Like him or not, Boston Bruins’ Brad Marchand is a master of his craft in the NHL

He plays hockey like a hunter, one move ahead of his quarry, and patiently waiting for the right moment to pounce. The other stuff – the stuff that makes him such a pest – that stuff simply seems tactical, writes Rob McKenzie.

I used to hate Brad Marchand. Most hockey fans cannot stand the guy, unless they live in or around Boston. He is a supremely annoying pest who burrows under his opponents’ skin.

In the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup finals he pretty much destroyed the Vancouver Canucks with his hacking and cross-checking.

But the more I watch Marchand play, the less I hate him. Beneath the sandpaper he has amazing anticipation and does little things to perfection. If you watch the puck, like many fans do, you tend to miss most of this stuff. You can learn more by picking a player and keeping your eye on him regardless of where the puck is.

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Take a look at Marchand’s work in one period alone of a 5-1 victory for his Boston Bruins over the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 24. Pittsburgh, like Vancouver five years ago, are one of those teams blessed with loads of skill and finesse. Marchand kills teams like that.

Five and a half minutes into the second period, Boston was up 2-0 and in the offensive zone. Marchand skates up the left wing and is near the end boards. A Pittsburgh defender in the opposite corner has the puck. Suddenly, Marchard veers and skates diagonally towards a space just inside the blue line on the far side of the ice.

This at first seems to make no sense – why is he going to that empty area? In the meantime, the defender advances the puck to Sidney Crosby. Crosby, blocked by a Boston player, tries to chip it off the boards and down the ice. And the puck goes right to Marchand, who receives it with ease, as if he had designed the whole play himself.

With nine minutes left in the period, Boston is on defence. Marchand gets the puck but is pressured. Instead of blasting it down the ice, which would result in an icing call when it crossed the far red line, he lobs the puck, which lets a teammate get to it before icing can apply. Boston now have an offensive opportunity rather than a face-off in their own zone.

With five and a half minutes left, Boston are short-handed. Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist is set to pass to Kris Letang at the point. Marchand swats at Hornqvist’s stick. This causes a deflection and the puck butterflies down the ice, forcing Pittsburgh to retreat. The key detail is, Marchand did not jab at the puck. It was more like an easy golf swing. Had he jabbed, the puck would have stayed in the zone.

Best one of all. Later in the same power play, Phil Kessel has the puck along the boards. He tries to pass it through Marchand’s skates but Marchand has angled them to foil that notion. Marchand then turns, corrals the puck, and is off on a 2-on-1 with David Krecji. Kessel cannot keep up and is a good three metres behind Marchand by the time the Bruin is flying past the Penguins blue line (in contrast, Crosby hustled back to take Krecji out of the play). Marchand’s shot hits the post. In the end, Marchand played all but the last nine seconds of the penalty kill.

In the off-season, Marchand likes to go hunting (turkey, deer, etc). He plays hockey like a hunter, one move ahead of his quarry, and patiently waiting for the right moment to pounce. The other stuff – the stuff that makes him such a pest – that stuff simply seems tactical. He sees a weakness, he exploits it.

In this his seventh NHL season, Marchand has reached a career high with 33 goals.

A mere sophomore when he helped Boston win the Cup, he has bloomed both early and late.

Those 33 goals – the latest was a laser from the circle in Thursday’s 4-2 home win over Chicago – rank third on the league table, behind Alex Ovechkin (41) and Patrick Kane (37).

Four of Marchand’s scores are short-handed. Only Ottawa’s Jean-Gabriel Pageau has more, with five.

Marchand also ranks among league leaders in plus-minus. Through Friday’s games his figure of plus-20 was best on the Bruins and tied for 10th in the league.

Last year, the Bruins missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007. This year they should be in, with a probable first-round date against Florida or Tampa Bay. At Monday’s /FEB 29/ trade deadline the Bruins fortified themselves for crunch time by picking up forward Lee Stempniak from New Jersey and defenceman John-Michael Liles from Carolina.

But it is the core that counts most in Boston. With Marchand, centreman Patrice Bergeron and defender Zdeno Chara, the Bruins are old-man-tough and old-man wily. Come the playoffs, these guys will give someone a headache.

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