BOSTON -- It didnt happen overnight and it certainly didnt come without some level of struggle and soul-searching on the ice.
But the trademark Nathan Horton pearly white smile the kind that has Colgate Extra Whitening Toothpaste spokesman written all over it was in full gleam following Bostons 6-2 victory over the New York Islanders at the Garden on Monday night.There were plenty of good reasons for the return of the smiling Horton.
Sure, the gleeful grin had something to do with the team capturing its third consecutive victory for the first time this season, and the aforementioned W lifting them out of the Eastern Conference cellar witha neededtwo points. But it had much more to do with Hortons two-goal, three-point performance against a sinking Isles bunch that served as his breakout from the tentative, unsure funk so familiar in hisfirst 11 games this season.
It definitely feels good. It definitely makes you stronger. The tough times are not easy, but tonight I felt better, said Horton. It makes you feel better getting points and feeling good out there. I still want to work on my game and keep getting better and do anything I can to help my team.
Or perhaps the actual performance has no bearing on the toothypostgame smile after all.
It would seem that just about anything good, bad or indifferent will end with Horton smiling widely when its all said and done.
Its tough to read him if hes going through something difficult because hes always got a smile on his face, said Milan Lucic, Hortons buddy and linemate for the last two years. You dont really know how hes really feeling deep down inside because he always looks like hes happy and that hes doing well. But you could tell he wasnt really himself like he was last year.
Theres always going to be a little bit of that hesitation even if youre feeling 100 percent when youre trying to get back into that groove," said coach Claude Julien. "The Aaron Rome collision was a scary moment and big hit that happened to him, and it takes some time. He didnt have his normal stride and he was a little hesitant going into the corners at first, but you can tell thats gotten a lot better over the last couple of games.
It was clear to everybody Horton was back in the first period when the right winger did the same exact thing that earned him his heroic place in last year's playoff with his Game 7 goals. Horton crashed the net with verve, and put himself in a position to do damage when hot shots and net-frontscreens created qualityscoring chances around the cage.
The right winger almost doubled his offensive output in one night, and finally seemed to show the offensive depth the Bs can overwhelm opponents with when everything is going swimmingly. The Bruins need Horton to be fully effective if they hope to be as dangerous as last year's bunch, and that cycle officially started this week.
We all know how big of a player he is. Hes a tremendous hockey player when he can use all of his elements in the game, said Zdeno Chara. Hes got all the tools and hes slowly finding his game now. You can see that hes getting rewarded for that."
Horton opened his evening up with a power play goal in the first period thatserved asevidenceall of the previous tentativeness had vanished from his game.
The puck had moved up to Chara, and the big Bs defenseman hammered a shot from the left point with David Krejci screening directly in front of Islanders goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. The rebound caromed deeply out to the left faceoff circle where Horton was making a direct line toward the net and the winger had no stutter to his snapshot releaseaimed atthe top corner of the net.That early score got Horton going for the rest of the night.
He collected his helper for the evening when he executed a textbook give-and-go with Milan Lucic in the third period that delivered an important insurance goal to open up Bostons lead. Then on the very same shift Horton again showed courage and determination around the net that had only been there in spurts over the first month of the season, and shoveled home a backhanded rebound that closed out the scoring in the third.
Horton got to the puck by beating towering defenseman Milan Jurcina in a one-on-one battle in front of the net for the rebound off Joe Corvos sizzling point shot, and then taking a hit as he flipped the puck past Al Montoya.
Both of Hortons goals had one big common denominator: he camped his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame around the net and good things happened when he crashed down toward the cage. Not once did he look over the shoulder or tip-toe around the front of net.
Sometimes youre going to the net and it doesnt go your way," Horton said. "It definitely went my way tonight and when youre going to be there, youre working hard to get there every game. Theyre not always going to come there, but they will eventually. Its just getting to the net and finding the rebounds and banging away.
The two goals arrived within 46 seconds of each other in the final period of hockey, but it was more than four months in the making since enduring Romes blatant head shot in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Finals. It took that amount of time for Horton to get back up on his horse and play without any hint of hesitation, but the fearlessly effective No. 18 was back at it on Monday.
The Bruins are a much better team when Horton is wearing a Cheshire Cat smile after hockey games, and he was finally in that familiarly mirthful moodagain due to his on-iceperformanceMonday night.