If the Boston Bruins are going to defeat the Chicago Blackhawks to win the 2013 Stanley Cup, they will need their top line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic to maintain its current scoring pace for the last round of the postseason.
The Bruins would not have completed a remarkable sweep of the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final without a dominating performance from this trio. In the four conference finals games, Krejci, Horton and Lucic combined for 12 points (six goals and six assists), including five goals and five assists in the two games in Pittsburgh at the start of the series.
Krejci leads the playoffs in scoring with 21 points (nine goals, 12 assists), with Horton not far behind in second with 17 points (seven goals, 10 assists). When you add Lucic's stats, this line becomes the highest scoring trio in the postseason with 51 points.
The engine that drives this line is the man at center, Krejci. The 27-year-old is a frustrating player to watch during the regular season because it often looks like he's coasting through games and not playing with the level of intensity and focus expected of him. As we have seen in his playoff career, he has all the talent needed to be a household NHL superstar, but the Czech forward has never tallied more than 73 points in a season.
But when the playoffs arrive and the pressure to perform at a high level significantly increases, Krejci becomes a different player who is nearly impossible to shut down at times. In his last 48 playoff games, the Bruins' No. 1 center has 47 points. He led the 2011 NHL playoffs in scoring with 23 points, which played a major part in Boston winning its first Stanley Cup in 39 years.
When Krejci is on top of his game, he's attacking the net and looking for his own offense. His shooting accuracy and ability to make plays for himself should result in him scoring 20-plus goals each year, but he's usually a pass-first player looking to get his linemates involved.
Much like he did in the 2011 playoffs, Krejci is looking to score right now. As a result, he leads the postseason with nine goals, one less than his regular season total of 10 in 47 games. Krejci averaged 1.98 shots per game in the regular season, and he's raised that to 2.63 in the postseason.
As a playmaker, Krejci does a tremendous job slowing down the play and exploring all of his options before making a pass. He doesn't enter the attacking zone against one or two opposing defensemen with speed and go straight to the net, where players often run out of room and don't create a quality scoring chance.
He pulls up and either finds a player trailing the play or moves to the middle of the ice for a better shooting angle. The patience Krejci has with the puck is phenomenal, and this was evident on his overtime-winning goal in Game 4 of the first round against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
But offense isn't the only part of Krejci's game that positively impacts his team's performance. He's also an underrated defensive player who plays physical without having tremendous size.
"With David, the visions, sense, skill, it's all a great package," said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli on Saturday.
"But the thing about him that's not really well advertised is his two-way play and his defensive grit, and he’s got an edge to him. You’ve got to watch him closely when he’s defending. He’s got an edge to him. And when that's there, then you've got the complete player that you’re seeing right now."
Another player who brings grit to the Bruins' first line is Horton, who's one of the best playoff performers in the league. When the 28-year-old winger was unable to play in last year's playoffs because of a concussion, the Bruins really missed his clutch scoring and physical presence. As a result, the team was eliminated in the first round by the Washington Capitals in seven games.
In 37 career playoff games with Boston, Horton has tallied 34 points (15 goals, 19 assists) with a league-best plus/minus rating of 32. The Bruins are 13-2 when Horton scores a goal in the playoffs, which includes six-game winning goals.
Horton has a spectacular combination of size and offensive skill, and he's always willing to go to the net and score dirty goals. He also puts himself in great position to receive passes from Krejci. His presence in the lineup makes the Bruins a far more difficult team to defend. As an upcoming unrestricted free agent, Horton has a great opportunity to improve his free-agent stock with a great Cup Final performance.
"You can see the energy; you can see the enthusiasm," said Chiarelli when asked about Horton on Saturday.
"Of course the size and the shot are the two things I like, and the skating. When he’s not in, when he’s not firing, we do have our struggles. He’s playing real well right now."
When the Bruins are successful, this line is not only scoring, it's also setting the tone of the game with physical play and responsible defense. There will not be a more intimidating forward in the Cup final than Lucic, a prototypical power forward who fights heavyweights, scores goals and wears down opponents physically.
Like Horton, Lucic was inconsistent and played poorly at times during the regular season, but he's dramatically improved in the playoffs.
Lucic's teammates really feed off of the energy, intensity and grit that he brings to the ice each shift. He sets the tempo for Boston by racking up hits, creating scoring chances, firing up the home crowd and fighting for pucks in front of the net and in the corners.
He also does a great job of creating a net-front presence to screen opposing goaltenders, and with his immense size and strength, defensemen often have a very difficult time moving him from the crease.
The 25-year-old winger ranks second in the playoffs with 68 hits, 11 more than any Blackhawks player. He also has 13 points (three goals, 10 assists) in 16 playoff games.
One of the most impressive aspects of this line is their great chemistry, and it's evident on each shift. They know where to expect their linemates to be on the ice, and this allows for some marvelous scoring plays, including Krejci's goal in Game 2 of the conference finals in Pittsburgh (video above).
This line has been magnificent in the playoffs to this point, and for the Bruins to continue their success and capture the franchise's second Stanley Cup title in three years, the Krejci, Lucic and Horton trio must play well consistently in this series.
Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston. All quotes obtained firsthand.