BOSTON – It seems every night lately Nathan Horton hasn’t just been scoring goals and creating the type of traffic that sets up his teammates’ scores. He has also been playing angry.
He’s always looking for a fight and sometimes the opposition obliges him. The stitches he got from hitting his face against the ice in a bout Dion Phaneuf last week in Toronto, which now rest below the stitches he got after a high stick from Tomas Plekanec tonight, will attest to Horton’s willingness to throw down.
There has to be a reason for all this pent up emotion that was absent during the middle portion of this season.
“I think it’s too much Red Bull,” the well-chiseled forward quipped through his ever-present smile before making his way to the shower room to wash off the sweat of his two-goal performance in Boston’s 7-0 rout of Montreal at TD Garden tonight.
Attempts at an endorsement deal with the energy drinks aside, it’s apparent there’s something else fueling the monster that both Horton and his long-time Florida Panthers teammate Gregory Campbell (both of whom scored twice in the triumph) have become of late. The flavors of the NHL playoffs, which neither player has ever had hit his lips, is getting within tasting range. And a drop or two might’ve fallen into both players’ mouths during the demolition of the Habs in a building that was as loud as it’s been since Horton and Campbell pulled on their Bruins sweaters.
It’s been eight years since either player skated in any type of postseason, as they both competed in the 2003 OHL playoffs. Campbell’s Kitchener captured the Memorial Cup that spring. From there, both players went onto the Panthers, whose springs typically consist of fighting for jobs for the following season and making summer plans.
“Unfortunately I had to watch a lot of games the past seven years. It was exciting for me and Nathan to be in a game like this,” said Campbell. “It was the closest we’ve gotten to a playoff game. As we get closer and approach the playoffs, every game is like a playoff game.”
In fact, those playoff games probably started a couple weeks ago when the Bruins’ schedule began to provide desperate opposition that needed every point available in the standings. The Bruins took a few games to start matching that type of emotion, and Horton and Campbell have been leading the way.
It’s not that Horton and Campbell were competing at their performance level in March with the Panthers. Playing on a team that’s not only playoff-bound but in first place, however, has a way of making a player reach beyond what he previously thought was his maximum performance level.
The drive to make the playoffs, and make an impact there, is what can turn Horton into a pedestrian goal-scorer on his way to 20 goals into a wrecking-ball power forward that has a chance to surpass the 25-score mark.
“It definitely has picked up pace. It feels like [the playoffs] a little bit,” Horton said after running his goal total to 22. “It’s going to get like that even more. Teams are pressing to be in a good playoff spot and every game means a lot to the teams.”
And the prize of playoffs can transform Campbell from a gritty, penalty-killing fourth-line center into a high-octane sniper that can rip a wrist shot into the top corner on a breakaway with his team killing a 5-on-3 power play. Campbell’s wrister might not have been as pretty as the one Horton used to score his second goal – both players deferred to the other in that debate – but it was every bit as effective.
It’s no wonder Campbell was on fire tonight. Despite the rigors of this season so far and the intensity of Boston’s practices this week sandwiched around Tuesday night’s grinding victory over New Jersey, Campbell was the first man on the ice and the last one off for practice Wednesday.
There’s no doubt the excitement of what could be a special spring that’ll not include watching the start of the postseason on television is driving him to keep adding to his game and find ways to contribute. So will he be the first one on and last one off Friday?
“I don’t think we’re practicing,” he said before heading off to his postgame routine.
Campbell was right. As reward for their efforts this week, head coach Claude Julien gave the Bruins Friday off. That could mean that when they show up Saturday, Campbell and Horton will have two days worth of energy pent up to unleash at the Garden Saturday when the team’s playoff push continues.