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Bergeron frustrates Bruins opponents with excellence entering playoffs

Forward is admired competitor they 'hate playing against'

by Amalie Benjamin @AmalieBenjamin / Staff Writer

BOSTON -- They weren't on a line together for long, back at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. But in the brief time they were, John Tavares got a new vision of the kind of hockey player he'd been lining up against for all those years. He got to see a new side of Patrice Bergeron.

"He's one of the players I've got the most respect for in the League, I think, as a competitor and as a person," said John Tavares, the Toronto Maple Leafs center who will see Bergeron up close when his team visits the Boston Bruins in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, SN, TVAS).

"I always tell people he was probably the easiest player I've ever played with. Just always in the right spot at the right time. He's so responsible all over the ice. He's always kind of covering up your mistakes, and he just always makes the right decisions with the puck."


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It was the first trip to the Olympics for Tavares, the second for Bergeron, and it ended not only with a gold medal for Canada, but a chance for some of Canada's players to see what all the hype -- and all those Selke trophies, awarded to the best defensive forward in the NHL -- are about, up close. It's a different side than they usually see, lining up across the face-off dot from the center or sitting on the opposite bench.

That's where they find mostly frustration.

"I've had to go up against that for a long time," Tavares said. "There's been a lot of good battles. … But also a lot of fun because when you get to challenge yourself against a guy like Patrice, it's only going to make you better and force you to raise your game."

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Bergeron was one of two players Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos eagerly anticipated playing alongside as he thought about the 2014 Olympics, an event he would miss with a broken tibia, and then as he looked toward the World Cup of Hockey 2016.

The other was Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby.

"I think him and Sidney Crosby were the guys that I was really, really looking forward to just seeing them on an everyday basis -- practice with them, see how they go about and do their business," Stamkos said.

The intrigue about Bergeron runs deep; how he's able to be that offensively dynamic while being defensively responsible enough to win the Selke four times, the work he puts in, his shot, his hockey IQ, his focus.

But it's through playing with him that some of the best players, especially centers, in the NHL have come to understand just what it is that makes Bergeron tick, when an even deeper level of respect blossoms after sharing a dressing room with him at an international event.

It was something that Ryan O'Reilly experienced for years while with the Buffalo Sabres, and something that's at a bit of a safer distance now that he's in the Western Conference with the St. Louis Blues.

"I definitely hate playing against him," O'Reilly said.

O'Reilly and Bergeron played together at that World Cup of Hockey, where the Blues center saw firsthand how he frustrates other teams and players. He could relate.

"He's a phenomenal player and one of the best two-way players I think the game's ever seen," O'Reilly said. "You can see how focused he is, how there's no casual moment with him, whether it's taking a draw against him, defending, having the puck in the [offensive] zone, how hard he defends. He's a guy that just earns everything."

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Including respect and admiration.

"You know what you're getting every single night," said Crosby, who has played on a line with Bergeron and Boston forward Brad Marchand for Canada. "He's got amazing hockey sense. He knows exactly where to go, where to be on the ice to support the puck, whether it's to do a little thing to create room or to create an opportunity for himself.

"Whatever the play dictates, he's able to adjust and make sure he's doing the right thing out there. He's a pretty responsible player defensively too. He doesn't cheat. There's no way he's going to cheat to get offense. He's going to play the right way every single night and compete hard."

And still manage to score goals; the 33-year-old has had at least 30 five times in his 15 NHL seasons since Boston selected him in the second round (No. 45) of the 2003 NHL Draft. Bergeron finished this season with an NHL career-high 79 points (32 goals, 47 assists) in 65 games, surpassing the 73 (31 goals, 42 assists) he had in 2005-06.

Learning about his game informed the way Crosby has approached games against the Bruins, whether in the regular season or the playoffs, where the teams last faced off in a 4-0 Bruins sweep in the Eastern Conference Final in 2013.

"I think you prepare to just compete for every inch of ice out there," Crosby said. "I think that's the mentality when you're playing against him. You know that he's going to be in the right position, so you as a guy playing against him, you can't look to cheat because you know he's going to be in the right spot and is going to make you pay the other way."

He's done it before. He's done it to Crosby and Tavares and O'Reilly and Stamkos, to the Penguins and Maple Leafs and Blues and Lightning.

But these players haven't just seen it across the ice. They've seen it on their lines, next to them, for their country. And they know what Bergeron has meant to the Canada national team, what he has meant to the Bruins, what he would mean for any team that had been smart, and lucky, enough to draft him.

"If you're going to start a team and you want a role model," Stamkos said, "that's the type of guy you go after."

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