Ryder/By S. Bradley

BOSTON – It’s difficult to picture the 2010-11 Bruins’ season and their run to the Stanley Cup Final without Nathan Horton.

With 26 goals in the regular season and eight more in the playoffs – including three of the most dramatic game-winning goals in franchise history – Horton has lived up to the hype surrounding his trade to Boston from around this time last year and written his own chapter in Bruins lore.

If you were to replay the Bruins’ season without the 26-year-old forward, it might look something like the year his former team the Florida Panthers went through en route to another playoff-less spring.

Sure, Tim Thomas might’ve still stolen a bunch of games and a defense corps led by Zdeno Chara could’ve kept the opponents off the scoreboard, but the Bruins’ offense probably wouldn’t have ranked much higher than the 27th Horton’s former mates ranked during the regular season. Earning a playoff spot would’ve been a dogfight.

That’s how important Horton has been and how big a hole in the Bruins’ lineup he leaves for the rest of the Stanley Cup Final against Vancouver now that he’s out with a severe concussion suffered in Game 3.

The only realistic way for the Bruins to replace Horton’s offensive production and his physical presence is with a committee of players. But there are a couple guys capable of increasing their contribution to the Bruins’ cause enough to reduce the number of members that committee needs.

Most notably, Milan Lucic, Horton’s linemate who has followed up a 30-goal regular season with just four goals in 21 playoff games, could take on more of the burden. He seems to know this is an opportunity for him to prove he’s a legit, scoring power forward.

“It was nice having him on the right side there on our line. He’s made a big impact for myself as far as becoming good friends and linemates,” said Lucic today on the off day before tomorrow’s Game 4. “I thought he was a big reason why I’ve been able to take my game to a new level. Now without him, I’m definitely going to have to step up and do more.”

Peverley/By S. Bradley

How much room Lucic will have to operate could depend on which winger Bruins head coach Claude Julien puts on the right side of Lucic and center David Krejci. Based on Monday night’s game, there appears to be two leading candidates: Michael Ryder and Rich Peverley. In Ryder, the Bruins have a former two-time 30-goal scorer who hasn’t lived up to expectations in three season in black and gold. And in Peverley they have a player who followed up his 22-goal 2009-10 season with 18 this year but has scored just twice in the postseason.

Ryder has more experience skating alongside Krejci than Peverley.

“I played with Krejci before and with Lucic on and off at times,” said Ryder. “Yeah, I feel comfortable there. I’m not sure what Claude has planned. But if I get put in that position, I’ll have to step it up and make sure I help those guys out as much as I can.

“I’m not Nathan Horton, but I can try to do what I can out there.”

There’s no telling if either guy will be able to find the hot hand. Like many players, including Peverley and Ryder, on the Bruins’ roster, the postseason can be a fresh start. Although both players thrived – while on a line with Chris Kelly – during the Bruins first-round triumph over Montreal, they’ve cooled off considerably since.

But both Peverley and Ryder have first-line-caliber talent. The past production doesn’t lie. Neither player is out of his prime or banged up (as far as we know). They should both look at Game 4 as their opening day. Everything from recent games and the entire season goes out the window. They have a chance to prove their first-line material.

There are other ways for the Bruins to survive, and maybe even win the Cup, without Horton. Brad Marchand could heat up after scoring his first goal of the series, Boston could build off its 2-for-4 power-play performance from Game 3 and maybe the club could get more offensive production from its fourth line despite scarce minutes.

Among the laundry list of options, the one most likely to happen and help the Bruins, however, is the Peverley/Ryder option. Both are going to get their chance to get the job done unless one comes out of the gates Wednesday and claims the spot as his own. With those two inconsistent performers, that’s doubtful to happen.

Nathan Horton’s difficult to replace, as the Florida Panthers found out. Whether it’s a combination of both, or one outplaying the other, Michael Ryder and Rich Peverley have to step into the forefront and prove that there’s depth in those black-and-gold sweaters, not just untapped talent.