BOSTON – The Boston sports scene is littered with clutch postseason heroes, including Red Sox slugger David Ortiz and Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri – players who were able to come through to save the day for their teams at the last possible moment.
In the 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, Bruins forward Nathan Horton
was that "Mr. Clutch" during the club's run to its first Stanley Cup championship in 39 years.
He scored overtime game-winning goals in Game 5 and 7 of the Bruins' first-round series against Montreal, and then his third-period goal was the only score in Boston's dramatic Game 7 victory over Tampa Bay.
Four days after the Bruins brought home the Stanley Cup, Horton's impressive performances were rendered even more remarkable. It was revealed that he played the entire playoffs with a serious separated shoulder that was actually re-aggravated during that Game 7 with the Lightning
"If you get hurt in the playoffs, it's just a thing. That's what everybody says, you play through it," said Horton Sunday during the Bruins' break-up day at TD Garden. "Obviously, it didn't feel good, but you just play through it. That's it. Everyone does it and I'm no different."
The shoulder injury couldn't prevent Horton's heroics, but a concussion finally cut his postseason short after a late hit from Vancouver's Aaron Rome
in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup Final. Horton says that he's symptom-free now and after a few weeks off he should be able to resume normal activity.
Although he wasn't able to play, Horton still showed up at TD Garden for Game 6 to rile up the home crowd and then made the trip to Game 7 in Vancouver, where he famously poured Boston water onto the Canucks' home ice.
Even though he couldn't suit up, Horton felt like he didn't miss a thing once the Cup was Boston's.
"We have such great teammates," Horton said. "Injuries happen and just to be part of it and to feel like part of the team when you're not playing … I feel like I played Game 7. So it was a good feeling."
Horton's ability to play through pain and his determination to get back in the lineup even when doctors wouldn't allow him once he suffered his head injury resonated with his team.
"He just, he didn't care. He was going to play through anything," said head coach Claude Julien
. "And not only do you people learn a lot about Nathan because of that, but so did we as an organization. When you bring someone like that in and as the season goes on you see how he changed. And I don't know if you have noticed, but to me he became more and more of a consistent player in the second half, and physical, and emotionally engaged. And I thought he really grew as a player this year with us, and that just carried over into the playoffs. And that's why there was no way you were going to keep him out of the lineup, even with that shoulder separation."
Horton had to change perception when he came to Boston. He suffered through six playoff-less seasons with the Florida Panthers
before he was traded to the Bruins this past summer. Horton carried the tag as a passion-less player who would never take advantage of his talent to its potential or fulfill the expectations of a No. 3 draft pick.
A 26-goal regular season began to reverse those criticisms. And then he erupted in the playoffs with 8 goals and 17 points 21 games.
"Never being in it, I think guessing what to expect, and listening from other people what to expect, it is a grind. It's a long two months," said Horton about the playoffs. "But it's the most fun you're ever going to have in hockey playing in the playoffs. I can see why all everyone talks about and thinks about is playoffs. Nobody really remembers the regular season. They do, but it seems like 10 years ago. The playoffs is the time you have to play your best and every game means something."
The meaning of those games didn't intimidate Horton. He thrived under the most intense spotlight and now has made numerous dreams come true.
"It's definitely nice. Obviously when you're a kid you dream of that too, scoring an overtime game-winner, Horton said. "That was an unbelievable feeling to do that," he said. "Just to know that you helped your team win and you helped contribute. Everyone here did something for the team. That's the only way we could win and just to be part of that and be able to contribute, I am speechless."