The calls all week were for Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic to bring the nasty back to the Bruins, and they finally did just that on Saturday afternoon.
During a pivotal stretch for the Bruins where they need to find their top gear, Horton and Lucic led the way with a bloody, punishing, productive performance in a 4-1 thumping of the Washington Capitals at TD Garden.
This was the game many were expecting the first time the Bruins played a Capitals team that ended their season in the first round of the playoffs last year.
“With what happened against that team in the last year, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t be ready to play them tonight. We’ve got to start playing closer to our identity,” said Claude Julien. “It’s about putting pucks in, fore-checking, it’s about being physical, it’s about being aggressive in more areas, and more or less playing a north-south type of game. I thought we did that tonight.”
The Lucic/Horton/David Krejci combo powered in three of Boston’s four goals in a breakout performance and led a one-sided avenging of a third period crumble job at the hands of the Capitals last month. For the Bruins it was obvious from the moment they all took the ice on Saturday afternoon that Lucic and Horton meant business, and that usually means a forecast of pain and trembling for their opposition.
When it was all finished they went from a struggling forward line that had managed one goal and a minus-10 in the first eight games of March and busted out for nine points and a plus-5 in a complete 60 minute bludgeoning. Horton had the first regular season Gordie Howe hat trick of his career, and he had the Bruins’ newly minted “rooster T-shirt” given to the player of the game.
One shift in the second period saw Lucic and Horton throw five successive bone-rattling body checks into the boards, and seemed to serve notice that it was going to be a difficult afternoon for anybody not wearing Black and Gold.
“They showed exactly what we need to see from them on a more consistent basis. They were skating the north-south type game, they were fore-checking and being physical. Because of that they were turning pucks over, and not only that, they were strong on the puck and they made their chances count,” said Claude Julien. “A great shot from Horty [Nathan Horton], I thought, another great play by Looch [Milan Lucic] on both those goals, [David] Krejci going into the pocket on his goal. I liked their game, and we needed that from them.”
Lucic started churning his skating legs like pistons in a Black and Gold engine, and disrupted Washington’s attempts to break the puck out of the zone with his withering fore-check. First the Bruins power forward read the play perfectly with Troy Brouwer holding the puck behind the Washington, and intercepted his reverse pass attempt behind the net.
Lucic then alertly slipped a pass through the slot that Horton hammered home for Boston’s first goal of the game, and the first goal in the month of March for either one of the top line’s oversized wingers. Lucic was at it again three minutes later when he stripped Jack Hillen of a puck on the side boards and fed it to David Krejci, who snapped home a one-timer from the left circle to give that line two goals in the first 17:15 of the first period.
The hulking power forward had talked about the importance of shooting the puck with more authority coming into the game, but instead Lucic ended a dominant performance with a career-high three assists against a beaten down Caps bunch. The whole key was bringing the aggressive fore-checking back into Lucic’s game, and thereby making life miserable for anyone in a Washington sweater that had the misfortune of touching the puck.
“We talked about that. We haven’t been very good. For sure our line hasn’t been very good. We haven’t been productive like we need to be, and it’s not even about the points or the goals,” said Horton. “It’s the hard work down low and being smart with the puck [that was missing]. That all comes together when you get [the puck] deep and you [start] moving your feet.”
Horton’s breakout performance was a whole different tenor: it was the most resounding return to dreaded power forward status since the back-to-back concussions derailed his career for a half-season. He stepped into shots in the slot to finish things with power and authority, he crushed Capitals players with teeth-rattling body checks like the one he dropped on Eric Fehr in the first period, and he dropped the gloves with fire-eyed fury when Matt Hendricks essentially ambushed him at the end of the second period.
“I was yelling at him. Like, three times I yelled at him and he didn’t look at me. Then he kind of just sprinted at me,” said Horton. “He kind of caught me with my gloves [down] there. Or, maybe he did hear me. I just didn’t think he did because he wasn’t looking at me.”
It was about time that Horton brought the nasty back into his game, and he did that Saturday while putting together a three-point performance for a Bruins team that badly needed their return.
The sight of an incensed Horton skating toward the Bruins dressing room with blood trickling down his forward after driving Hendricks into the ice is a part of the right winger’s game that had been previously missing this season. It was good to have it back with the Bruins needing all hands on deck with six weeks and 22 games left to straighten out their game for the playoffs.
“You want to finish your checks, but you’re not always going to kill guys,” said Horton. “I think the big thing is getting the puck deep and getting in on the fore-check. That’s when it all comes together.
“You’re working hard to get the puck back and you’re not spending any time in your end.”
Even better, Shawn Thornton and Adam McQuaid’s payback in the third period when they cornered Hendricks, and forced him to answer for jumping Horton after acting like he wasn’t interested in fighting.
The trick now is for the Krejci trio to find a consistent level of performance that will put them in tandem with the red hot Bergeron line. Once they do that they’ll be a handful for the best that the NHL has to offer, and they’ll truly be ready for the challenges that wait ahead six weeks from now.