BOSTON -- After playing a major role in the Boston Bruins' run to their first Stanley Cup in 39 years with 23 points in 25 games in the 2011 playoffs, David Krejci came into this season determined to prove that stretch wasn't just a hot streak. He felt ready to cement his standing as the Bruins' No. 1 center and alleviate the loss of the team's top pivot up until last season, Marc Savard.
And with Savard facing possible retirement due to post-concussion syndrome, Krejci knew this season -- despite a solid 62-point regular season as the No. 1 center last season and 73 points in 2008-09 -- was his chance to put an exclamation point on what he did in the playoffs. With his contract up at the end of this season, he hoped to convince the Bruins to lock him up long-term.
But the start of this season couldn't have gone any worse for Krejci -- not to mention his teammates, who collectively got off to the worst start of any defending Stanley Cup champion at 3-7-0. Krejci suffered a "core injury" in the third game of the season and missed three games. After notching only one point in his first three games before getting hurt, he then returned and went pointless in his next six contests. But after two straight games with a goal and two assists, and an assist in the Bruins' most recent win on their current four-game win streak, the Krejci who dominated in the playoffs appears to be rounding into form.
"He's skating better, he's competing better, and his game has certainly picked up," Bruins coach Claude Julien said of Krejci. "One of David's challenges is that he does put a lot of pressure on himself and he's also very hard on himself. Sometimes that can be good and sometimes it can hurt you more than anything else. So whenever David just goes out there and competes and plays, he's a really good player. But whenever his expectations are too hard, it seems to slow him down a little bit. But right now, especially [Thursday against the Oilers] that's probably one of the best games I've seen him play this year -- as far as skating and using his speed. That's what we want to see out of David more."
Krejci acknowledged that he set the bar high for himself, and his slow start coupled with the injury frustrated him.
"I thought I felt all right and pretty good but now I know I feel better than I was," said Krejci, who made it clear that his injury wasn't an excuse. "I felt ready to play, I felt good, but there were times when I had to do a quick start and it took me a while. But I feel really good now. I feel strong and really, really great on the ice. So I need to take advantage of that and just keep playing the way I've been playing the last few games."
He also admitted that the frustration led to his mind wandering, and the fact that he is in a contract year weighed on him. But he has done his best to block out the frustration and just focus on playing his game. He's feeling good mentally and physically.
"When you're going through what I was going through and the way I was playing, even if you have a good game here or there, you didn't have what you need every game and yeah, you think about lots of things," Krejci said. "But the main thing was to stay positive, and I know I am a good player and I knew it was going to come around. But I had to work at it and I had to have a good attitude and work hard at practice. That's what I did, and last few games it's coming along, so I hope I can keep it going."
Krejci and linemates Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton have found their chemistry and are one of the major factors in the Bruins' recent offensive outburst of 24 goals in their past four games. But Horton believes -- as doed Julien -- that Krejci is blaming himself a bit too much for that chemistry struggling to develop.
"I wasn't very good for him at the start either and then he got hurt so it's not just him," Horton said. "But for him to be good, he just needs the puck and we need to help him get it. Once he does, he works his magic. When he has the puck, everything happens. He makes his linemates better and makes a lot of plays for everyone."
But what Horton and Julien see now is the Krejci whom not enough people give credit to, the Krejci who plays a gritty, physical game and competes intensely. That style is what helps Krejci be one of the better playmakers and offensive threats in the NHL.
"Definitely underrated," Horton said when asked whether Krejci doesn't get enough credit for his physical and overall game. "People still don't give him enough credit for how he really helped take us to the Stanley Cup. You can't say enough about him. He's such a special player and amazing. People think he is just finesses sometimes, but half the time, he's in the corners digging and dishing to us [Horton and Lucic] even though we're the bigger guys. When he's strong on the puck like that, he's playing his game, and I see that coming around now for him. It's great to see because it makes our jobs easier. He's just so much stronger than some people think."
Julien concurred with Horton and is happy to see Krejci playing with that edge again.
"He competes hard and I think his compete level and his battle is probably a little underrated," Julien said. "Probably because when he doesn't play well, he doesn't have that element of his game, he loses a lot of that. When he's on top of his game, he's a smart player; he's a lot grittier than people think he is and he's not a guy you're going to intimidate. They can send their biggest guys against him and hit him all night long and he's not going to back down so he fights through that stuff, and I like that about him because nothing seems to bother him as far as people or teams trying to intimidate him."
It appears the only one who may have been intimidating Krejci heading into this season was himself. He wanted to recapture what he had going in the playoffs and be even better, but now he's realizing he can succeed by not being so hard on himself and yet still working hard to improve. It's a long season, and Krejci is learning he needs to take things in stride.
"I wanted to come into the season and play the same as I did in the playoffs," Krejci said. "But obviously this is a different game now than the playoffs and you need to take it as it comes because it's a long season. It's different hockey and you need to find ways to get up for that. People say it's easy to get on top but it's very hard to stay there and I think I know that now and I'm comfortable and playing well. I'm just going to work hard and keep doing the things that got me there even better."
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.