TORONTO — There’s something about the playoffs that brings the best out of Boston Bruins forward David Krejci.
Krejci, in his sixth year in the NHL with the Bruins, broke the Maple Leafs’ hearts Wednesday night with a hat trick, including the overtime winner past James Reimer as Boston beat Toronto 4-3.
The three goals gave the Czech native five goals and 10 points through the four games as the Bruins opened a 3-1 series lead heading back to Boston for Game 5 Friday night.
“I’m just trying to do my best,” said the soft-spoken Krejci. “I know I had a run a couple years ago, but I know I had a bad run, so I’m just trying to play my best, go out there and do my hardest and not worry about the result.”
Two seasons ago, Krejci put up 12 goals and 23 points in 25 games as the Bruins went all the way, beating the Vancouver Canucks for the Stanley Cup. Of those 12 goals, four won games.
But in Boston’s brief playoffs last season when the Washington Capitals eliminated the Bruins in the first round in seven games, Krejci managed only three points.
If the early returns are any indication, his subpar performance from last season looks to be an aberration.
“If he’s got one weakness, he’s really hard on himself at times when things aren’t going well,” said Boston coach Claude Julien. “But when you see him playing like that I’m not sure you want to call it a weakness. When he does find his game he’s a pretty dominant player.”
During the regular season, Krejci put up 10 goals in 47 games. Through four playoff games, he’s already halfway there.
“He’s a real smart player,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “He might be their most skilled player.”
Krejci and linemates Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton have been the dominant force in this series. With Krejci’s three goals, Horton’s two assists, and Lucic adding another Wednesday night, the line has combined for 22 points in the four games.
While his name isn’t mentioned with the biggest stars of hockey, Krejci’s contributions don’t go unnoticed by his teammates. His playoff success has rubbed off on everyone who’s played with him.
“He might be underrated to you guys, but he’s not underrated in this dressing room,” Lucic said. “Especially for me, I’ve had the opportunity to play with him for the last four years as linemates with him, and I’ve had a lot of fun along the way.”
The two games in Toronto were no fun for the Maple Leafs, who haven’t beaten Boston in a home playoff meeting since 1959.
The Bruins are 15-2 when leading a best-of-seven series 3-1. And Toronto is 2-12-1 in its last 15 games in Boston.
“You can’t afford to make mistakes that lead to odd-man rushes,” Leafs coach Randy Carlyle said. “We turned the puck over deep in the corner and then we pinched and gave them an odd-man rush and they scored a short-side goal to beat us, and that’s kind of a dagger. It feels like a dagger after the effort that was put forth by our group.”
Joffrey Lupul, Cody Franson and Clarke MacArthur scored for Toronto. Patrice Bergeron added a goal for Boston, with captain Zdeno Chara collecting four assists.
Goalies Tuukka Rask and Reimer were both busy in an end-to-end overtime, with Toronto’s Matt Frattin hitting Rask’s goalpost.
“It really felt like we were putting on a lot of pressure,” said Lupul. “On the bench, we kind of felt like it was just a matter of time before we got one.”
The Leafs used their speed to great effect and led 2-0 after the first period, only to see the Bruins fight back to take a 3-2 lead in the second. Toronto stopped the slide with a late goal of its own.
Tied 3-3, it was desperate high-stakes hockey, with players putting their bodies on the line. Toronto defenseman Mark Fraser, who does not wear a visor, took Lucic’s shot in the face with 12 minutes remaining and headed to the dressing room, leaving a pool of blood on the ice.
The overtime was even more tense.
“It was a man’s hockey game out there,” said Carlyle. “There was a lot of energy and a lot of physical play, but that’s the way the playoffs are played. That’s the way it’s supposed to be played.
“We just have to find a way now to bottle the positives that we put forth in today’s game and bring that for Friday in Boston.”
Inside the Air Canada Centre, the chant of “Go Leafs Go” started before the anthems. Outside, blue-and-white fans came out early to party in the adjacent Maple Leaf Square.
Lupul gave them something to cheer about on the Leafs’ first shot. Lupul gave the puck to Phil Kessel who raced around the goal and then fed it back to Lupul. He had enough separation from the Boston defensemen to slap the puck past Rask for his third of the playoffs.
Reimer had stopped Jaromir Jagr with a pad save and then handled the shot from the ensuing rebound seconds earlier.
Krejci had a glorious chance to tie it late in the period but rattled the puck off the post with the goal wide open. That hurt Boston when Franson doubled the lead with a shot from the point that beat Rask, who had Chara in front of him, with 1:28 to go in the period.
There were seemingly ominous signs for Boston, which trailed after 20 minutes for the first time in the series. Chara was on the ice for both goals in the period.
But the Bruins showed their character in the second period, pushing back on the power play just 32 seconds in. An opportunistic Bergeron beat Reimer on a rebound of a screened shot from the point by Chara. It was Bergeron’s first point of the series and first goal in 14 games.
Chara also began to assert himself, laying out Leafs and using his wingspan to defend the puck.
Krejci was credited with Boston’s second goal after a goalmouth scramble that saw Mikhail Grabovski go flying. Chara had helped set the stage with a driving rush.
The Boston power play, which was 1 for 9 coming into the game, paid off again with Krejci one-timing a shot past Reimer after a pass from Horton.
MacArthur, who replaced Ryan Hamilton in the lineup, tied it 44 seconds later with a slap shot from the slot.
Boston finished the period killing off a 5-on-3 disadvantage.
NOTES: Lucic was cut in the face by a shot from Chara as the first period ended. He was hunched over as he skated off before a trainer gave him a towel to stem the flow of blood. … Jaromir Jagr picked up an assist, giving him sole possession of sixth place on the all-time playoff points list (191). … Toronto went 0 for 4 on power plays.