Horton/By S. Bradley

BOSTON – The big dreamers had Nathan Horton pegged for 40 goals this season, especially after he started his Bruins career with five goals in six games.

A more realistic goal for the veteran winger would’ve been 30 goals, a level he reached once previously in his career with Florida.

Today at TD Garden, Horton’s power-play goal stood up as the game-winner in a 3-1 victory over Ottawa and also ran his total to 26 on the season. He could still finish with a flourish and reach one of those milestone numbers, but it looks like he’ll have to just settle for his best goal total since he scored 27 in 2007-08.

But in the grand scheme of things, the Bruins might’ve actually gotten more out of Horton than they expected despite the one-goal-in-20-games stretch that threw off the forward’s torrid pace.

For starters, the 25-year-old, who has never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs, has responded to his first meaningful stretch run at the game’s highest level with six goals in his last nine games and eight goals in his last 15. The pressure of playing for valuable standings points and doing it in a traditional hockey market, so far, hasn’t gotten to him.

“Well I’m definitely not happy with how long I went without scoring. Those things happen, and I feel good about working through it,” he said after today’s win. “Right now all that matters is playoffs. That part’s gone now, and when we get in the playoffs it’s a new season and a new year. This is where it really counts. I’ll be looking to do my best and not let that happen again.”

The goals were expected, but no one could’ve predicted Horton’s physical renaissance. The Bruins knew that, when motivated, Horton could use his 6-foot-2, 229-pound frame to intimidate and crush bodies on the forecheck. He’s done that ever since February. But he’s also totaled seven fighting majors after accumulating a total of six for his entire NHL career prior to this season.

He reached seven today with a lengthy, and some would say needless, bout with Ottawa’s Zach Smith at center ice. For his efforts, Horton needed stitches above his left eye. Previously he twice has had to have cuts above his right eye stitched up after fisticuffs.

While the Senators are now heading home, Horton has his first NHL playoffs to look forward to. The risk of getting injured in a meaningless fight, however, never entered Horton’s mind.

“It just kind of happens. In the game you don’t really think about it,” he said. “Obviously I don’t want to get hurt, but you know you don’t think about that during the game. You’re a hockey player. Like I said, it just happened. It’s nice to get that out of the way and focus on the next part.”

Horton might not have thought much about the fight, but head coach Claude Julien sure took a more serious interest in it.

“It happened right in front of me and I wasn’t moving much. … [I was] like hopefully this just ends and we can separate them and go your own way,” said the coach. “But there’s always a fear of an injury there. But you can’t take away, like I said, the attitude and I guess the approach that you have to the game. He’s playing with a bit of a burr and give him credit for that. So I certainly didn’t want to hold him back.”

Something held Horton back until around the calendar’s second month. No one, not even him, has been able to put their finger on what it was and where it’s gone. But with one game left in the regular season Horton has lived up to expectations as the power forward Boston needed, even if his goal total didn’t live up to some prognostications.

Now it’s just a matter of translating that to the uncharted territory of the playoffs. If he can replicate the passion from his regular-season fights and scoring chances, Horton should find his first foray into the playoffs a pleasant one.