BOSTON – When the Bruins hit the ice for their playoff-opening game at the Bell Centre in Montreal back in 2008, they acted as though head coach Claude Julien told them they were going to Disney World and instead wound up in Camden, N.J.
A team dominated by playoff neophytes stepped into the most hostile environment in the NHL and basically were run over by the sound, the magnitude of the moment and, most importantly, the top-seeded Canadiens in a 4-1 loss.
That Bruins squad, the first to reach the postseason in four years, recovered its bearings well enough to force seven games in the series.
After a similarly shell-shocked start to his playoff career this spring, Nathan Horton has a chance to salvage his name the same way. That reclamation project began in Boston’s win in Monday night’s Game 3 the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with Montreal. The Bruins are still down 2-1 in the series, but Horton recorded his first NHL playoff goal and stayed out of the penalty box.
He just might be starting to get the hang of this NHL playoff circus.
“You kind of think what to expect. But it’s a lot different when you get there,” said Horton of his first venture into the playoffs while chatting inside the USA Rink at the Whiteface Lake Placid Olympic Center. “It’s a lot tougher game, that’s for sure. I think the big thing is trying to relax and play your game and not think too much.”
It took Horton a couple games to learn the lesson that playoff intensity differs from outright rage. Unlike those ’08 Bruins, Horton was trying to overcompensate for his playoff rookie status by doing too much and going wild every time he was on the ice. He played those two games as if he were desperate to escape Camden.
Even if he doesn’t want to admit it, he was frustrated through the first two games, both Boston losses, of this series.
In Game 1, he fired three pedestrian shots that landed on Montreal goaltender Carey Price and seemed to overreact to every hit and every “meeting of the minds” in front of the nets after whistles. Things continued to bubble over for Horton in the Game 2, as he ran over Hal Gill behind the Montreal net while David Krejci was in the midst of stealing the puck from Price. Later in the game, Horton skated off after a shift and slammed his stick numerous times against the wall and the bench.
“It really wasn’t [a lot of frustration]. It probably looked like that,” Horton said. “My stick was broken on the play. I was in the corner digging for it and I was just upset because my stick was broke and I could’ve got the puck. So that’s kind of what happened. But it probably didn’t look like it. But that’s what I was mad at.”
Regardless of what he was mad at, Horton slammed his stick loud enough that it drew attention over the noise of the Garden crowd and a shard actually flew back onto the ice. That’s not the way Horton, or any player, should release his emotions. There’s a level of controlled aggression that has to be met to succeed in the playoffs.
Horton started to show he was clued in early in Game 3, as he used poise and guile to score his first NHL playoff goal with a bank shot from behind the goal line off Price and in.
“I just saw it bounce. [Zdeno Chara] made a nice [play] to get it to the net and it came off the boards nice,” Horton explained. “And the goalie was kind of out of the net a little bit. So I just tried to get it in behind him and it kind of hit him and it trickled in. I wasn’t sure it was in, but [Patrice Bergeron] said it was in. So …”
So the Bruins had a 2-0 lead and were on their way to the big win. Horton continued to show his new-found playoff moxie as the game went on and the Habs upped their intensity. Horton, who earlier was on the receiving end of a bone-rocking Tomas Plekanec hit, was plastered to the glass near the penalty boxes by a Travis Moen hit late in the third period. A week ago, Horton might’ve reacted in an undisciplined matter and thrown himself out of position in an attempt to retaliate. Horton 2.0 just got up and kept playing, knowing all that mattered was protecting Boston’s one-goal lead.
“I think the main thing is you’re not running out of position to make a hit. I think we were doing that a lot in the first games,” he said. “We were worrying about hits and not so much the puck. So I think you just try to continue to hit but just play smart.”
Better Horton get the hang of playoff hockey late rather than never. He discovered his playoff passion just in the nick of time for Boston. By repeating his Game 3 actions – or non-actions – going forward, Horton has a chance to add more victories and rounds to his first playoff run.