Certain players are able to put disappointing regular-season performances behind them and take their game to another level once the stakes get higher in the playoffs. For Boston Bruins center David Krejci, rising to the occasion in high-pressure moments in April and May has become a staple of his game.
Krejci wrote the latest chapter in his spectacular playoff career on Wednesday night when he recorded a hat trick in his team's 4-3 Game 4 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs. That included the winning goal in overtime (video below).
The Bruins will take a 3-1 edge in this first-round series back home to Boston, where they can eliminate the Leafs from the playoffs in Friday's Game 5.
The Czech forward is now one of four Bruins players to ever record multiple playoff hat tricks, joining Hockey Hall of Famers Cam Neely, Johnny Bucyk and Phil Esposito. In 63 career playoff games, Krejci has tallied 57 points (25 goals, 32 assists). He also led the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs with 23 points.
After Game 4, Bruins forward Milan Lucic commented on Krejci's performance:
To the surprise of many hockey fans who don't watch the Bruins on a regular basis, Krejci leads the 2013 NHL playoffs in goals scored (five), points (10) and plus/minus (plus-seven).
When Krejci is being aggressive in the attacking zone (team-leading eight shots in Game 4), good things happen for his line.
The veteran center is a top-tier playmaker with excellent vision, soft hands, a high hockey IQ and the ability to make pinpoint passes with impressive accuracy. The poise and control he displays with the puck on his stick, even when there are several opposing players around him, is quite remarkable.
Because he has two top power forwards on his wings, Krejci knows that if he can carry the puck into the attacking zone and set up along the half boards, he will be able to find linemates Lucic and Nathan Horton skating toward the net for a quality scoring chance. He also does great work below the goal line by finding teammates who are ready to shoot in the slot or at the point.
Krejci's ability to score goals is another underrated part of his skill set. He has a quick release on his wrist shot, which is also pretty accurate. His second goal of Game 4 came on the power play and showed off his one-timer (video below).
The Bruins' top-line center also excels in the faceoff dot. His ability to win important attacking-zone draws plays a major role in Boston creating sustained offensive-zone pressure.
A faceoff win by Krejci in the first period of Game 3 on Monday led to Bruins defenseman Adam McQuaid opening the scoring with a blast from the point. This success continued in Game 4 with Krejci winning 60 percent of his faceoffs (12-of-20), which helped the Bruins rack up 45 shots on Leafs goaltender James Reimer.
Krejci is also an underrated defensive player, and his ability to create turnovers in the Bruins' zone and immediately start a rush up ice is very valuable to the team's success offensively. Despite his lack of size, he's not afraid to go into the corners and help his team regain possession of the puck. His two-way game makes him a perfect fit in Boston's defense-first style of play.
Just like his linemates, Krejci is willing to crash the net and fight for pucks in the dirty areas. His first goal of Game 4 happened because of the traffic he created in front of Reimer, which helped the Bruins tie the score at 2-2 after falling behind 2-0 in the first period.
Even though Krejci is fully capable of scoring goals, he often plays with a pass-first mentality, and this has resulted in the resurgence of Lucic and Horton offensively, both of whom were frustratingly inconsistent for most of the regular season. It's not surprising that Lucic and Horton putting up points and Krejci's dominance versus the Leafs have happened simultaneously.
Horton and Lucic are capable of scoring 25-plus goals in a normal 82-game season, so they have plenty of offensive skill. However, when Krejci struggles, it's difficult for these wingers to put up points because they benefit so much from the playmaking ability of their center.
Here's how Boston's top line has fared in this series thus far:
|1||0G, 2A||1G, 2A||1G, 0A|
|2||0G, 1A||0G, 1A||1G, 0A|
|3||0G, 3A||1G, 2A||1G, 1A|
|4||0G, 0A||3G, 0A||0G, 2A|
|Total||0G, 6A||5G, 5A||3G, 3A|
These three players combined for just 14 points in April's regular-season games, and they already have 22 in the first four games of this series.
This trio was fantastic in all three zones during the team's championship run two years ago, and for the Bruins to achieve similar postseason success in 2013, they need the consistent offensive production from this line to continue.
Krejci doesn't get a lot of national praise, he has never been nominated for any major end-of-the-year awards, and he's not a household name to the casual hockey fan. Despite that, his astounding playoff performances over the past four years have made him a well-respected player throughout the league.
His play doesn't have the "wow factor" that some other stars display on the ice, but he quietly does his job very well on a consistent basis.
As the Bruins continue their march toward a second Stanley Cup title in three seasons, Krejci will play a huge role in the team's success as a big-game player. This is his time of the year, and when Krejci is playing with lots of confidence, he's one of the toughest forwards to shut down.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter. He was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs in Boston. Nick has also covered the Bruins since the 2010-11 season.