It has been a magical season for the Boston Bruins. Breaking the all-time regular season records for wins (65) and points (135) was an unexpected and pleasant surprise for Boston fans after last season’s team did not meet expectations.
One of the more significant moves the Bruins made in the offseason that drastically improved their team was swapping Erik Haula for Pavel Zacha in a one-for-one trade. Zacha’s size, skill, and work ethic fit well with the Bruins style of hockey. In his first season in Boston, Zacha posted a career-best in nearly every offensive category while playing alongside David Pastrnak and David Krejci. Halfway through the season, the Boston Bruins signed Zacha to a four-year extension with an annual 4.75 million dollar cap hit.
As the season progressed, the contract seemed like a bargain. In the 40 games after signing his extension with Boston, Zacha scored 16 of his 21 goals and 32 of 57 points on the year. It was clear that Zacha was becoming a more confident and productive player. Zacha’s season was a career best, and was awarded NESN’s 7th player award.
On Monday, Zacha was presented with a major opportunity. Due to illness, Patrice Bergeron missed Game 1 of Boston’s first-round series with the Florida Panthers. Zacha was set to fill in for Bergeron as the Bruins top-line center, a tall task for a player who has primarily served as Boston’s second-line left wing throughout the season.
Before the game, Hockey analytics guru Jfresh questioned Zacha’s qualifications to be an impactful player for the upcoming playoff series and beyond, citing his imperfect stat card and the support he received playing with Pastrnak this season.
I myself was concerned about Zacha filling in for Boston’s most important and irreplaceable player for a playoff game, but Zacha filled in nicely.
In game 1, Zacha was credited with an assist while 10 for 17 on face-offs, the Bruins leader in Corsi% in over 14 minutes of ice time. Zacha took more face-offs than any other Bruins center, and the Bruins were playing their best when Zacha was on the ice.
He continues to be an unsung hero for this Bruins team. Coach Jim Montgomery praised Zacha’s Game 1 performance in his post-game press conference. “We’re very confident with Zacha in the middle, and we know in the future he’s going to be an excellent top-two center for us.”
Well, there you have it. The biggest concern about the future of the Bruins is what they do without Bergeron and Krejci. Last season, the Bruins were not good enough without Krejci as the second-line center. Both of Boston’s top two centers may retire after this season, leaving a huge hole in Boston’s lineup. Now we definitely know Zacha will be a player who fills the void.
He may not be an analytical darling, but Zacha is still a very effective player in this league. Yes, he was aided by Pastrank and Krejci in terms of offense this season, but his responsible defensive play allowed the Czech line to be a lethal weapon for the Bruins this season. Pastrank and Krejci are not the most defensively sound players, and they are paid to make plays and create chances, which can lead to some turnovers and scoring opportunities for the opposition. It is a give-and-take with that second line for Boston, but the good heavily outweighs the bad, and a large reason for that is Zacha’s defensive play. Speaking to the media Monday morning, Coach Montgomery continued to praise the aspects of Zacha’s game that are so important to the Bruins. “He wins a lot of battles for us now. He kills a lot of plays, he wins battles, protects pucks, makes plays,. To me, I think it’s how hard he is with his skill and his ability off the puck because he wants to be first on pucks. Because of that he’s just helped build our team game.” What Zacha brings the to the table goes beyond stats and analytics. Not many players can shift from Left-Wing to the top-line center as seamlessly as Zacha did, especially for a critical playoff game. I was extremely impressed by his performance. He was recognized as an unsung hero for this team for a reason.
Zacha’s overall game has grown tremendously over the year playing for Jim Montgomery. The player Zacha was last year would have stuck out like a sore thumb in the role he was in for Monday’s game. But he stepped up. Over the last few weeks, filling in for Krejci and now Bergeron Zacha has shown he can be an outstanding top-two center for the Bruins. He has been a big part of the Bruins success this season, and with a strong playoff performance as Boston’s top center on Monday, Zacha showed he is ready for a more prominent role within the organization.