BOSTON -- Boston Bruins center David Krejci has a simple answer for the origins of his pass-first mentality.
"You know when you pass the puck as a kid, you have friends. When you don't pass the puck, then you don't have friends," said Krejci, who played youth hockey in his native Czech Republic before he joined the Gatineau Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
For the past several seasons, Krejci's desires have extended well beyond expanding his circle of friends. He's been driven to become one of the best two-way centers in the NHL, playing for a championship-caliber team. Nowhere has his desire manifested itself more than in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In two of the past three postseasons, Krejci led all scorers in points. In 2011, he led in both goals (12) and points (23) during the Bruins run to the Stanley Cup championship. Two years later, Krejci's 17 assists and 26 points were the most among playoff scorers during a run for Boston which ended when the Bruins lost the Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games.
Center - BOS
GOALS: 19 | ASST: 50 | PTS: 69
SOG: 169 | +/-: 39
As the Bruins open their 2014 postseason, Krejci knows he's raised the bar for what the Bruins and observers expect this spring. Although Krejci had 62 points in 75 regular-season games in 2011 and 33 points in 47 games last year, there was a feeling Krejci and his linemates might've caught the opposition off guard in the playoffs.
There's no chance of that happening this season.
"Yeah, I know the expectations are going to be high," he said. "But I'm just going to play the same way. If I'm going to have five, 10, 20 points and we're going to go all the way, then I don't really care. So I just try to go game by game and do my best, play my hardest and we'll see what happens."
This season, the first in which he served as an alternate captain, Krejci was Boston's leading scorer, barely holding off Jarome Iginla and Patrice Bergeron in a balanced Boston offense that had seven players top 40 points. As a team, Boston has been near the top of the League in goals per game throughout.
The deep Bruins by no means plan on relying on Krejci to carry them in the playoffs, but they know what he's capable of even in the glare of the spotlight that should be focused on him.
"Well, I mean, obviously having done what he has there's sure to be expectations. But when you look at players of that caliber like David, I don't think it really crosses their mind," Bruins center Gregory Campbell said. "I think that the reason they're so good is because that's the most fun time to play for them and the most important time of year. And usually that's when the good players rise to the top and shine.
"So I don't really think that he puts a lot of pressure on himself to match the expectations that are expected of him or what he's done in the past. I think it's all about winning for him and being the best he can be. When he's that, he's one of the better players in the League."
The Bruins have loved Krejci for his playmaking since they drafted him in the second round in 2004. Krejci's coaches, starting with his father, Zdenek, who played in the Czech Republic until university age, never discouraged him from going after assists before goals. When, in his second season, he made an impact as a third-line center with 73 points in 82 games in 2008-09, two things became as static in his life as his ability to always find the open teammate.
First, he realized that if his career was going to last more than a few seasons, he was going to have to become a two-way player. He finished that 2008-09 season with a plus-37 rating. He was a plus-23 in 2010-11 and this season has been among the highest plus players in the League despite starting more than 30 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive end, which is third behind Patrice Bergeron and Campbell among Bruins forwards.
"I'm really proud of my two-way game this year," Krejci said. "Of course, I don't play [penalty kill] -- I do once in a while -- but obviously I would love to play more. I want to play every situation, so I'm not going to hide that. I would love to be there all the time, but that's not the case. So I'm focusing on other things. I'm proud of the two-way [play] of my line, of how well we're doing. I think all of us are plus-30, so I take pride in that."
Second, Krejci found out that coach Claude Julien admired the player for his passing and his shooting. Regardless of the statistics, Julien has always publicly encouraged Krejci to shoot more and even this season would only concede that Krejci's "getting better" at being a little selfish. Still Krejci averaged more than two shots per game this season.
Of course, it'd be easy for anyone to fall into a pass-first mode when skating regularly with wings the caliber of Krejci's the past couple of years. For the three seasons preceding this one, Krejci centered left wing Milan Lucic and right wing Nathan Horton, each of whom has a 30-goal season on his resume.
Things could've gone a little haywire this season had Iginla not proven such a perfect replacement for the departed Horton on Krejci's right side. Although it took Iginla a couple months to round into form, he exceeded Horton's single-season Bruins production. He adapted to Krejci's methodical style of drawing one, or sometimes even two defenders to him, before making a pass. Lucic continued to have an otherworldly connection with Krejci and finished the season with 24 goals.
With his pass or his shot, Krejci is a weapon which even the best teams are going to have to game plan for him in the playoffs.
"I almost say he's a little bit like [Detroit Red Wings center Pavel] Datsyuk," said Chicago Blackhawks wing Kris Versteeg, who was Krejci's linemate in the American Hockey League and was an adversary during a four-year run with three different Eastern Conference teams. "You know he's extremely patient and he's a pass-first guy. He likes to make plays and he can really make stuff out of nothing out there with his creativity. So he's a player that you always got to keep your eye on because ... he's actually got very deceptive speed too. You wouldn't think he's as fast as he is."
The ease with which Krejci thrives in postseason pressure is similar to how he's been able to excel at several sports throughout his life. He was a standout soccer player as a kid before turning to hockey full-time. He's probably the Bruins' second-best tennis player next to defenseman Dennis Seidenberg, who was a nationally-ranked player as a junior. Krejci says he dominates the team in pingpong and although he doesn't know his handicap, he shoots in the 80s on the golf course despite having never picked up a club before coming to North America. Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask says he can attest to Krejci's golf ability.
Krejci has had less time every year to hone his swing because his production on the ice has contributed to lengthy postseason runs for the Bruins. This year shouldn't be any different.
"I'm telling you that he's been consistent as much as I've seen him be consistent. In all the years I've had him here, this is probably the best he's played from Game 1 ... so he's been real consistent this year more than ever," Julien said. "So is he ready [for the playoffs]? We know he's always been good in the playoffs and the way he's played this year, I have no reason to doubt that he will be ready."