Appearance-wise, the Florida fans (however many of them bother to show up Wednesday night in Sunrise, Fla.) probably won’t recognize Nathan Horton.
Unless something changes overnight, he’ll probably be sporting the same grin he has been wearing ever since he first joined the Bruins and escaped what he obviously deemed to be an ill-fitting situation with the Panthers last June.
However, there are evidently two Nathan Hortons when it comes to on-ice performance, and if the wrong one takes the ice for the Bruins it could bring back all-too-familiar memories for the small but loyal Florida fan base.
Horton’s numbers have been excellent through 19 games, as he has recorded 18 points, including eight goals. He leads the team in scoring and is on pace to top the 30-goal mark, which was what the Bruins optimistically set for his potential production when the season started. En route to that solid amount of production, Horton has enjoyed nights of physical forechecking and work along the boards, in addition to diligent backchecking. That’s the Nathan Horton the Bruins bragged about after they picked him up.
But then there are nights when the other Nathan Horton shows up — nights like Monday in Tampa, where Horton failed to record a point or even a shot on net. It was the third time Horton failed to shoot on goal this season, but this time his lack of an attempt led to his extending his season-worst goal-less stretch to four games.
In the aftermath of Horton’s two prior shot-less outings, he bounced back well. He scored a goal at home against Washington Oct. 21 and did the same on the Capitals’ home ice Nov. 5. He was still a bit gun-shy in those two contests with just two shots on net in both, but at least he cashed in on his chances. We’ll find out Wednesday night how Horton responds to maybe his worst game as a member of the Bruins against the Lightning.
Not only didn’t Horton manage a shot on goal, he seemed disinterested. In fact, he looked like the player the Panthers carried the last couple of years who earned a reputation for passion-less hockey. Horton’s last seven games, actually, have left little to be desired. He has scored just once in that stretch and averaged just 1.57 shots per game. Shots on net don’t have to be an end-all indicator of solid play — and Horton did assist on all three Milan Lucic goals last week against the Panthers — but there has been little else to Horton’s play over the same stretch.
Prior to this string of games, he averaged 2.5 shots per game in the 12 contests that featured his first seven goals. When you figure he averaged 2.45 shots per game on the way to 20 goals last season and 2.65 shots in 2006-07 (a 31-goal year), it’s obvious he’s only at his best when he’s putting that lethal wrister to use more often.
Horton has to now prove that he can take the necessary steps to prevent an extended stretch of lifeless play from turning into an all-out slump. When he’s not scoring, he has to be creating chances, has to be making things happen with his body. That’s what he said he was ready to do on a consistent basis right after the trade and all through training camp. Now it’s time to show it. The Bruins don’t need another high-priced passenger in their lineup.
There’d be no better place to do that than in the BankAtlantic Center. The day after Horton and the Bruins downed those Panthers in Boston last week, he contemplated what playing in front of the Florida crowd might be like when asked about the possibilities.
“I don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s different. Obviously, it’s nice when you get the win against them. But it’s definitely going to be a little bit weird being down there,” said Horton.
It’ll be a lot weirder if Horton goes out and plays the spirited hockey he started the season with. The folks in Sunrise probably don’t remember what that looks like. And the Bruins don’t want that Nathan Horton to become a distant memory.