BOSTON – Whenever Milan Lucic isn’t playing “Milan Lucic-brand” hockey, head coach Claude Julien uses the same ploy to get the bulky winger’s attention.
Julien moves Lucic to a line opposite fellow gritty winger Shawn Thornton on the other side of whoever is serving the Bruins as the energy-line center of the moment. And the maneuver usually works because it wipes Lucic’s slate clean and reminds him what he has to do to be an effective forward.
“From talking to a lot of people, everyone always says when I get my feet moving, everything else tends to work,” said Lucic today at TD Garden after acknowledging that Thornton’s presence helps his cause. “So I’ve just got to focus on keeping my feet moving and everything else tends to fall into place for sure.”
During the Bruins’ Eastern Conference quarterfinal series-squaring Game 3 victory Saturday in Buffalo, Lucic made two mistakes that directly led to Sabres goals. First he left Tyler Myers wide open before Buffalo’s first score, and then turned over the puck – a play he admits was “soft” – behind the Boston net before the Sabres’ third goal.
In the third period, Lucic skated with Thornton and Steve Begin instead of Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi. Daniel Paille moved up the depth chart, an alignment we might see again for Monday’s Game 3.
Regardless, Julien sent his message, and it was received.
“I thought in the third period, and just sliding him down with a different line, he played a really good third period,” Julien said. “Basically, that’s what we need him to play that way no matter what line we put him on. He’s one of those players that I feel confident will respond next game.”
“I think it’s not about he goes to a line with Shawn Thornton,” Julien said later when asked about the effect of playing on Boston’s crash line has on Lucic. “It’s more about he goes to a line where it’s all about grit and I think where Milan sometimes gets himself in trouble is he tries to accommodate the players that he plays with by making plays that maybe aren’t necessarily plays that are playing within his strength. And I think what Milan has to do, and will do, is he has to play his game. If he’s put on a certain line, it’s not to change his game it’s to play his game. … He doesn’t need to make fancy plays because that’s not necessarily playing with his strength.”
Skating with players like Thornton and Begin, Lucic doesn’t need anyone to scream at him about what has to be done. When you skate on that line, all subtlety goes out the window and all that’s asked is Lucic, or any winger, is to take the body, create energy and take care of the puck.
Thornton embraces the opportunity to play with Lucic whenever the coach aligns his lineup that way.
“I like playing with him. It’s straight-line hockey, it’s simple, getting in on the forecheck and we kind of create havoc,” said Thornton. “I think as a whole we played pretty well when he came down there. …
“He knows, especially, me and Beige aren’t going to be ‘saucering’ pucks backdoor to him. He knows it’s very simple – get pucks in, get pucks out. He’s been around long enough now to know what kind of game we play.”
Lucic didn’t show up on the score sheet in Game 2, but he threw a couple hits, won a few battles and made a couple of key defensive plays in the four minutes or so he was with Thornton and Begin. It shouldn’t be a surprise Lucic quickly learned his lesson because he has been maturing at a rapid clip over the course of his three NHL seasons. Julien spoke of Lucic still being a young player (he’s 21) and still learning, and he’s right. He doesn’t have to worry, however, that Lucic will ignore his past indiscretions.
Lucic has even proven his raised maturity during the post-whistle scrums that are a fixture in playoff games. Last spring, Lucic entered one with his stick up and the ensuring contact made with Montreal’s Maxim Lapierre cost Lucic a one-game suspension. In this series, particularly in a tiff with Tony Lydman, Lucic made sure there would be no risk of even an accidental blow that could lead to league punishment.
“In that situation, looking back, I made sure I had my stick down and not get a suspension or anything like that. Definitely, you’ve got to be smart with how you handle things and you’ve got to go about it the right way,” said Lucic. “For me in that situation, I pretty much just dropped my stick and kept my gloves on and I wasn’t going to put the team in jeopardy, getting an extra 10 minutes or a match penalty or something like that. That’s definitely going back to keeping your emotions in check and being smart.”
Staying smart after the whistle and keeping things simple between the referees tweets – sounds like a perfect formula for Lucic to make a solid contribution the rest of this series.