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David Krejci's playoff struggles: Untimely 'slump' or reality check for Bruins star?

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Montreal Canadiens at Boston Bruins
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Bruins center David Krejci keeps the puck away from Canadiens right winger Brendan Gallagher during second-round NHL playoff action. (USA Today)

MONTREAL — “Everybody has a slump,” says David Krejci, and he’s right. Sidney Crosby had a slump. He went 13 games without a playoff goal until he scored this week, and he’s the best player in the world. Jonathan Toews had a slump. He produced only three goals and 14 points in 23 playoff games last year, and he’s Jonathan Toews. He already has four goals and nine points in nine playoff games this year.

But is this just a slump – bad luck, bad matchups, maybe an injury? Or is Krejci starting to come to earth as well? It’s hockey, and individuals run hot and cold, and a lot is out of their control, and things tend to find their level over time. Should Krejci be the player who led the NHL in scoring in two of the past three playoffs?

Krejci has zero goals and three assists in nine games for the Boston Bruins, who are knotted in a 2-2 tie with the archrival Montreal Canadiens in their second-round series. He has only three shots in the past three games. Along with linemates Jarome Iginla and Milan Lucic, he was particularly quiet in Thursday night’s 1-0 overtime victory.

[Nick Cotsonika: An NHL playoff hockey love letter to Montreal]

This is not what we’ve come to expect from Krejci this time of year. He has the reputation as a rare player who raises his game in the playoffs even though the competition is better, the stakes are higher and the action is tighter. He has never produced more than 23 goals or 73 points in an 82-game regular season, yet he had 29 goals and 73 points in 81 career playoff games entering the 2014 tournament. Even including this stretch, his goals-per-game average goes from .218 in the regular season to .322 in the playoffs. His points-per-game average goes from .750 to .840.

“Everybody has a slump,” said Krejci, who had 19 goals and a team-leading 69 points in the regular season. “There’s no surprise that I’m in it right now, but I’m trying to help the team in different ways right now. I believe I’m a good enough player that eventually it’s going to come.”

Krejci has been a key factor in the Bruins’ success or failure each of the past four playoffs:

— In 2010, the Bruins blew a 3-0 lead to the Philadelphia Flyers in the second round and lost in seven games. A turning point was a wrist injury to Krejci that knocked him out of Games 4 through 7. He had three goals and six points in four games before he went down.

— In 2011, Krejci led the NHL in goals (12) and points (23). The Bruins won the Stanley Cup.

— In 2012, Krejci had one goal and three points as the Bruins lost a seven-game first-round series to the Washington Capitals. He called that “a bad run,” but he had a good excuse: a pane of Plexiglas fell on his head as the Bruins celebrated a victory in Game 1, and he seemed off afterward.

— In 2013, Krejci racked up 26 points as the Bruins went to the Cup final – a stunning seven more than anyone else in the league, including Patrick Kane, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoffs’ most valuable player. Krejci had nine goals, too, one off the league lead.

“When was the last time you went through something like this?” a reporter asked.

“In the playoffs?” Krejci said. “Probably never.”

[Nick Cotsonika: Nobody better available, so Leafs stick with Randy Carlyle] 

Why has Krejci produced more in the playoffs than the regular season? To start, when it comes to goal-scoring, he has a higher career shooting percentage in the playoffs (14.5) than the regular season (11.7). Some other theories: He’s at his best when he doesn’t look to pass all the time, making him more unpredictable, and usually shoots more in the playoffs as he simplifies his game. He averages more shots per game in the playoffs (2.22) than he does in the regular season (1.86). He has centered big, physical wingers – Lucic and Nathan Horton in the past, Lucic and Iginla now – and the playoffs suit their gritty style. They win battles, sustain pressure and pop in rebounds.

That might help explain this slump. Krejci has had two games in which he has had five shots, but six in which he has had one. Both of the Bruins’ opponents – the Detroit Red Wings and Canadiens – have tried to win with speed, not grit. The Krejci line has started a lot of shifts in the defensive zone. It has dominated at times, including Game 1 of this series, but has spent too much time chasing instead of pressuring in the offensive end. Lucic, Krejci and Iginla all have poor possession numbers – and Krejci has the worst of the three. When he has been on the ice 5-on-5, the Bruins have had 43.8 percent of the shot attempts. In short, Krejci's line doesn't have the puck enough, Krejci isn't shooting the puck enough when he has it and the puck isn't going in.

“He’s been awesome all year,” Iginla said. “He’s been great in the playoffs. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to help lead the way and perform, and I thought in the third [period on Thursday night] he started taking over a little bit, getting it going. It’s one of those things that’s always magnified in the playoffs if we’re not going as well as we think we should be, or we should be.”

Note that Krejci had only one goal and one point in a seven-game first-round series with the Canadiens in 2011. Other players carried the Bruins, and then Krejci got hot while others cooled off. Maybe the same thing will happen again. Maybe the other players will have to carry the Bruins to a greater degree in this series and beyond if the Bruins are going to go deep again.

Krejci should be producing more than he is right now. But we shouldn’t expect Krejci to produce in the playoffs the way he has in the past, either. There is a reason most players produce less in the playoffs than they do in the regular season. Crosby does. Toews does. Eventually, shouldn’t Krejci, too?

“I won’t give up,” Krejci said. “I’ll keep pushing forward.”

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