Krejci credits shift to wing for strong play as center
BOSTON -- Despite this week's snow that coated New England, spring rapidly is approaching.
While the temperature is not expected to rise much until later next week, the NHL schedule already has that April-like feeling, as the Boston Bruins started their stretch of 21 games in 38 days to close the regular season Thursday.
Perhaps the early arrival of postseason atmosphere was what inspired Bruins center David Krejci to open March with a hat trick after he had scored just 2 goals in all of February. After all, since he cracked the NHL Krejci has proven that when the stakes are highest, he's usually at his best.
"He likes to thrive on big occasions, and there's no doubt that every playoff that he's played in, he's been a good player. And every year, at the end of the year, he's always been a good player," said Bruins coach Claude Julien.
He'll have another big game coming up, as the Bruins visit the Eastern Conference-leading New York Rangers on Sunday (12:30 p.m.ET, NBC, NHLN-CA).
Most glaring on Krejci’s resume of clutch performances are the League-high 12 goals and 23 points he totaled last season during the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup. But Julien recently recalled that even as an NHL rookie, Krejci was in top form when the season was hanging in the balance. During Julien’s first season behind Boston’s bench, 2007-08, Krejci showed the first signs that he could be a top center in the NHL while Patrice Bergeron was out with a concussion and Marc Savard was battling through a cracked bone in his back.
Krejci helped the Bruins qualify for the playoffs in a race that lasted until the final weekend of the regular season and then produced 1 goal and 4 assists as eighth-seeded Boston pushed top-seeded Montreal to seven games.
For his career, Krejci has 44 points in 52 playoff games, a 0.85 point-per-game average that exceeds his regular-season average of 0.72 points per game (258 points in 357 games).
With 16 goals and 44 points in 59 games this season, Krejci has suffered through an inconsistent season. He even went through a seven-game point drought early last month. Now the 25-year-old center is looking at March as a chance to raise his level of play in time for the most important part of the season.
"You can't just turn the switch on just when the playoffs come. You've got to start now," said Krejci. "It's 20 games to go (as of Friday). Every game's important and you can't take a day off here. From now until the end of the season you've got to go out there, do your best and try to get ready as much as you can for the playoffs."
Krejci's ascension to the top of Boston's depth chart at center coincided with Savard's serious concussion in March 2010, and his status was cemented last season during a 62-point regular season (he shared the team scoring lead) and remarkable postseason performance. Ironically, his status as the team's No. 1 center -- which he’s relinquished for a bit to Bergeron during his struggles this season -- might have received a recent boost from a change of position out to the wing.
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Late in a loss in Minnesota on Feb. 19, Julien shifted Krejci to right wing on a line centered by Chris Kelly, and with left wing Milan Lucic. Although Krejci scored 1 goal in four games on right wing, he played with physicality and created many scoring chances in a dramatic win at St. Louis. He began to again resemble the player Boston decided to reward with a three-year, $15.75 million contract extension earlier this season.
Krejci said his temporary shift to the wing helped him find his legs because he had more room to skate. As a right wing in the Bruins' system, he also was the first man in on Boston's forecheck, so there was no way he could get away with taking a shift off. Julien, who returned Krejci to center Thursday, saw the old Krejci emerge during the position change.
"Because he was along the boards he had to probably grind it out a little bit more and play more of a direct game, and he seemed to get his game going in the right direction," said Julien.
Krejci credited Julien for his improvement because the coach "knows how to work with me." He also accepted that Boston's recent offensive struggles, which coincided with injuries to right wings Nathan Horton and Rich Peverley, required a major juggling of the line combinations. One thing that wasn't altered, however, was Krejci's pairing with Lucic. The pair has been a duo for all but a handful of games the last couple of seasons, mostly with Horton, but also with Peverley, Kelly and most recently speedster Tyler Seguin.
No one has benefitted more from Krejci's emergence as a premier playmaker than Lucic, who scored a career-high 30 goals last season and has 21 this season.
"I think he's definitely getting his confidence back when he has the puck on his stick. That's a huge thing for him," Lucic said of Krejci. "When he controls the pace and uses his wingers and is also getting in the areas where he can score those goals ... obviously it's been kind of an up-and-down year for David and it's been frustrating at times for him. But you know that it's great to see him kind of work through it. And looking back, it all kind of started at that St. Louis game, where he wasn't getting the points but he was playing well."
Only nine of Boston's final 20 games are at home, and 15 of those games come against teams either in the playoffs or within five points of a spot. That should bode well for Krejci, who's looking forward to using those games a precursor to another explosive postseason.
"Many teams are battling for the playoffs; many teams are in (the race). So basically every game's like a playoff game," said Krejci. "So it's good for us. We've got to be ready for every single game and when the playoffs come we've got to be ready and be in good shape."