in this league."

The intention had been to spread out the scoring, allowing the Bruins to roll two dangerous offensive lines. But after Cassidy went with the line in a 4-3 shootout loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 30, when Bergeron and Marchand each scored and Pastrnak had three assists, he could not pry them apart again.

"Once they started playing well together, it was hard to break them up," Cassidy said. "I think that's what it came down to. I think the plan, at some point, was to see if we could go back to [where] we started."

Video: BOS@CBJ: Marchand pots 200th NHL goal to even game

They were too good. They were too smart. They scored too darn much.

"For me the communication they have, guys like [Bergeron] and [Marchand], who have played together pretty much every shift for eight years, they're still talking the most of anybody on our team," Backes said. "Which means that guys that have just been together for a month or two, or even just one year, should be talking more than them."

But that is why they're so good, why they're always on the same page, why they seem to know where the other has been, where he's going, and what's going to happen once he arrives. Because they do. 

"That's something that we've always realized, that it was important," Bergeron said. "It was just second nature. It just happened. We're three guys that like to set up plays and talk about what we're seeing, and it helps out with using your instincts out there, but also knowing when the play unfolds, the way that we've talked about where the other guy's going to be and it helps making the quick plays."

***

When you have a pairing as in sync as Bergeron and Marchand, it's difficult to find a third partner. They work together so well that sometimes, perhaps, it's easier for them to just use each other. They know tendencies and strengths, preferences and weaknesses. 

That right wing has to be able to work well with the others, to understand the chemistry that already exists and to work within it, and to work, period. Bergeron and Marchand are among the hardest working of the hardest working, a mentality spurred on by the ever-dedicated Bergeron, who has pushed Marchand, who has pushed right back. 

This season, Pastrnak did that too. 

"He wants to be the guy. He wants to make those plays, and if we don't have the puck he hunts it back," Bergeron said after Boston's 7-3 win in Game 2 of the first round against the Maple Leafs, when Pastrnak had six points (three goals, three assists). "That's what amazes me with him. 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."

Video: TOR@BOS, Gm2: Pastrnak earns hatty in career night

That is the step he has taken. That is the step they have all taken. 

Each of the three had at least 30 goals this season; Pastrnak led Boston with 35 in 82 games, Marchand had 34 in 68 games, and Bergeron 30 in 64 games. The Bruins and Maple Leafs were the only teams to have three 30-goal scorers (Toronto had forward James van Riemsdyk with 36, center Auston Matthews with 34 and center Nazem Kadri with 32), but Boston was the only team to stack them on one line. 

But their greatness as a line does not only come down to their offensive skill. It's on the other end too, where they can be relied upon to counter other teams' top lines and shut them down. 

"They might be good offensively, but they're unbelievable defensively," former Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock said. "They knock people right out of the box to get those opportunities. They don't need to wait for the puck to come to them. They're willing to work to get it back. That's what makes them so dangerous.

"There's lots of lines -- I think there's five or six lines that have just as much skill as they do -- but there's not many lines in the League who are willing to work that hard to get the puck back to create offense. … You're never safe when you play against them. You're never safe when you have the puck, let alone when you don't have the puck."

Perhaps that is where their true genius lies, and where that communication truly becomes crucial.

"A lot of times we play top lines," Marchand said, "so we have to communicate a lot about how certain guys play and how our styles match up against that, how we can create offense against certain players, certain D, certain systems. So it's a process. It still is. Every team, it's almost a chess match."

They're constantly adapting, constantly changing, constantly working on something -- on positioning, support, shot selection, everything. There is so much potential they see, with themselves, with the continued improvement and growth of Pastrnak, with their chemistry. 

Because, as Marchand said, "We're still trying to be better."

That's both a scary thought and a necessary one. Because if the Bruins hope to play a little longer this season, that line -- the heart and soul of the Bruins -- needs to be even better than its best, starting Sunday.

***

 

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