BOSTON -- It’s no secret there are certain key emotional players who set the tone for everybody else in the Bruins lineup. When those players are adrift, it often appears that the Bruins are stuck in a hockey version of limbo: Good enough to win games and be a playoff team, but not close to what they can be at their best.
Two of those bellwether players, Andrew Ference and Milan Lucic, stepped up their edge and competitiveness for the Bruins in their solid 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at TD Garden.
Ference awakened the sleepy Bruins by challenging Benoit Pouliot to a fight in the latter half of the first period, and Lucic played one of his most physical games in a season where that’s been far too absent.
“I’m not looking for perfection,” said coach Claude Julien. “I’m looking for [emotional] reaction.”
Well, the Bruins coaching staff got more than enough “reaction” on Thursday night to carry home an end-to-end victory.
Watching both Lucic and Ference show passion that’s been too absent from the Bruins the past few months was taken by their coach as a good sign. That’s exactly the kind of intensity and compete level the Bruins will need in the playoffs. It’s the kind of reckless abandon that made Lucic so feared in the playoffs his first few years in the league, and spurred Ference on to display a glove malfunction to the entire Bell Centre crowd in Montreal.
“Ference [and Lucic] did the same thing: They stood up,” said Julien. “There are other guys that threw some big hits, but Milan is known for that. When he’s at his best, he puts a lot of fear in other players on other teams just with his forecheck and finishing his checks at the end of that. When being challenged, he handled himself pretty well, so there’s no doubt our guys will feed off that kind of stuff.
“It doesn’t mean he has to go out there and fight every night, he just has to play hard the way he’s been doing lately and things are starting to come around for him.”
That’s an important development for the B’s. There were long stretches this season where Ference and Lucic struggled, albeit for very different reasons. Ference is both an impending unrestricted free agent and an important voice in the Bruins dressing room, and that’s put him in a complicated position for this season. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from trying to step up at certain points when it’s needed this year, and that was the case with six minutes to go in the first period of a scoreless game.
Spurred on by a massive Lucic hit on Keith Aulie at the other end of the ice, Ference began mixing it up with former Bruins winger Benoit Pouliot. No. 21 could have simply pushed and shoved a little bit behind the net with Pouliot, but instead Ference got aggressive and dropped gloves behind the Boston net. It was clear he was looking to wake up a Bruins team that only had two shots on net at the halfway mark of the first period, and it worked.
That’s a far cry from the defenseman that had only three assists and a plus-3 rating in the first 23 games of the season. Ference has been much better after settling down and playing with some tapped emotion.
“This is a game we wanted to win,” said Lucic. “We knew it was an important game with a lot on the line. With everything that’s going on in the standings we want to put ourselves in the best position possible. I know we clinched a playoff spot, but there’s definitely a lot to play for from our end. When you see a guy like [Ference], one of your leaders, stepping up early on in the first period, it definitely energizes the bench. I think it gave us a good energy boost heading into the second period.”
The Ference fight led into a second period where the Bruins were powered offensively by goals from Dennis Seidenberg and Daniel Paille, and paced by the missing physical intimidation of their monstrous left wing. Lucic was finally body-checking people, as evidenced by his team-leading four hits, and played angry while serving as Aulie’s worst imaginable nightmare on the ice.
After blowing up the 6-foot-6 Aulie with a big hit that jarred the puck loose in the first period, Lucic clobbered the Tampa Bay defenseman in the corner in the last few minutes of the second period. Aulie tried to stand up for himself, and instead weathered the brunt of a beating from Lucic that was months in the making. All of the offensive struggles, last week’s healthy scratch and a season full of adversity burst out with a series of power-packed left and right handed punches before Aulie dropped the ice.
That one-sided fight ended up being the punctuation mark of the end of the victorious effort for the Black and Gold.
“I think we did a better job of keeping pucks in. I think we did a better job playing a north-south game,” said Shawn Thornton. “We brought some emotion all-around. Looch did a great job. Andrew did a great job. Tuukka [Rask] stood on his head, made some big saves when we needed them. [It was an] all-around better effort.
“Since [Lucic] went back in the lineup after sitting out, he’s been physical. He’s playing his style of hockey. He’s working to be the player that everyone knows he can be. He’s a big mutant. When he’s going, he’s unstoppable. He runs people over. He’s strong on the puck and he’s a very talented hockey player that makes plays, too.”
There have been signs for both Ference and Lucic that their games were coming along lately. The B’s alternate captain has actually raised his game in the last month, and gave one of his best performances of the season in an emotional performance against the Sabres in the first game back after the Marathon bombing. Lucic now has put together three solid games since watching up in the press box against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and looks like he doesn’t want to be back up on the ninth floor anytime soon.
“He’s become a good player again for us,” said Julien. “You know, I thought again tonight he did exactly what ignites our team and what ignites our fans. When he’s like that, he’s at his best. I certainly like the direction he’s taking, and if he keeps going that way we can’t ask for better timing, I guess.”
Coming off one of their worst losses of the season, the Bruins needed their emotional touchstone players to step up and inspire their teammates. Ference and Lucic did that on Thursday night for an emotional spark, and showed just how important they are to the winning process when things get a little tough.