By Larry Wigge
David Krejci does some awfully amazing things. Some edge-of-your-seat breathtaking passes. And during the playoffs, he's turned shooter, too.
In Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Sternberk, Czech Republic, native, scored two goals to lead the Boston Bruins to a 3-1 victory.
On the game's first goal at 8:23 of the first period, Krejci took a pass in the high slot from Nathan Horton and hesitated for an instant as Pittsburgh defenseman Paul Martin slid to the ice to block the potential shot. Instead, Krejci's low shot ticked off the top of Martin's skate and changed direction just enough to pinball into the five-hole of Tomas Vokoun and trickle across the goal line.
On the second goal, Horton forced a turnover on the forecheck and found Krejci deep in the slot. Vokoun stopped Krejci's original wrister, with the rebound popping high into the air. Krejci did he best Dustin Pedroia imitation to swat the puck out of the air across the goal line for a 2-0 lead.
"You know what? I feel good," Krejci said after the game. "It's going in the net for me ... and I'm happy about that. I just have to keep going."
It was a rather athletic move, one the Red Sox diminutive second baseman would make. Krejci is a bit of a mystery man ... and under-the-radar type of player as Pedroia is.
The smallish, quiet puck distributor tends to be overlooked in a locker room that includes Zdeno Chara, Jaromir Jagr, Brad Marchand, Tyer Seguin and Milan Lucic.
But there he is leading the Bruins ... and the NHL ... in scoring in the playoffs with seven goals and 12 assists for 19 points. And this is the second time he has led the NHL in scoring in the playoffs in three years -- having potted a league-leading 12 goals to go along with 11 assists for 23 points in 25 playoff games in 2011, when the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since 1972.
"It makes him unpredictable," Boston coach Claude Julien said. "When he's not shooting and he's not, maybe, at the top of his game, often you'll see him looking to pass. Now he's taking whatever is given to him. Sometimes it's a pass, sometimes it's a shot. Your can see the confidence just oozing out of him."
Overall, in 72 playoff games, Krejci's had 27 goals and 39 assists for 66 points.
"He may be underrated to you guys ... but he's not underrated in this dressing room, especially for me because I've had an opportunity to play with him for the last four years and I've had a lot of fun along the way," Lucic said.
Added Julien, "There are certain players who just thrive on playoff hockey and he's one of those guys. He loves the intensity, the excitement of it. He comes up big in those kinds of situations. We know he's a great playmaker, a skilled player, but the other part too is he doesn't shy away from traffic or a physical game.
"He's very gritty when he needs to be gritty. If he's got one weakness it's that he's very hard on himself at times when things aren't going well. When you see him play like that, I'm not sure you want to call it a weakness because when he does find his game he's a pretty dominant player."
Earlier in the playoffs, Krejci scored a hat trick -- including the winning goal in overtime -- in a 4-3 win in Game 4 against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
"He might be their most skilled player as far as pure skill," said Toronto coach Randy Carlyle. "He's always around the puck."
The young center was part of a hockey crazy group of kids all living in an apartment building complex in Sternberk that would hold daily street hockey games that ran during the daylight hours, similar to the neighborhood pick-up basketball games, or street hockey games, that you see all across the United States.
"I remember when I was young after school and after practice, I'd be home by 2 or 3 p.m. playing street hockey with a tennis ball," an excited Krejci said. "It wasn't just me, it was everybody.
"It was one thing to go there because you had to, but I'd go there and guys would already be playing 5-on-5 on the basketball courts. So I'd have to go there and wait until somebody lost, or somebody went home. It was a stick and a tennis ball.
"I'm sure I picked up a lot of the moves I use today ... and a lot of the skill from those days playing street hockey. I was living in an apartment building that was all connected, so the people that wanted to play would go to those basketball courts. They would all play ... all day sometimes. Many times so many kids would show up that we wouldn't just play 5-on-5, we would have tournaments with five or six teams. I had a Colorado jersey with no name on it that I would wear ... and other guys had Jagr jerseys on when they were playing. We made our own little Cup that we would play for in the tournaments. It was cool, you know?"
Growing up, Krejci idolized fellow Czech Republic native Jaromir Jagr. Now him and the future NHL Hall of Famer are teammates.
"I am excited, obviously," Krejci said. "He's a big name, especially back home. Never really thought I would have the chance to play with him on a real team other than a National team so it's pretty cool and I'm looking forward to it."
"He's really sneaky," Bruins defenseman Dennis Seidenberg said of Krejci. "When he carries the puck, he makes sharp cutbacks and it makes it really tough for people to angle him off. With that skating ability also comes a pretty good skill set with his hands and good vision, which you saw in Game 7, the way he passed the puck. He really knows how to find the open area and distribute the puck to the open guy to score goals.
"He's very quiet. He doesn't like to speak up much, but when you get him one on one, he likes to have fun and talk a lot."
Krejci's English is good now, but it wasn't always so. He grew up in Kladno, Czech Republic, with the goal of playing in the Czech league and, if things worked out, perhaps on the national team.
"Obviously the biggest dream was to play NHL," Krejci said, "but I never knew if I could make it."
The Bruins liked him enough to select him with the 63rd pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft and convinced him to play junior hockey for the Gatineau Olympiques, who were coming off a trip to the 2004 Memorial Cup.
No commitment to the Olypiques. One year. Period.
"I just said I'm going to try the first year, we'll see how it looks," Krejci said. "I may come back."
Although he took some English classes at home, the language barrier was an issue.
"When I came over, I couldn't even answer when they said, 'How are you,'" Krejci said. "I didn't know what to say back. It took a while. But English is not that hard as some other languages."
Still, it was a challenging time for a teenager so far from home, and Krejci admitted: "I got homesick a few times. I was living with another guy (fellow Czech Peter Pohl) he's actually my best friend. He helped me a lot. We played the first year together. We lived together. Without him, it would be way hard. I don't know how it would end up."
There is a select group of believers who have stood behind Krejci all along. Principal among them are the Bruins and current director of player personnel Scott Bradley, who was the club’s amateur scouting director when Krejci was drafted.
However, looking back on where Krejci stood going into the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, his eventual success was anything but a certainty. The Hockey News list of Top 60 prospects -- Didn't have him. Red Line Report had him ranked: 130.
"Tiny, but good wheels and great hockey sense."
When the skinny kid with frosted blonde highlights in his hair met with the Boston media after the team announced his selection. He was 5-9, 160-pound center. Now, he stands 6-feet, 188-pounds.
He didn't speak English and former scout Otto Hascak had to translate for him. In the years since, though he softly speaks with a thick Czech accent, Krejci is one of the more thoughtful and intelligent interviews of any NHL player.
"We think we made a big score here," then chief scout Bradley said at the conclusion of the draft.
You have to remember that David Krejci was a coach's son. Whenever. Whatever. He get the correct information on how to bulk up, gain speed off the mark ... anything.
But when Krejci gets named in the same sentence as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, it's epic.
"He's a good player," chirped back Julien. "Why should he be different than Crosby or Malkin?"
Think about the comparison. Think about David Krejci's sterling performance in two of the last three years. A lot like Crosby or Malkin.