When it comes to Boston Bruins winger Milan Lucic, the sophomore jinx is obviously as fictious as Jason Voorhees of “Friday the 13th” fame.
One year after skating in 77 NHL games and posting 8-19-27 totals as a 19-year-old, all Lucic has done in the 2008-09 season is get better in every way. He’s put up 14-22-36 totals and a plus-12 rating (as opposed to minus-2 last season) in 63 games.
That’s not to say that Lucic hasn’t gone through some rough patches. With his goal against New Jersey Sunday, he snapped a 15-game goal-less drought that might’ve been a sign of a struggle. But with Lucic, the goals are the last thing you look at to determine whether he’s been producing. You watch him on the forecheck, you watch him in the corners and in front of the net. Is he making the opponent pay for getting in his way? Is he clearing room for his teammates to make plays? The answer almost all season has been a resounding yes.
“If I’m not scoring, I’ve got to make sure I’m doing something to make an impact to the team. So I think first things first is what I’ve got to do,” Lucic said today after the Bruins practiced in Wilmington, Mass. “Make sure I’m establishing that physical presence more than anything. Points come after all that other stuff. For me, I’m more focused on doing those other things and making good plays and getting in on the forecheck and finishing all my checks. The other stuff comes along.”
Hits are credited differently by every building in the NHL. But no matter where the Bruins are playing, Lucic fills up that column on the stats sheet. That might be the only numerical way to gauge his value. But you can also just observe and realize that whichever line he skates with, the other two guys typically find the space to create more offense. For most of the season, Lucic has done that for Marc Savard and Phil Kessel. And Sunday he was on the left side of Shawn Thornton and Stephane Yelle.
Head coach Claude Julien always preaches that Lucic has to play “his game” regardless of his slot in the lineup. And Lucic thrives under that mantra because that’s what he does best.
“I think it’s pretty easy. I don’t have to change anything. Still I’ve got to make sure I’m the first guy in and do all those things … it doesn’t really matter what line I play with,” he said.
“When I play with ‘Yeller’ and ‘Thornty,’ thinks are going to be simpler and more straight lines. I just have to remember that.”
If there’s been one minor downside to Lucic’s season, it’s been that for the first time in his adult life he’s had to deal with injuries. He missed 10 games, including seven in a row at one point, with what was widely believed to have been an upper-body injury (possibly a shoulder). For a guy whose only previous serious injury was a broken hand in his first year of junior hockey, Lucic has had to learn more about his body and the limits he can push it to.
“It just goes to show that you’ve got to take care of yourself and those kind of things if you want to stick around for a long time,” he said. “So I just try to get in the gym as much as I can to keep myself strong and prepared for any situation. It’s a learning curve. And it’s good for me to learn it at a young age.”
Lucic hates sitting out games as much as Rush Limbaugh hates liberals. But that doesn’t mean he can just indiscriminately suit up regardless of his physical condition. He’s accumulated the knowledge he needs about himself over the course of the season.
“You do it in practice and you see what it feels like and those types of things. Obviously you (factor in) time of season and all that type of stuff,” he explained. “But I think everyone’s got their own pain threshold, so it’s all mental and what you can handle. But sometimes you’ve got to be smart about it too. If you can handle it but you’re making it worse, sometimes you’ve got to be smart and sit back and take a few days or even a week.”
With his body in tip-top shape and his game honed and ready to fit in on any line, Lucic should be an impact player when the postseason arrives. And that sophomore jinx has just about run out of time to catch him.