BOSTON -- If there is one reason for optimism that the Bruins will regain their sneering Big Bad identity in a division playoff match against the Maple Leafs that’s sure to be hate-fueled, it’s the sudden reemergence of power forward Milan Lucic.
“I feel really good about that. His last two games have been very, very good,” said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli. “He’s moving his feet, strong on the puck, good shooting, and physical. He’s really picked up his game. That’s the type of game we need to have success in the playoffs.”
The 24-year-old finished the shortened 48-game schedule with a disappointing seven goals and 27 points and managed just three goals and exactly one fight during the long, taxing months of March and April. Lucic looked weary and uninspired at some points while shying away from throwing his body around, and appeared confused and lost in self-doubt at other points in a trying season.
One thing he wasn’t was confident while playing the straight-ahead game he's known for when he's at his best. Credit Claude Julien for reaching into his coaching bag of tricks, and finally sitting Lucic as a healthy scratch on April 20 against the Pittsburgh Penguins. That finally seemed to get the left wing’s attention, and pulled him out of his personal funk as he reverted back to the body-checking machine also capable of contributing offensively.
“It made me re-think what got me to this point, and what had made me such a successful player in the first place here in Boston,” admitted Lucic, who has always been disarmingly honest about his own game. “That was my main focus when I got back into the lineup. I was focusing on two things: moving my feet, and working to establish a fore-check. When you focus on those little things it all tends to take care of itself, and you get rewarded down the line.
“It definitely got me excited. When you see two fights happen that was a direct result of getting into the other team’s face, and that’s the way I need to play. We’ve played Montreal enough times. It’s nice to have a different Original Six battle in the playoffs.”
Lucic finished with three goals (1 goal, 2 assists) and 12 shots on net in the five games after watching from the press box against Pittsburgh, but more importantly he whipped out the nastiness in his game. He started crushing opposing players with well-timed body checks, and dropped the gloves against Keith Aulie and Chris Neil in two of the team’s final three games of the season.
The Bruins players take their cues from the physical play of unique power players like Zdeno Chara and Lucic, and begin to play without fear when they see their toughest Black and Gold customers doing the same.
“His game is one of those ones where it’s outwardly obvious when he’s on top of it," Andrew Ference said of Lucic. "It’s loud and chaotic. People have never even watched hockey in their life could sit down and tell that he’s having an impactful game. When you look across the room and see guys that are trying everything they can to get their game up to that level, it pushes everybody else up.
"It puts that demand of ‘I’m taking care of myself, so make sure you’re doing the same for me.’ It adds that and it’s so visually easy to see out there when he’s doing it right. It’s vital, but no more vital for the next guy taking his game up to that level as well.”
Parsing through Ference’s words it becomes about accountability in the Bruins dressing room, and each individual player needing to know that the guy sitting across from him is putting out the same level of effort. There was no coincidence that Boston’s level of play seemed to rise once the Bruins coaching staff had addressed the Lucic situation.
Now it’s a new season for Lucic, and he’s looking to answer of the questions that have dogged him in the last couple of years after struggling in each of the last two postseasons. After going through a long goal-scoring drought during Boston’s Stanley Cup run two years ago, Lucic finished without a goal in the seven-game series against Washington last season while admitting afterward that it had been difficult to tap into the necessary emotion for the playoffs.
That should be different this time around without any excuses like the Stanley Cup hangover that lingered with the team all of last season.
“We were all looking forward to getting back to the playoffs. Personally and as a team it was disappointing the way things ended, and for me I wasn’t able to really get things going in the seven game series,” said Lucic. “Personally and team-wise we have a lot to prove in this series. We’re looking forward to playing a great team like Toronto.”
It sounds like Lucic is looking forward to getting into the faces of Toronto's players -- something they might not enjoy quite so much.