BOSTON – These days, getting moved to a line with Bruins winger Shawn Thornton probably means you have a hot scoring hand or head coach Claude Julien is looking to jump start your offensive game.
After all, the veteran winger known more for his pugilism or forechecking than goal-scoring recorded his fourth goal in the first 17 games of the Bruins’ season tonight in Boston’s 4-0 win over Florida at TD Garden.
But prior to the current campaign — and honestly, even this year — skating on the wing opposite Thornton meant it was time to simplify your game and shift your focus back to going to the dirty areas, banging some bodies and maybe even tearing some tough guy’s head off in a scrap.
Milan Lucic knows that method well. Often over the course of the last two seasons when Lucic would start to struggle skating on a top line alongside the likes of Marc Savard or David Krejci, Julien would get his message across to Lucic by sticking him on a grinding line with Thornton and whoever the center of the year was.
So far this season, Lucic has stayed put and rewarded Julien for his loyalty with 10 goals now after recording his second career NHL hat trick tonight. Lucic scored two goals on shots from around the hash marks and one on a rebound at the top of the blue paint in a display of versatility we haven’t seen from Lucic since before he injured his ankle last fall.
There’s been no reason to convince Lucic to stop being too cute or too fancy so far this season. Playing opposite Nathan Horton and next to Krejci first, and now Patrice Bergeron, Lucic has started to fulfill his potential as a legitimate power forward – the type of player Boston bargained for when it committed to a three-year, $12.25 million contract that started this season.
“Well I think at the end of the night when you watch him play, he’s skating, he’s hitting, finishing his checks, and also he’s playing what I call, a north-south game,” said Julien after the wing. “When he’s got the puck he’s going straight forward with it and he’s creating some room for his teammates and when he’s got an opportunity to take his shot he’s taking it. He’s not looking to pass, and I think that’s a great quality he has and hopefully will rub off on other players because we have a tendency sometimes to overpass. … He’s pretty confident and since the beginning of the year he’s been as consistent as we’ve ever seen him.”
Lucic hadn’t scored at home since Game 7 of that ill-fated Philadelphia playoff series last spring. He scored just nine goals in 50 injury-plagued games last season. When this season started, some – including this writer – scoffed when Lucic spoke of reaching 20 goals for the first time as an NHLer. Now he’s on pace to reach 40.
The Bruins’ offense was supposed to be better because of Horton and Tyler Seguin’s arrival, Savard and Marco Sturm’s eventual health and a more active defense featuring Johnny Boychuk and Matt Hunwick. Lucic was somewhere toward the bottom of the top 10 reasons why Boston’s league-worst offense from a year ago would once again make opposing goaltenders pay. Now he’s at least in the top three.
When Lucic arrived in Boston as a 19-year-old junior-eligible player trying make the NHL roster, he was already mature for his age and dealt with the ups and downs of his rookie season with aplomb. Battling injury last season – a dreaded high-ankle sprain no less – tested the bulky winger’s mettle, and he wasn’t quite his jolly self off the ice nor his ornery self on the sheet. Maybe he would’ve built off that two-goal performance in Game 7 against the Flyers in the next round, but we never got to find out.
All the hockey skills that are coming together in Lucic to turn him into a player that can run you over and bury the puck in the net on a nightly basis wouldn’t be shining so bright right now were it not for him taking the next step in his maturity. He could’ve hung his head when he learned that his projected and past regular center Savard wouldn’t be around. But he instead embraced the Krejci-Horton combo as a chance to still perform.
And then there’s the matter of staying on that top line from the start of the season until now. The temptation to suddenly start trying to skate figure eights with the puck and stick handle along the walls rather than plow defenders over and make mince meat of them in the corners, hasn’t tantalized Lucic. He has stuck to the orders given him by Julien and the coaching staff. That’s a major sign that as a player, Lucic is almost all grown up.
Milan Lucic is supposed to be a scoring bulldozer, a Tazmanian devil (sorry Terry O’Reilly), a Cam Neely Lite (even at 228 pounds in the gentler, 21st century NHL). Although we’re not even at the quarter pole of the season, you can tell that this is could be the year that puts Lucic on everyone’s list of dynamic modern-day NHL power forwards.