Horton/By S. Bradley

BOSTON — Chris Kelly was trying to explain how great Nathan Horton has been in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs when the Bruins center made an amazingly preposterous statement today at the TD Garden.

“Horty’s been great. I said, ‘if Florida ever got to Game 7s they were going to win because they had Horty.’ He’s been phenomenal for us and hopefully that will continue,” said Kelly after he was among the handful of Bruins players that took the ice today with Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final looming Wednesday in Vancouver.

Of course, the Panthers haven’t made the playoffs in more than a decade. The only Game 7 they’ve played recently  is the seventh game of the regular season. But it does feel like any team with Nathan Horton in the lineup is going to win a do-or-die game, and he’s going to score the game-winning goal.

According to multiple reports, Horton is the first player in NHL history to score two Game 7 game-winners in the same playoff season. Most recently, he followed up his overtime winner in Game 7 of the first round against Montreal with the only goal in Boston’s 1-0 win over Tampa Bay in the last game of the Eastern Conference Final last Friday.

He still hasn’t been able to put it all into perspective.

“Yeah I mean I really didn’t know that was anything,” Horton said about the record. “But I mean it’s definitely special for me to be able to do that and help my team win. There’s nothing like scoring in overtime or a game-winner to move on to the next round, and it’s like I’ve said all along, it’s definitely hard to describe how good of a feeling that feels.”

Horton’s failures in Florida were a two-way street. The team didn’t play well and he didn’t meet expectations. But the murmurs from inside and outside the game about his lack of passion for hockey have proved to be way off base and more a product of his skating in anonymity in the southern portion of the Sunshine State.

In addition to a 26-goal regular season, Horton has now scored eight more in 18 postseason contests. He’s done it all, since January at least, with the type of physicality and emotion that proves he 180 degrees away from “passionless.”

“I think it would motivate anyone,” said Horton about the criticisms that preceded his arrival to Boston. “A lot of things were said. And just coming into here, I wanted to prove people wrong and to really show what I can do. There’s been some tough times. It’s not easy all the time. But the big thing is you just keep working at it and know that in the end it’s going to pay off. I think that’s all I’ve been trying to do.”

Head coach Claude Julien has appreciated Horton’s maturing this season.

“I think when I say he’s grown as a player, he’s brought that maturity level that you need in a player in order to be able to rely on him game in, game out. I think that’s where I saw the big difference in Nathan, in that part of his game,” said the coach. “And he was accused I guess, or criticized a lot for that in the past, and he hasn’t disappointed us in regards to being the consistent player.”

It wasn’t that long ago, however, when Horton was going through one of those rough patches. He was on the verge of proving his critics right during a listless 20-game stretch that featured just one goal off his stick. Toward the end of that run, he started to show signs of life and the type of player he claimed to be in the aftermath of the trade from Florida.

“Even through that drought, I was getting opportunities to score,” he recalled. “It just seemed like it didn’t want to go in. That’s how it is sometimes when you’re a hockey player. You’re not always going to score but you’re going to do things to help your team win, even in the regular season.”

Maybe the Bruins should be glad those pucks didn’t go in in December and January. It could be a case of Horton having plenty of scores saved up for the biggest moments of the year, like Game 7s. They might not have Game 7s in Florida, but they’ve had them in Boston and Nathan Horton has made sure they’ve become a joyous part of the franchise’s folklore.