WILMINGTON, Mass. -- The Pittsburgh Penguins were in the midst of winning 23 of their last 27 regular-season games and riding a five-game winning streak when they arrived in Boston for a game scheduled for April 19.
That contest was postponed a day because of the manhunt for the at-large suspect in the Boston Marathon bombings. It was the end of a trying week in the history of the capital city of Massachusetts, and there was a lot more than hockey on people's minds.
However, that weekend was also a turning point for the Boston Bruins and one of their biggest stars. After suffering through a disappointing first several months of the regular season, forward Milan Lucic was scratched for that game against the Penguins, who won, 3-2. It was the first time since he was a rookie in 2007-08 that Lucic had been a healthy scratch.
It was also the moment Lucic realized what he needed to do to get his game on track. As he heads into the upcoming Eastern Conference Finals against the Penguins, Lucic is playing some of his best hockey in a while.
"I definitely think it was a turning point for me, just mentally. [It] kind of got me back to thinking 'What do I need to do to help this hockey club again?'" Lucic said after practice Tuesday at Ristuccia Arena. "Just kind of getting back to how I played as a rookie and playing with that high energy and high emotion. I think that's what’s helped my game get back to the level where it helped this team be better.”
He could have sulked over the benching. But it was important for both Lucic and the Bruins that the 6-foot-3, 228-pound left wing kept his head up.
"Those are the games that you want to be in, the big ones. Being out of the lineup [stinks]. But being out of the lineup in a game like that makes it even worse," Lucic said. "I felt like my approach to it was going to be more trying to turn it into a positive instead of a negative. I felt like it was an opportunity to turn things around and have a strong finish and then start feeling good and get my game back to what I wanted it to be in order to play well heading into the playoffs."
Lucic, who scored 30 goals in Boston's 2010-11 championship season, finished the condensed 2013 campaign with seven goals. In the postseason, however, he's been a different player. Through 12 games against the Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers, he’s posted three goals, 10 points and a plus-9 rating. He leads the Bruins with 55 hits, including six in Boston's series-clinching Game 5 win against the New York Rangers.
It's difficult for anyone to discern why Lucic, who'll turn 25 next month, wasn't able to perform in the regular season the way he has in the playoffs. There could be several factors. He didn't play during the lockout and his first child was born right at the start of an abbreviated training camp. There was some added pressure in living up to the $18 million contract extension he signed last summer. The compacted regular season also may have negatively impacted Lucic more than other players, something general manager Peter Chiarelli kept in mind while assessing his players.
"Going into this year, I said this will be different. I’ve got to temper my emotion by the way I assess this team differently. I can't act too rashly just because it's going to be a different year because of all the things we’ve discussed: the short practice, the no practice, the every-other-day playing," Chiarelli said. "As it applies to Milan, I tried to keep that in check. He had some struggles there early, and really up until the last little bit. But now he's sometimes a man among boys the way he's playing. He's rolling."
When Lucic is rolling, he makes an impact on the score sheet and in other areas. His size can intimidate even the most fearless puck-carrier. Whether there's contact or not, he can make a difference just by causing an opponent to flinch or act too quickly.
SOG: 26 | +/-: 9
Even in the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Vancouver Canucks lost defenseman Dan Hamhuis after he was injured trying to check Lucic in the neutral zone. Lucic admits it's unfortunate such injuries happen, but he knows that all's fair in love and hockey.
"Physicality is a big part of the game, and a part of series, and forecheck is a big part of my game. Just playing a strong, heavy game is something that works to my advantage and it's the way that I need to play to be successful," he said. "Unfortunately some guys have gotten hurt, but if the tables were turned, how would they feel? There's a balance."
Now it'll be up to Lucic to maintain his improved play in the conference finals against a Pittsburgh team he knows can strike a balance between finesse and physicality.
"They're a team that, with all the skill that they have, they also play physical," he said. "They do play in-your-face hockey and they do like to be on the forecheck hard. So I think we all expect it to be a hard-fought physical series. And I think that that's what both sides are definitely looking forward to."
Lucic was denied a chance to beat Pittsburgh the last time the Penguins were on the Bruins' schedule. But he doesn’t plan on wasting his opportunity to take them down now.