BOSTON — He’s the spark plug Johnny Damon was for the 2004 Red Sox, the straw that stirs the drink — to steal a phrase from Reggie Jackson — and a leader even John Wayne would follow into battle.
Technically he’s not old enough to drink yet in this country, but with game-changing performances like the one he produced tonight in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series at TD Banknorth Garden, 20-year-old Milan Lucic should be able to have his choice of celebratory postgame beverages.
With the Bruins fighting for their playoff lives, Lucic answered the bell and set the tone for a hard-hitting, high-flying, 4-0 win over the Carolina Hurricanes, who still lead the series 3-2 heading back to Raleigh for Game 6 Tuesday.
“Looch being the physical player that he is certainly got the crowd behind us, and there’s no doubt the rest of the team fed off it,” said head coach Claude Julien after the game.
It took Lucic just a little more than five minutes to pop his version of a leadoff home run. With Carolina defenseman Dennis Seidenberg retrieving a dump-in deep in the Carolina zone, the winger plowed into the corner and turned Seidenberg into a wall decoration. The Garden crowd, which started to cheer even before the two combatants crossed the blue line, erupted in joy.
Just about 30 seconds, Mark Recchi put the Bruins on the board with a power-play goal.
“After a hit like that, you want to get the crowd into it,” said Lucic, who inexcusably was only credited with three hits but threw at least a half dozen. “You want to get your team into it. You want to show some emotion. It was just a forecheck. I got a chance to get in on it. I finished my check and it was great to see the team respond.”
Even the captain liked what he saw from his young teammate.
“I thought that he was very physical tonight and he was using his size well just like everybody else,” said Zdeno Chara. “It’s a game that we need to continue to do, be physical and I thought we brought our game tonight.”
On a team with snipers like Phil Kessel and Michael Ryder, playmakers like Marc Savard and David Krejci, and defensive stoppers like Chara and Tim Thomas, there’s a man-child that actually leads by example and aggression. In just two-plus seasons at the NHL, he’s basically done everything a guy of his skill set can do. He’s answered the bell against the biggest and baddest foes in the league, he’s checked an opponent through the glass (literally) and he’s developed enough of an offensive game that he’s earned a top-line spot and the minutes that go with it.
His goal with 7:39 remaining in regulation sealed the deal. But this game was won long before that because of Lucic’s hit on Seidenberg and the threat he was every shift to make another Hurricanes player into tomorrow’s lunch. Plus he avoided stepping over the line despite Carolina’s best efforts to take out Chara and Aaron Ward in separate incidents. Lucic was by no means calm, but he stayed within himself and the rules — kind of like stealing second and third, but only pretending to steal home in order to draw a balk.
Now it’s on to Game 6 in Raleigh with the Bruins still facing elimination. The good news for Boston? Lucic has already started to set the tone with words.
“Anything less than what we’ve had tonight is unacceptable,” he said after the game. “We know that they’re going to be ready to play and that their fans will be into it. They’re going to try and throw everything at us. We expect them to bring their best and we need to respond. We need to take it a step forward.”
With Lucic, those words are pretty much as good as a check his body will more than gladly check. And that alone makes the Bruins almost impossible to exterminate.