-- For a time this postseason, Milan Lucic
did not recognize the Boston Bruin wearing his No. 17 sweater during film sessions.
What he saw was a player that wasn't scoring, wasn't cycling, wasn't winning puck battles, and he was confused, to say the least. How could that be the game of someone that scored 30 goals in the regular season and was earning a reputation as one of the best young power forwards in the game?
"I don't know what happened," Lucic said Thursday after the Bruins' 2-0 victory against Tampa Bay in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Finals series. "It was almost like I went from one player to someone I didn't want to be."
Instead of being powerful and intimidating, Lucic was more timid and reserved. Instead of playing a north-south game, he was trying to be too fancy in the offensive zone. Instead of dominating puck battles along the walls, he was losing as many as he was winning, often surrendering the puck to players not nearly as strong as he.
All of which was reflected in the numbers. Heading into Thursday's game, Lucic had just 2 goals and 5 points in 13 games. He was being outscored by rookie Tyler Seguin
, who made his playoff debut in Game 1 of this series and posted more goals (3-2) and more points (6-5) than Lucic in just two games.
It was enough to cause a distinct crisis of confidence for Lucic, who can be his own harshest critic. Plus, a foot injury suffered when he was struck in the right foot by a Seguin slap shot during an off-day practice had him hobbling noticeably.
Yet, he found a way to put all of that aside in what was the biggest game yet of Boston's postseason run. On the road, in a series tied at one game each, Lucic understood that the winner of Game 3 would take control of the series -- at least for 36 hours.
He responded by setting up the game-opening goal on his first shift, passing to a wide-open David Krejci
, who deked goalie Dwayne Roloson
before shoveling the puck into the net for a 1-0 lead just 69 seconds into the game.
"It's obviously a great way to get the game started and that first goal in any game is huge," Lucic said. "It's nice when you start off the game like that."
It was nice for Lucic to start a game like that, too. He won a puck battle in the corner, drew two defenders to him and then fired a crisp pass to an unguarded Krejci. Afterward, Lucic said he identified Krejci's stick by quickly accounting for the whereabouts of all five Lightning defenders and then simply firing a pass in that direction.
"I don't know how he made that pass," said Krejci, the center on that No. 1 line.
For Lucic, the result of the effort was better than its aesthetic appeal. It was a reward for playing the game the way he did during the regular season.
"Today, the main reason I had success was I was keeping my feet moving, straight lines and making simple plays," Lucic said. "No matter who you are playing, you do that and you give yourself a chance to have success."
Lucic helped even more in the third period, making another of the kind of simple plays that has to be the foundation of his game. His line had a good cycling shift, putting the Tampa Bay defense under duress. At the end of it Tampa Bay tried to clear the puck, but Lucic, on the way to the bench for a change, intercepted the puck along the boards and dumped it deep, allowing Boston's third line to continue the cycle. A few seconds later, defenseman Andrew Ference
snuck a slapper between Roloson's pads for a two-goal lead.
Lucic did not get an assist on the play, but there was no denying his responsibility for the goal.
"At his best, that is what he does; he's physical," Krejci said. "The first goal happened because of him. He played another strong game today and that is good to see."
Boston coach Claude Julien
has tried to protect Lucic from some of the criticism coming his way for a subpar performance this spring. His reward came last night. Lucic's game was not perfect -- he lost a few very winnable puck battles in the first period -- but it was far closer to what the Bruins need from him if they hope to advance to the Stanley Cup Final.
"His forecheck was good, he chipped pucks in and he went after the puck aggressively," Julien said Friday. "When you see a guy like Milan coming at you, it makes you nervous and can put you on your heels. So he created a lot of turnovers (Thursday).
"It was important for him to be strong on it and not to lose it, which I thought he did in Game 2 a lot. He got stripped from the puck. Earlier in (Game 3), he lost a couple of battles along the boards, and I just kind of reminded him that the biggest asset of his game is about winning battles. I thought he did a great job of refocusing and bringing that part of his game back to that game. I thought he was a really good player for us."
And even though there was no goal to watch in the review of Thursday's game film, Lucic was far happier with who he saw wearing the No. 17 sweater and bulling his way around the ice.
"All in all, scoring goals is great, but in the playoffs it is all about wins," Lucic said. "You have to do whatever you can to help your team get that win."