By Joe Haggerty
BOSTON Milan Lucic is Bostons game-breaker.
Its become a little trendy to knock the Bruins in recent weeks as not quite elite or just a little shy of Stanley Cup worthy despite a seven-game winning streak in the heat of the regular season that belies all of that.
The biggest reason given is the lack of game-breaking talent for the Bruins in terms of high-scoring skill forwards. Stanley Cup teams in the recent past have had theirs. Think Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane from the Blackhawks, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin from the Pittsburgh Penguins, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk from Red Wings.
While the Bruins sit near the top of goal-producing teams in the NHL, critics believe they dont have enough game-breaking forwards to score goals when defenses tighten up and theres less free ice to maneuver through.
The problem with this theory about the Bruins: Lucic keeps punching power-forward-sized holes in it.
When you mention all of those teams, youre talking about impact forwards, Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said when posed the game-breaking question in an interview with CSNNE.com that will appear in the first web episode of the "Great American Hockey Show."
We believe we have impact players at other positions in the form of an impact defenseman in Zdeno Chara and an impact goaltender in Tim Thomas. Then weve also got some young forwards that we believe are becoming impact players.
First on that list of up-and-coming forwards is No. 17 in your programs.
Lucic engineered a textbook playoff-style goal when he helped create havoc in front of the net by fighting with the puck through the Tampa Bay defense with big defenseman Pavel Kubina ridingon his back, and then flipped a bad-angle shot high into the net in the games final four minutes to give Boston a 2-1 win over the Lightning.
I was just trying to look for the loose puck because there was enough guys in front of the net, said Lucic, recounting the score in a game that gave Boston seven wins in a row and sole possession of second place in the Eastern Conference. I knew there was no real reason for me to get in there but just kind of wait around, see if something popped out and it did and everyone was on the ice including their goalie so I just shot it high and hard and it went in."
The game-winning score was Lucics second in the last four games, and served as the epitome of a postseason-level score with bodies flying in front of the net six if you count spreadeagled Tampa goaltender Mike Smith and determination standing as the only thing between winning and losing.
It was Lucics 28th goal of the season, and another piece of evidence in a building case that he is Bostons game-breaking forward.
Throw in his ill-timed but decisive beatdown of a reticent Eric Brewer in the second period, and you have a pretty good picture of how difficult it will be to contain Lucic once the real games start in late April.
Thats a rare thing when you have a guy thats so physical and so tough, but also has the finishing touch and can put the puck in the net, said Gregory Campbell. You dont often see nowadays the power forward prototype that we saw a lot in the 1990s and even further back. But those guys are valuable.
He plays a big role for us. Hes good defensively as well, so the other team has to respect his game and has to respect his skill. He plays hard, and thats somebody that you need in the playoffs: somebody that plays hard and somebody that can score.
Lucic is on a pace to score 35-plus goals this season, and he has flashed a devastating wrist shot thats made him more intimidating to opponents with his stick than with his fists. His 20 points (12 goals, 8 assists) in the last 20 games are a testament to that. He has helped make his line -- with linemates David Krejci and Nathan Horton -- downright dangerous for the last two weeks.
We want to score, and we're wanting to have the puck, said Horton with poetic simplicity. I think when we dont have it, well forecheck to get it back, and I think thats why things are working.
Lucic has never had more than 17 goals in a season. Most thought he might turn into a nice 20-goal scorer capable of being a tough guy and a top-six forward, but Lucic is in the middle of establishing himself as something much different.
The big left wing set for himself a goal of being the best player on the ice as often as possible this season, and hes following through with punishing shifts, brutal physicality thats really shown up of late and an elite goal-scoring touch the Bs desperately needed.
Hes got a great attitude. He wants to be a big guy on our team, and hes showing it, said Mark Recchi. Hes learning that when he comes to compete every night and does things the right way, then things happen for him. When he plays physical goals fall right into place, and when he doesnt then they dont. They go hand-in-hand.
Hes a talented enough player that when he gets the room to operate, then hes going to bury it.
Lucic has taken the next step up this season to one of the NHLs next superstars in his hybrid power forward role, and that should make all the difference in the world once the cold, merciless playoff dance begins.