He looks more like an extra in a theatrical production of Oliver than a National Hockey League player.
He looks sort of, well, sneaky with those quick, darting, dark eyes and prominent nose. Listed at 5 foot 9 but likely fudging, he seems tiny for hockey. Yet 22-year-old rookie Brad Marchand could well be the best thing the Boston Bruins had going for them as they fought back to tie their best-of-seven playoff series with the Montreal Canadiens at two games apiece.
Even as the Bruins were losing the first two games in Boston, it was Marchand who was continually in the face of the Montreal players, Marchand who never stopped trying even when it seemed futile.
Thursday night in Montreal, Marchand did the early lifting that ultimately turned the table. Montreal was up 3-1 when he began creating problems along the boards and behind the net, his preferred work stations. First he set up defenceman Andrew Ference for a goal, then he flipped a puck from behind the net that forward Patrice Bergeron ticked in to tie the game.
More than anyone else, he took the game from lost to opportunity, the Bruins winning 5-4 when Michael Ryder scored on Boston's very first shot of overtime. With just over 20 minutes, the rookie led all Boston forwards in ice time, and his three blocked shots were second only to defenceman Johnny Boychuk.
But there is much more to his game. Marchand is the sandpaper that grates, the mouth that distracts, the player even his own teammates call The Rat and, among themselves, The Little (expletive). He is to today's Bruins what Ken (The Rat) Linseman was to the Bruins of the 1980s: beloved teammate, despised opponent.
Marchand takes pride in irritating the other side. "I always tried to," he says. "I wanted to. It was kind of my game. It gets me more emotionally involved, and when I do that, I play a little better."
When did this attitude begin? The Halifax native has become a "pain" to play against in his first year of the NHL, was a noticeable pain through two world junior gold-medal victories, and was known as a pain playing for three different teams in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
"All the way back to novice or atom," he says with a laugh. "I used to try to hit guys. I wasn't supposed to, but … It just kind of stuck with me."
He knows he sometimes pushes too far. As this regular season wound down, after scoring a short-handed goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs, he celebrated with an exaggerated golf swing - symbolic of the Leafs' lost season - and it cost him and his team. Not only did the riled Leafs come back and win the game in a shootout, but his coach, Claude Julien, tore a strip off him in the dressing room.
So far these playoffs, in four hard-fought games against the Canadiens, Marchand has picked up but a single minor penalty. He doesn't want to hurt his team. He doesn't want another tongue-lashing from Julien, though it was hardly the first and is unlikely to be the last.
When they introduced him as part of the starting lineup for Boston, the Bell Centre crowd booed him louder than any other Bruin. He makes that much of an impression, just as fellow rookie P.K. Subban of Montreal gets the loudest boos in Boston and the greatest cheers at home. Both were considered candidates for rookie of the year, though neither made the final list of three. Marchand, however, outshone Boston's prize rookie and 2010's No. 2 draft pick, Tyler Seguin, this season, as Seguin has yet to dress for a postseason game.
Marchand and Subban were teammates when Canada won the world junior tournament in the Czech Republic in 2008. They're friendly but not close, perhaps because there is only room for one yappy irritant at a time on a team.
"He's a good guy off the ice," Marchand says of Subban, "but everything changes when you're out there."
Even so, he acknowledges their kinship in spirit. "Some guys have it, some guys don't," Marchand says matter-of-factly. "It can work against you, though. You can get too caught up in it and then take penalties. At the same time, it's a lot of fun doing it and it can be effective."
So far, it certainly has been, without the usual negatives. He says he is aware of the costs of going too far. "I tend to get too emotional and I just kind of go," he says. "And whatever happens, happens." He was suspended in minor hockey, benched during the junior Super Series, reamed out in American Hockey League, all for acts he happily acknowledges were foolish and ill-considered.
"Come playoff time," he says, "you do definitely have to watch yourself and watch how much you do, and if you cross that line. … You have to keep it in your head all the time."
Fortunately, he has help keeping it there: a mentor in 43-year-old Mark Recchi, who joined the Pittsburgh Penguins the year Marchand was born.
"Any time he talks," Marchand says of Recchi, "everybody just quiets down and listens. He has an air about him. He said, 'I'll get upset with you, but it's not going to be about you missing a pass or you should have given it to me at this time or playing your position or little things like that."
Instead, Recchi "critiques" Marchand: where to go on the ice, how to behave off the ice. Marchand finds Recchi to be the equivalent of "another coach" on the ice, a father figure off. Recchi has even let him know when, during a game, it's okay "to chirp guys," meaning unleash the mouth and see if Marchand can draw someone into a penalty.
Whether the effect was all Recchi's guidance or not, Marchand had a year no one expected. Up for 20 games a year earlier, he had but one assist to show for his effort. Listening to Recchi, often playing with him, Marchand scored a remarkable 21 goals this year.
He had even told Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli that he'd reach 20 goals this year, something Chiarelli did not believe possible at the time.
"I don't know if I believed it at the time," Marchand says. "I was just trying to say anything I could to get on this team.
"Thank God I did. I'd hate to have that hanging over my head."