BOSTON – It might be time for Nathan Horton to mix some of his Lady Byng-worthy off-ice persona into his Tasmanian Devil-style play on the ice.
Although he scored the tying goal tonight in the Bruins’ 3-1 Game 5 victory in the Eastern Conference Final at the TD Garden, Horton also ran his penalty minute total for the postseason to 33 in 16 games with two inexplicable minors against Tampa Bay.
Horton, the owner of the most famous permanent smile in New England, even apologized for his indiscretions to head coach Claude Julien after the game.
“He came up to me after the game and said ‘sorry about that coach.’ He realized he took some bad penalties, but I said what I liked about that was as soon as he came out of the box, he redeemed himself and scored us a big goal,” said Julien. “Nothing can be perfect, and when a guy does something like that, but comes out of the penalty box and redeems himself and scores a big goal, I’m going to pat him on the back instead of being all over him.
“But he was the first one to apologize so I don’t think there is much to be done about that. If anything he wants to tone it down and try to minimize those things.”
In this series, Horton has accumulated six minors and a 10-minute misconduct, which he received for popping Lightning forward Dominic Moore in the face.
At this point, you have to think that Tampa Bay has it in its game plan to goad the power forward into these infractions.
“I mean it’s physical out there. You have some guys diving, some guys not,” said Horton after he helped the Bruins pull within one victory of the Stanley Cup Final. “So like I said, you’ve just got to watch yourself. It’s a tough couple calls, but I mean, it’s in the past now. We got the win.”
Diving or not, Horton’s two penalties in Game 5 were just plain dumb. With 50.4 seconds left in the first period, he hit Nate Thompson away from the puck during a Lightning rush. Thompson and Horton had been exchanging words just moments earlier. Then 2:07 into the second he took an ill-fated run at Victor Hedman at the red line. He made some late contact and then slashed the defenseman’s stick away to put the cherry on the boneheaded sundae.
“Obviously I don’t want to take penalties and I did,” Horton explained. “I took a couple but … and we fed off that. Now we can look back and not think about it, but it could’ve been [costly]. I’ve just got to watch and play to that line and not go over it. Just try to play my game but not step over that line.”
The Bruins can’t afford to have Horton parading to the box many more times during this series or a potential next series. The Lightning’s power play is far too potent for the Bruins to give giving it opportunities. And Horton’s offense is far too vital to have it be stuck in the penalty box for two-minute chunks of these dire games.
It’s amazing that discipline has become a problem for Horton. This is a guy that came from Florida with a tag as a passion-less player that wilted under pressure. After a couple months of that Panthers-like play in a Boston uniform, we suddenly saw the ferocious power forward the Bruins hoped for – fighting on numerous occasions and using his size and strength to go on scoring binges and punish puck-carriers.
Off the ice, though, Horton has remained one of the most amicable athletes you’ll ever meet. He’s quick with a smile, a nod and a ‘how you doing?’ anytime he passes you in the halls. He’s famous for his pats on the back or his touches of another person’s arm when he’s conversing about hockey or life. Somehow you know this guy wouldn’t even squash a bug unless his kid absolutely begged him to.
Yet on the ice he’s morphed into a menace that could cost the Bruins if he doesn’t rein in his wildness. The best news for the Bruins is he’s trying.
“I know what the line is. A couple tough calls, and that’s just kind of how it goes,” he said. “I try to get better on that. I’m working hard, that’s what I want to do, and I definitely don’t want to cost my team. So, I’m open to try to be better on that.”
Going forward, the Bruins need less apologies and more smart physical plays from Horton. All it takes is for him to combine his current on-ice ferocity with his off-ice congeniality and find a happy medium.
That’ll keep his team and his fans smiling as much as he does.