Late in the second period of the Bruins’ 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night, Bruins fans were treated to a sight that’s been all too rare this season. A bullish Milan Lucic, playing in his third game since serving as a healthy scratch, dropped the gloves against Tampa Bay’s Keith Aulie. Lucic was throwing punches with the classic scowl on his face that harkened back to his rookie days, when he would run around the ice trying to fight anyone in his way.
That Lucic has been missing in 2013, replaced instead by a player who skates too slowly, hesitates too often, hits too rarely and scores infrequently. So on Thursday, the physicality Lucic displayed was important not just to help the Bruins win that night, but also to show that the tough guy from British Columbia is still somewhere in that man wearing No. 17.
Not long ago, there were no signs that the old Lucic would ever return. In a five-game stretch from April 8 through April 17, Lucic registered just three hits and failed to collect a hit in three of those five games. Through that same time span, Lucic scored two points: one goal and one assist.
His lack of production in that brief time sample reflected his season-long failure to produce. Even with the lockout-shortened season considered, Lucic’s six goals and 18 assists this year are below the pace he set over the last two seasons, when he collected over 25 goals and more than 30 assists in each year.
From the day the lockout ended when Lucic showed up to the first workouts out of shape and unable to keep up with everyone else until the middle of April, when Lucic watched from the press box as his team fought for home ice in the playoffs on the ice
While Lucic hasn’t been fighting other players; he has clearly been fighting himself.
“We tried everything,” said coach Claude Julien on attempting to get Lucic back on track. “But at the end of the day it became Milan’s [Lucic] approach to it. You know, at one point a player kind of realizes – you know listen, I’ve got to get myself going here, this is what they ask.”
It seems serving as a healthy scratch for the April 20 game against the Penguins was the final wake-up call the forward needed. Since he was scratched, Lucic has 12 hits in three games. He does not have any points, but the team is 2-1 and everyone seems happier with Lucic’s play.
“There was a lot of talk about myself just getting in there more and kind of getting back to playing that game, that high energy game with a lot of emotion, a lot of fire,” Lucic said. “So it’s been my main focus these last three games and I’ve got to keep my focus in the last two here of the season.
“I know when I play like that and I’m physical and moving my feet, everything else tends to take care of itself, so I can’t lose touch of what made my game successful here tonight.”
As a 6-foot-3, 228 pound power forward, Lucic will never have the speed or grace of a Tyler Seguin or David Krejci. Instead, he needs to strike fear in his opponents, overpower other players with his size and strength, and then take advantage of any hesitance his aggressive presence can create.
Lucic’s style of play does not always show up in goals and assists, and he has not registered a point since returning from the press box. However, his emotion and physicality can have a huge effect on the rest of the team’s emotion.
The fire Lucic brings to the table is especially important for a team like the Bruins, who, in the last few weeks, have mirrored Lucic’s lack of emotion and urgency on the ice, and it cost them in the wins and losses column. On Thursday, Lucic’s more physical play seemed to provide an emotional boost to the rest of the team.
“Today, he did a tremendous job of getting us going there with those hits and forecheck and stuff,” said Tuukka Rask. “We love that. It’s a great sign when he plays like that and gets us going.”
For others in the Bruins locker room, it was nice Thursday to simply see Lucic return to the player they know he can be.
“He’s working to be the player that everyone knows he can be,” said Shawn Thornton. “He’s a big mutant. When he’s going, he’s unstoppable.”
The Bruins will need Lucic’s emotion to be unstoppable in the near future. With the playoffs looming in the very near future, the team needs to figure out how to bring a sense of urgency back into their game, and Lucic seems to be just the man who can start the fire the team currently lacks.
“I thought tonight he did exactly what ignites our team and what ignites our fans,” Julien said. “And you know, when he’s like that he’s at his best. So I certainly like the direction he’s taking, and if he keeps going that way we can’t ask for better timing I guess.”