Lucic needs some help in finding his game

Lucic needs some help in finding his game
March 24, 2013, 11:15 am
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TORONTO – The definition of insanity is making the same mistake over and over again while expecting a different outcome each time.

The definition of Bruins insanity might well be described as rolling Bruins power forward Milan Lucic into the same spot with the same minutes each game while watching him struggle mightily, and expecting a different outcome with each passing game.

In year’s past, Lucic could unlock some way to end a prolonged slump with the kind of pulse-pounding, emotional effort that would lead him back. It usually ended with him scoring a couple of goals and leaving one of his unlucky opponents bleeding on the opposing bench.

Still, that’s not happening this year.

Lucic started the season like a house on fire with anger and purpose while answering critics who said he was out of shape after not skating regularly during the 119-day day NHL lockout. He had eight points (3 goals, 5 assists) in his first 11 games, and sufficiently quieted those Looch naysayers with his strong, energetic play.

He clearly looked like he was ready to go.

Since that emotional start, there was been little more than a whimper out of No. 17’s game. He has one goal since Feb. 12, and three shots on net in his past three games show that the offensive chances have dried up along with the consistent goal production. It’s been startling to watch it transpire in a player that averaged 29 goals scored the past two seasons, and has been widely considered the most fearsome player in the NHL.

He’s gone without a goal in the last 15 games, is a minus-5 in March and trudged through one of his most invisible games in recent memory Saturday night in a 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s his longest stretch without a goal since the end of the 2010-11 season and into the first two rounds of the Stanley Cup when Lucic went 20 games without a goal.

The frustration with himself and his game is obvious: Lucic had a number of turnovers in the Leafs loss, and after one offensive zone giveaway in the second period, he took a furious swipe at the boards with his stick before snapping the twig over the bench with another mighty two-hander.

Unfortunately that was the only time Looch Nasty came out the entire game. For a good-hearted guy, Lucic needs to play with hot-blooded nastiness in order to be effective and it hasn’t consistently been there.

After both Lucic and Nathan Horton busted out of their slumps in their last home game at TD Garden against the Washington Capitals, it seemed like a stretch of physicality and offense was on the way. But both went back into a deep spring slumber on a just-concluded, four-game trip that saw the B's go 1-3. Lucic didn’t speak with reporters after the loss Saturday, but it’s clear his teammates see the pressure a scoring drought has loaded onto his strong power forward’s back.

“Guys are aware they haven’t scored in a while. They’d like nothing more than to get that monkey off their back,” admitted Dennis Seidenberg, who has goals in each of his last two games after going 28 games without any. “We just didn’t really want it bad enough and that’s why we lost.”

Maybe it’s the lack of heavy skating during the lockout finally catching up with Lucic in the dog days of this compacted 48-game schedule, when the Bruins are playing every other day in March and April. Maybe it’s the big changes in the 24-year-old’s life. Lucic got married, bought his first home in Boston and had his first child all within a couple of months, and those kind of big “real life” changes have required an adjustment period.

Maybe Lucic is simply conserving a little bit in the tank for the playoffs after he struggled in each of the last two postseasons leading to unwarranted criticism of his game.

Maybe it’s none of the above and Lucic is just simply going through one of those prolonged dry spells that have sometimes just happened in his highly successful six-year career in Boston.

Whatever the case, Julien decided it was time to aid the struggling power forward, and move him to a different line where he can get back to the straight line, north/south game he needs in order to be effective. Switching Lucic out to the third-line role with Rich Peverley and Jordan Caron can spark some of those players that have similarly struggled to finish off chances all season.

We all know Lucic runs into problems when he becomes indecisive at both ends of the ice as his confidence wanes, and stops moving his feet at full skating speed. It's not a desire or effort in most instances when he struggles. The Bruins power forward needs to skate at an elevated rate just to keep up with the frenetic pace at the NHL, so when he stops moving his feet he starts looking like the Bobby Orr statue outside TD Garden. That's been going on for the last month, and scaling back to the approach of "smack the guy with the puck" might be exactly what No. 17 needs.

A return to a simpler, more basic game focused on forechecking, physicality and simple offensive plays has always been the curing salve for Lucic whenever things have spiraled too far out of hand. Coach Claude Julien wasn’t ready to talk about shaking up lines immediately after the loss, and his hands are tied ever so slightly by the injuries that have cut into the Bruins' depth.

“We’re going to evaluate and look and see. It’s more about individuals right now than it is about lines,” said Julien, when asked about switching up his forward combinations. “We’re forcing passes in the slot instead of shooting, and we’re bringing it back to the point. We’re not making really good decisions in the offensive zone. When we do we’re spending more time in the zone like we did in the third period, and we’re getting more chances.

“There are guys that are pressing right now and it’s not easy for them. But they need to fight their way through it. We need to produce the way we did," Julien said. "That’s what we have to do. We won’t be hanging our heads, we’re going to work and we’re going to find our way out of it."

Still, no shots on net and only one registered hit for Lucic on Saturday night isn’t close to good enough. Doing it in a game against the Leafs with a chance at a .500 trip on the line is difficult to fathom. The Bruins need more out of their emotional bellwether and Lucic needs to find a way to lessen the enormous pressure he’s putting on himself.

Switching things up might be the best thing for him, and might finally allow him to fully exhale and breathe in this sprint of a regular season. But one thing is clear: something is needed to aid Lucic because it’s not happening naturally on its own as it has in the past for the Bruins hulking left winger.

Lucic needs a little help to find his game, and the Bruins won’t be a complete hockey club until he gets there.