BOSTON (CBS) – There’s been a lot of discussion about whether the Bruins are better now heading into the Stanley Cup Playoffs than they were one year ago.
Tyler Seguin’s improvement and Boston’s depth on defense are two reasons to answer that query in the affirmative, while Nathan Horton’s injury is a reason to dissent.
Maybe the biggest reason to believe this Bruins squad is better equipped at the outset of the postseason than the Cup champions stands at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. Milan Lucic might be playing the best hockey of his career, and we all know that when he’s at his best he can be a game- or series-changer with both his skills and his strength.
Lucic was slowed by a broken toe last postseason. Despite the injury, he gutted out all 25 Boston postseason games and battled for five goals and 12 points. This time around, he’s healthy and eager to be a bigger part of the Bruins’ drive for a repeat.
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“If it’s starting tomorrow, yeah I feel ready, of course,” said Lucic earlier this week. “Personally I feel like I’m skating well and making good plays, also trying to be physical. That’s what I would have to bring into the playoffs. Fortunately, last year it wasn’t there for most of the playoffs but we still got through it. Definitely looking forward to it starting off well next week.”
With another goal in Thursday’s 3-1 win over Ottawa, Lucic now has 26 on the season. That’s shy of the 30 he popped in last season, but it’s just one shy of the team lead behind Brad Marchand and Tyler Seguin. He has 3-4-7 totals in his last eight games. More important, however, has been Lucic’s aggression both with the puck and his body.
Lucic was credited with five hits in the win against the Senators. Regardless of how much validity you put in in-arena hit totals, that Lucic has been credited with 22 in Boston’s last six games – games that have had varying levels of importance (or none at all) – tells you he’s rattling some bones, snapping some heads back and forcing some ice packs into use in the opposing dressing room.
And then there’s his offensive assertiveness. Every game lately has featured at least one, if not more, Lucic end-to-end rush. When that 18-wheeler in sweater No. 17 gets moving, no one is going to get in its way. Each rush has led to a goal or a near score. Against Ottawa he didn’t quite go end to end, but he worked a perfect give-and-go with David Krejci and drove the net where no one wants to challenge him with even a little bit of momentum in his skates.
Lucic’s game is about more than just dump-and-chase, and head coach Claude Julien has liked what he’s seen in recent weeks from the 23-year-old.
“For him to go end to end and skate, and skate hard, I don’t mind that at all,” Julien said. “He’s playing some of his best hockey. What I like about him, a couple things. His skating is No. 1, and then he’s physical. He’s finishing his checks, he’s punishing people. And what that does is it keeps other teams on their heels. But it also keeps him at the top of his game. When he’s physically involved and he’s skating, that’s when he’s at his best. I think he’s figured out those two things go hand in hand and he’s been giving us that for quite a while now.”
If he keeps giving that to the Bruins once the second season starts, they just might be a better challenger to capture the Cup than their 2011 incarnation.