Boston’s bellwether is Milan Lucic. The power forward is the personification of the big, bad Bruins. When he is skating with a snarl, driving to the net and dropping the gloves, he sets the tone for the team. Nathan Horton, his buddy and linemate, calls him “Ultimate” because he can do everything – skate, score, hit, pass, fight.
But when he doesn’t do those things, that can set the tone, too. And when he showed up to training camp out of shape, it raised questions. How would Looch look? How about Horton coming back after missing almost a full calendar year? How about the team coming off a first-round playoff loss and a four-month lockout layoff?
Well, here you go: The Bruins were 6-1-1 entering Wednesday night’s game against the Montreal Canadiens. Only the Chicago Blackhawks had a better points percentage in the NHL. It might have been a good thing that Lucic wasn’t in shape, a good thing that Horton couldn’t play for so long, a good thing that the team returned under these circumstances.
Lucic didn’t play anywhere during the lockout. He didn’t skate as much as his teammates did, either. It wasn’t a whisper or a rumor that he wasn’t in midseason condition. It was a fact.
“He was out of shape,” Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli said plainly.
But here he is skating with a snarl, driving to the net and dropping the gloves. Here he is with two goals, two assists and two fights. Here he is bounding through the dressing room with a smile.
“I’m moving better than I thought I would be, to be perfectly honest,” Lucic said, laughing.
Chiarelli took that a step further.
“He’s actually moving better than I’ve seen,” Chiarelli said.
Why? When they say Lucic was out of shape, they’re talking in relative terms, and they’re not saying he was too heavy. Lucic is usually in great shape, so he has a high bar. He lifts, so he stays strong. What he didn’t do during the lockout was maintain his mass. Though he is listed at 220, same as last season, he lost about five pounds.
“In fact,” Chiarelli said, “he was a little bit lighter, and he’s moving better. Maybe it’s …”
That he heard the criticism and made sure to play hard? That this is a blessing in disguise and he’s better off this way?
Chiarelli laughed and didn’t finish the sentence. But the biggest factor, he added, might be that Lucic has reunited with Horton. The buddies bookend the top line, creating space for center David Krejci. When they’re buzzing, they’re difference-makers.
Horton was essential to the 2011 Cup run, scoring two Game 7 winners – in overtime in the first round, in the third period in the Eastern Conference final. But he suffered a concussion in the Stanley Cup final, and he suffered another last January. He sat out the rest of the 2011-12 season. The Bruins lost in the first round – in Game 7, in overtime.
“I think it showed, especially in the playoffs last year, how much we missed him,” Lucic said.
Horton started to feel better toward the end of last season. He went through a full summer of training, adding muscle without adding weight to his 229-pound frame. He was cleared to play in September, but the lockout began in September.
His story is sort of like Sidney Crosby’s. He didn’t need the extra time to recover physically, but it helped him mentally, especially after suffering one concussion and then another. It made him appreciate what he had missed and gave him confidence that he was OK – confidence he needs to play his style.
He kept training. He kept skating. When he jumped right into regular-season hockey, he felt good, except for the soreness you’d expect after such a long absence. He has three goals and three assists – and two of his goals have come in the third period, a big reason why the Bruins have only one regulation loss.
“I never thought about my head problems or anything like that, and I still haven’t thought about it, and I’ve gotten hit. I’ve gotten hit pretty hard,” Horton said. “I just feel like it’s fine now.”
Horton, Chiarelli said, makes the top line “whole.” Krejci has two goals and leads the team with seven points.
The top line, in turn, makes the team whole, placing the forwards in their proper slots. And that makes this a team that should have an advantage after the lockout, while others are scrambling thanks to one week of camp and no preseason games.
This is virtually the same deep group that won the Cup in 2011. But Brad Marchand is better than he was as a young player then, and Tyler Seguin is better than he was as a rookie – or should be, once he readjusts after playing in Switzerland during the lockout.
Now add Dougie Hamilton to the top four on defense. He’s a 19-year-old rookie, but he draws comparisons to Larry Robinson and Rob Blake for his lanky build and skill set, and he has shown poise beyond his years.
Goaltender Tim Thomas, who won the Conn Smythe as the playoff MVP in 2011, is taking the year off. But he became a distraction last season when he skipped the Bruins’ White House visit and aired his political views, and Tuukka Rask has already proven he can take over for Thomas, at least in the regular season. Rask led the NHL with a 1.97 goals-against average and .931 save percentage in 2009-10, when Thomas had hip problems, and he has been excellent this season.
“We’ve been together for three or four years now,” said veteran defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. “We know each other. We know where we go. For the most part, it’s the same lines. We didn’t need a long adjustment period, and I think it shows right now.
“Last year was just not our year. We didn’t play to our potential. But right now, I think we’ve got a good thing going. We still have to clean it up a little bit in the neutral zone and in our own zone, but for the most part, we’ve got a lot of pieces in place. If everybody does their job, we should be fine.”
It’s too early to make grand statements. The Bruins did have a favorable early schedule. Their lone slipup was big – a 7-4 loss at home to the Buffalo Sabres, who were looking to make a statement and made one. We’ll see how things break for the B’s over the next few months.
“There’s a lot of luck involved,” Chiarelli said.
But luck has been on their side so far. Starting with Ultimate, they have a shot at the ultimate again.