There is no mystery to what Milan Lucic is, or does, what it takes him to be successful. When he’s on, he is the self-made hurricane, a 6-foot-4-inch, 220-pound swirl of British Columbian power and might capable of pounding opponents through the wall and forcing pucks to the net.
The mystery, for most of the abbreviated 2013 season, has been what happened to that Milan Lucic? Thursday night, for reasons perhaps he doesn’t fully comprehend, that Lucic was back on the job at the Garden. He moved his feet. He applied himself to the forecheck. Lo and behold, he even engaged in a fight, his first in seven weeks, and not surprisingly, all of it factored into the sumptuous porridge of a 2-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“If he keeps going that way,’’ noted Bruins coach Claude Julien, “we can’t ask for . . . ’’
What Julien wanted to add there were the words “anything more.’’ But he didn’t. He hesitated. He has been through too much, waited too long, asked for more, and tried every trick with Lucic this season. Last week, Julien went so far as to bench him, a little awkward given that Lucic is on the books to be the club’s highest-paid forward with a $6 million cap hit next season.
So instead, to finish that thought of “If he keeps going that way,’’ Julien added, “we can’t ask for . . . better timing, I guess.’’
Here it is safe to say that Bruins fans would only add, “Amen!’’ Better late than never. Best of all now with the playoffs about to start. Lucic, Mr. Do Nothing for the last three-plus months, at least for a night did something, and now everyone else with any connection to the spoked-B can only hope he keeps it up.
“At the end of the day, it became Milan’s approach to it,’’ said Julien, commenting on the many tools he’s used this season to get Lucic going. “At one point, a player kind of realizes, you know, ‘Listen, I’ve got to get myself going here, this is what they ask.’ And you know, at one point you have to think that one of those tools got his attention.’’
Lucic certainly caught Keith Aulie’s attention with 2:38 to go in the second period. Channeling his old menacing self — not seen since his last punchup on March 3 — Lucic provoked Aulie into a fight deep in Tampa’s end. The two exchanged heavy, menacing blows, and Lucic clearly came away the winner, with a full house of 17,565 raining down adoration. A collective, “Hey, now, there you go!’’ was nearly audible from the Boston bench.
“It’s great, that’s his game, and it’s tough to play every single game like that,’’ said goalie Tuukka Rask, who spun a sensational 30-save shutout, his second blanking in the last two games on Causeway Street. Noting Lucic’s festering frustration of late, Rask added, “He likes to score, too, and he hasn’t been . . . ’’
Lucic didn’t score vs. the Bolts and has a sparse half-dozen goals for the season, only two of those over the last two months (30 games). He hasn’t fought. He hasn’t scored. Had he not come around, perhaps Julien’s only reasonable tool remaining would have been to have his image printed on the side of Hood and Garelick Farms milk cartons.
“There was a lot of talk about myself just getting in there more and kind of getting back to playing that game,’’ said Lucic, continually flexing his left hand long after the game, an indication that he still felt some dings from the Aulie bout. “That high-energy game with a lot of emotion, a lot of fire. It’s been my focus the last three games.’’
If he is not mad, not motivated to skate, hit, and fight, then Lucic is, to borrow an old coach’s phrase, just another guy. The league is full of wingers who just go up and down the ice, fire the odd shot into the net, log a couple of shots on the scoresheet, and collect their paychecks.
Lucic has been all of that and less this season, often not visible on the ice or the scoresheet. When his benching came last week, it came after he failed to deliver a hit or so much as take a shot in the prior game against Buffalo. For a guy who is counted on as being a big part of the club’s hard-to-play-against identity, he had morphed into an extra large cup of soft serve.
“I’ve got to keep my focus,’’ said Lucic, referring to the final two games of the regular season, Saturday against Washington and Sunday against Ottawa. “I know when I play like that, I’m physical and moving my feet, everything else tends to take care of itself. I can’t lose touch of what made my game successful tonight. You keep that up, eventually you are going to get rewarded for it.’’
The final sheet showed that Lucic landed four hits and squeezed off three shots, one of which made it to goalie Anders Lindback. All of that in 12:43 of ice time, slightly more than fourth-liners Daniel Paille and Shawn Thornton (who combined for two points, by the way).
One game does not a rehabbed Lucic make. His speed is not fully restored, and might not be until he has a full summer to summon it. His checks, though deliberate, were not the free-flowing fence busters that earned him that $6 million-a-year extension. His stick, which delivered 90 goals over his five previous seasons, remains in an extended winter’s hibernation.
What we have now, less than a week to go before the playoffs, is a rework in progress. The Lucic we once knew is stirring, stretching, again. In a season that has left everyone asking for more, it finally looks like he’s acknowledged the request.
“It doesn’t mean he has to go out there and fight every night,’’ said Julien. “He just has to play hard the way he’s been doing lately, and things are starting to come around for him.’’