By Joe Haggerty
There were moments during the middle of the long, monotonous hockey season when Nathan Horton didnt seem to be much more than a bigger, slightly more enigmatic version of Michael Ryder.
That seemed to be the case when he endured much of December and January mired in a stretch of 20 games with only one goal, and exhibited little emotional spark while the Bruins attempted to breathe life into Marc Savards game alongside Horton at the center spot.
There may have been some connection between Hortons slump and Savards struggles to find his game before another concussion knocked him out for good, but there was also little fire in Hortons belly at that point.
That has changed into a raging belly inferno since the All-Star break with Horton growing the snarling attitude and willingness to intimidate thats such an integral part of the Bruins collective team personality. He hasnt talked as much lately before and after games, but hes letting his speaking on the ice tell the bone-rattling story.
Id like to stand here and say I know whats going to happen in the playoffs, but well have to wait and see, said Claude Julien, asked what he was expecting out of Horton once the postseason bell dings. But hes come around in the second half of the year. His whole attitude and approach to the game has gotten better and better. I have no doubt in my mind that hes going to be fine.
Hes playing with an attitude, and that attitude has been with him for a while now. You saw Horton today in a game that a lot of people would have called a meaningless game. Im not worried about him. I think hes ready and excited for the playoffs.
Julien hypothesized it might be that Horton is finally adjusting to the Boston environment or growing into his role with the right kind of organization, and that he sees it with a quality Bruins team.
Horton seemed to say the exact same thing after crashing, banging and scoring out on the ice to lead the Bruins to a 3-1 victory over the Senators at TD Garden.
To play 80 games here in Boston, where hockey is the world its been a special year for me, said Horton. Ive enjoyed it. Theres some downs and some ups, and Im looking to continue the ups. I think everyone is here.
It seems Horton really started to see it when he knocked out Edmonton Oilers forward Theo Peckham with one right-handed haymaker at Rexall Place while also notching a goal, and Horton has continued ramping up for the playoffs with that attitude ever since.
Its not always about scoring. Its about being THERE and being in the play and being involved, and hard to play against, said Horton, stressing the there part of his thoughtful sentence. All the little stuff that really matters, thats what its all about. Its nice to score and its nice to help your team out. But when youre not doing that, youve got to do something to help your team. Thats what Im trying to do, and thats what Ill continue to do.
Its allowed Horton to pile up 14 goals and 25 points in his last 30 games, and paved the way for his game-winning power play goal and the extended round of fisticuffs with Zack Smith in Bostons victory over the Sens. Hortons 26th strike of the season on Saturday afternoon was a little bit of big-bodied perfection as he and Milan Lucic camped around the net, and the right wing simply pounced on a Zdeno Chara rebound near the left post.
Horton couldnt corral the puck for a quick forehand wrist snap, but calmly collected it for a backhand before flicking it into the open net little more than a minute into the second period.
It seemed to be meaningless game No. 81 of the season with the Bs playoff situation secure, but it was clearly important to goaltender Tim Thomas shooting for the NHL record for save percentage in a season.
It shouldnt have been important to Horton, but he played like Mark Recchi or Chara had already whispered in his ear that playoffs had begun.
The Horton fists started flying directly in front of the Boston bench, and Julien admitted the violent nature of the uppercuts and roundhouse rights concerned him with the playoffs only five days away.
Smith got the best of Horton in the opening seconds of the fight, but Horton kept throwing bombs rather than hugging and heading off to the penalty box. That was a pretty good indication the quit button no longer exists in Hortons game.
It happened right in front of me and I wasnt moving much and saying hopefully this ends soon and they go their own way, said Julien of a violent skirmish that left Horton with bumps and bruises along with a bloodied nose after the game. You cant take away the attitude and the approach hes had to the game. Hes playing with a burr and give him credit for that.
I didnt want to take that away from him.
One astute commenter on a Bruins message board said that there isnt a lot of Sunrise in Hortons game these days a pithy allusion to Hortons career of underachievement with a Panthers team that never made it to the playoffs.
That seems to be completely by design as Horton is recreating himself into the player everyone around him thought hed always be: a 6-foot-2, 225-pound pile of furious hockey rage on the ice with an easygoing smile and unending supply of politeness off it.
Four of Hortons seven fighting majors have taken place since the victory over the Oilers 20 games ago, and the smoldering fire has also manifested itself into a healthy intensity within his own dressing room.
Less than two weeks ago Horton sensed there was a tad too much sleepiness at a practice session following a loss, and authored resounding hits on Patrice Bergeron and Dennis Seidenberg in the corner to help intensify the drowsy proceedings.
It worked that afternoon and its been working over the last two plus months for Horton and the Bruins.
That leaves only one question: will it keep working for Horton and the Bruins in the playoffs once the lights come on?
It appears the 25-year-old isnt going to leave any of that up to chance, and is stepping away from the passivity thats dogged his hockey game in the past.
The nasty, mean and angry Horton is all over the ice these days throwing punches, trading shoves and lighting lamps, and thats exactly the guy Boston needs now that a pivotal playoff run is on the doorstep.