"I think if it wasn't for the history of Boston, those guys back in the day, they were the guys that set the identity for the Bruins, that Big Bad Bruin sort of mentality and identity, so it just so happens that I fit into that mold."
-- Milan Lucic
The Boston Bruins finished last in the Northeast Division three seasons ago, amassing just 76 points. They improved to third place two seasons ago with 94 points and won the division and finished atop the Eastern Conference last season with a 116 points.
Milan Lucic helped lead the Vancouver Giants to the Memorial Cup three seasons ago. He had 8 goals and 19 assists as an NHL rookie two seasons ago and improved to 17 goals and 25 assists last season, mostly as the left wing on the first and second lines.
Coincidence? Not a chance.
Lucic has been as integral a part of the Bruins' revival as Tim Thomas, Zdeno Chara, Marc Savard or any other player on the roster. Lucic brings a level of consistent toughness to the Bruins that few teams have. As a result, the Bruins recently signed Lucic to a three-year contract extension. He didn't have much time to celebrate, as a broken index finger knocked him out for 14 games. He had 3 assists in six games when he was hurt, and he finally returned to the lineup for Thursday's 4-3 shootout win against the Thrashers.
Lucic earned the Bruins' "Seventh Player Award" as a rookie, an honor voted on by the fans and given to the Bruins player who performs above and beyond expectations.
Lucic has a history of winning. In his two seasons with the Giants, they went to the Memorial Cup and lost, and then returned the next season to win.
Lucic led the Bruins and tied for fifth in the NHL last season with 262 hits, one season after finishing second on the team to Chara as a rookie with 181 hits. Lucic is tough because he plays the game hard and fair. He can fight -- there's plenty of video evidence on the Web -- but he has kept his fights to a minimum because his coaches told him to. His toughness also can be measured by his 33 blocked shots, which ranked 19th among NHL left wings. He also had 33 takeaways. He also had 136 penalty minutes. Included were 10 major penalties, but no game misconducts or match penalties.
"It's about being tough in a hockey sense, not taking penalties all the time," Lucic said. "You put your team in jeopardy when you retaliate. You should be initiating, being the first guy on the play, make the hit, be the first guy into the corner to get the puck, be fearless in front of the net, take a hit to make a play. Those are things that define playing tough."
Lucic's style of play has led to success. As a youth-hockey player he was overlooked first by the Canadian junior leagues and then by the Tier II teams. But he persevered, got better in all phases of the game and learned he could help teams by hurling around his rugged 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame.
Go to the boards for a loose puck -- Bam! Lucic hits you. Carry the puck out of your own end -- Bam! Lucic nails you on the forecheck. Get a little fancy with your puckhandling and passes from the point in the Bruins' zone -- Bam! Lucic knocks you back out of the zone.
"I've been able to provide energy from a physical standpoint," Lucic said. "Establish the forecheck and chip in on goal scoring, those are my roles. I feel like I've been able to bring a well-rounded game to the team. As a team, we've all been doing it, playing with more determination to win battles. I feel like I've helped out by creating a physical presence on the ice."
For Lucic, the best part of hitting rivals has been watching the lift it gives his teammates. He understands that's his role and he willingly accepts it, even though he lost three games to a head injury his rookie season and 10 games to upper- and lower-body injuries in 2008-09.
"It makes the game fun, and it makes it interesting when all of the adrenaline is pumping," Lucic said. "It really gets you going and it's a real thrill to be out there almost every night playing in the NHL and living your dream. So that's part of the game. It's real fun and I have fun playing that way.
"It's really hard on your body because the average NHL player is 195-200 pounds and flying around on skates. Throwing your body into it every night takes a toll on your shoulders, ribs and back. You have to fight through during the season. That's why we work so hard in offseason, so we don't get injured when our goal is the (Stanley) Cup."
Lucic quickly became a fan favorite in Boston, where favorite Bruins teams of the past have been nicknamed "the Big Bad Bruins" and "the Lunch Bucket Brigade." The Boston fans love physical play and hold a special place in their heart for the great bangers of the past, players like Teddy Green, Terry O'Reilly, Jay Miller, John Wensink, Stan Jonathan, and Cam Neely.
Lucic said he's surprised the fans took to him so quickly, but his understanding of the team's history has increased these two seasons and he understands the fans' enthusiasm.
"I think if it wasn't for the history of Boston, those guys back in the day, they were the guys that set the identity for the Bruins, that Big Bad Bruin sort of mentality and identity, so it just so happens that I fit into that mold," he said. "Everything has happened a lot quicker than I expected and it's been a fun roller-coaster ride. All of the coaches have really helped me out a lot and they have allowed me to play my game and try to contribute to the team's success."
Lucic grew up in Vancouver while Neely is from across the strait in Comox, B.C. Lucic said Neely, now a Bruins executive, has helped him understand the NHL power-forward position.
"(Helped) a lot," Lucic said. "He's given me a few pointers here and there, and whenever he sees an area that I need help in, he'll give me his thoughts on what I need and what I could use to help me.
"Him being a power forward -- he's probably the guy who created the phrase 'power forward,' and could create that physical presence, and also add that offensive side of the game. So for him being around, it's real nice to have him around. It's great every time he gives me some sort of advice."
Bendfeld took one right from Lucic and quickly lost interest, but weathered a few more blows. The Giants went on to win, 3-1.
"It was the Memorial Cup Final and it was early on in the game, and I came on the ice and it just so happened that I made three big hits and a fight, right in the finals," he recalled. "There were 16,000 screaming fans in the Pacific Coliseum that afternoon, and it really got everyone going. Got the team going and the got the fans really into it and I think we didn't let our foot off the gas pedal after that. It was the most memorable hockey memory that I have thus far. It was the biggest trophy that I've won and something that I'll remember for the rest of my life."
When Lucic hits the ice for the Bruins each shift, he's looking for the puck or the man with the puck. He knows if he stays in pursuit of those targets, he'll be on target for hockey's ultimate goal, the Stanley Cup.