David Pastrnak on the ice these days is like a dazzling young magician who isn't quite sure how his sleight of hand is going to work out.
When he has the puck, his Boston Bruins teammates don’t know what to expect. Opponents don’t know. He doesn’t even know.
“If you don't know what you'll do, then they're not going to know what to do,” Pastrnak said.
Unpredictability is at the core of Pastrnak’s brilliance. His blend of creativity and skill is the reason the player nicknamed “Pasta” leads the NHL with 26 goals.
The 23-year-old winger from the Czech Republic has been better than a point-a-game player before and helped Boston reach the Stanley Cup Final last year, but this season has put him in the discussion as one of the best goal-scorers in the world.
“He’s played great hockey this year,” said Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals star who has led the league in goals eight times and may now be passing the torch to Pastrnak. “He’s a great shooter, a great skater and he’s on the next level this year.”
Pastrnak is on pace to shatter his career high in goals and points. He credits that to chemistry with linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand and more of a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality that has perhaps taken opposing defenses and goaltenders by surprise.
“I've been playing with these two guys so long that I know where they're at and I know where to find them and they know where to go,” Pastrnak said. “I've been shooting the puck a little more. I think when there is a shot, I take it. It used to be times when I would still look for pass. Now, I think I discover better that if I'm in a good spot, then I should shoot.”
Pastrnak is averaging almost four shots a game, but aside from the faceoff circle on the power play where he can one-time the puck, few know when he’s going to put the puck on net. He has even tried a drop pass on a breakaway this season.
Good luck to anyone trying to anticipate his next move.
“Even his own teammates don't know what to expect from him,” said Washington defenseman Radko Gudas, who has played with Pastrnak on the Czech national team. “I think that's the hardest part is the reading of him, but for a defenseman, you're staying on the defensive side, there's only so much you can do. I guess you try to not get dangled by him.”
Teammates only have to worry about that in practice. In games, they benefit from Pastrnak's magic acts.
Much like skating with a distributing center like Connor McDavid or Sidney Crosby, it’s not easy playing with someone who is abruptly creative, but his linemates are finally getting the trick.
“I just try to stay predictable for him,” Marchand said. “I tend to go to the same spots or put the puck in the same areas. So when he's being unpredictable he at least knows what I'm going to do and then I kind of just let him do his thing and try to find space where he isn't."
Marchand added: “He could do 100 different things in a game, so it's tough to defend that.”
How about coaching it? Bruce Cassidy isn’t worried about Boston's top goal-scorer going off script — he expects it — and figures Bergeron and Marchand would put Pastrnak back in line, if needed.
The Bruins coach understands his top line’s dynamic allows for Pastrnak and Marchand to be more offensively driven because Bergeron does so much all over the ice.
“With the puck, he's earned the right to play his game,” Cassidy said of Pastrnak. “The things we work with David on is playing through frustration, if teams are starting to play you harder. We've talked to him about how he can still help the team. We talk about his play away from the puck because he's on the ice 18, 20 minutes a night, so that's important.”
Opponents can sense confidence oozing from Pastrnak and see that as the reason for his breakout season. Pastrnak himself is soft-spoken and just trying to enjoy himself and score some goals.
“That's what it's about, to have fun, and I think that's when you play your best hockey,” he said. “I'm just trying to make plays that I see.”
More often than not, they're plays no one else can see.
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno