BRIGHTON, Mass – David Pastrnak was quick to say that whatever discomfort he had with his surgically repaired thumb didn't impact his very erratic playoff performance.
It "didn't feel the same way", he said, after taking a hit to the hand in the second round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, but both the 23-year-old winger and sources within the Bruins organization insisted that Pastrnak was healthy during the postseason.
Injures were not the issue for the young forward by the time the Stanley Cup Final rolled around, and Pastrnak finished with just two goals, four points and a team-worst minus-7 in the seven-game series against the St. Louis Blues. Pastrnak wasn't exactly terrible in the postseason with nine goals, 19 points and an even plus/minus rating in 24 games during the Stanley Cup playoffs, but he also wasn't anywhere close to his best self from the regular season.
Instead Pastrnak was passing up clean looks at the net, fanning on one-timer opportunities that usually ended up in the back of the net and sometimes getting discouraged by the physical play going on around him. It wasn't more evident than early in Game 4 of the Cup Final when he basically gave up on a puck battle in the first period while bracing for a hit that was coming his way.
Pastrnak admitted during this week's breakup day at Warrior Ice Arena that the mental grind of the playoffs, and the criticism heaped on him, took a toll on the talented young winger.
"It was definitely tough. I wasn't feeling great, but that's why this was such a good group because we were always picking each other up. It was obviously challenging for me, but I had 25 guys to help pick me up just like I would do the opposite [for them]," said Pastrnak. "It was the mental stuff, you know? In this kind of life, even if you don't want to see stuff, read stuff and blah-blah with the media, it's tough. You're always going to see it. And that's fine, you know?
"I will take a lot of positives from this. I'm just going to get stronger mentally. So it was a good experience. It's a big mental experience. I gained a lot this postseason. The mental stuff is what I learned the most. [I learned] that it doesn't [expletive] matter if you play a bad friggen' game. It's the playoffs. Or if you have a bad shift. It's the playoffs and you just need to come back to the bench and make sure you're ready for the next shift no matter what happened behind you. It's the tough part of hockey sometimes when you get back stuck on something instead of looking forward, and focusing on the next shift. Sometimes you get stuck on thinking what happened before and that brings you down kind of."
It's key that Pastrnak had diagnosed the problem and is already willing to use the inconsistent playoff performance for him as a learning experience.
The biggest lesson the talented young right winger needs to take is that Pasta needs to toughen up mentally and physically. He needs to be willing to pay the physical price to make plays in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and that means sticking his nose into puck battles rather than bracing for a puck before he's won the Cup. It also means being willing to battle to get to the scoring areas rather than loitering on the perimeter when the puck is on the offensive zone.
Just as importantly it means staying in the game mentally and not allowing a slump to consume him at the most important time of the season. If teams know they can discourage Boston's young star mentally and physically, Pastrnak is going to continue to get hammered each and every postseason he plays in Black and Gold.
It's going to be of paramount importance that Pastrnak toughens up in both areas and returns to the form he had two years ago in the postseason. Pastrnak was dominant and game-breaking with six goals and 20 points in 12 games, and to this point in his career he still boasts strong numbers (17 goals and 43 points in 42 playoff games) in his Stanley Cup playoff career despite two out of three postseasons being less than stellar for him.
Clearly the potential is there for him to be a giant weapon for the Bruins in the postseason, and the B's will need him to be that if they're going to continue pushing for Stanley Cups in the near future. But it's going to take a mentally and physically tougher Pastrnak to withstand the pressures of being "the guy" for the Bruins no matter what gets thrown at him.
That should be his mission for this offseason after a long, challenging season, and it sounds like he's already begun working on that summer improvement plan.
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