Top line hardly top-notch
Lack of goals there is Bruins’ No. 1 issue
ATLANTA — On June 22, the Bruins made what they projected to be their biggest offseason acquisition. By dealing Dennis Wideman and their first-round pick to Florida, the Bruins landed 25-year-old Nathan Horton, who they believed would be the go-to right wing they needed since wheeling Phil Kessel to Toronto. In the deal, they also picked up depth forward Gregory Campbell.
But of late Horton is playing like the complementary part of the trade instead of the showcase piece.
Campbell has been a mix of Stephane Yelle’s smarts and Steve Begin’s surliness — they were the forwards previously occupying the fourth-line center spot — and has fulfilled the Bruins’ expectations of being an energy forward and penalty killer.
After starting 2010-11 with a boom, Horton has faded.
In the last seven games, Horton has zero goals and one assist. In Tuesday’s 4-3 win over Tampa Bay, he didn’t land a single shot on net. In the third period, after Horton and fellow top-liner Marc Savard were among the Bruins on the ice for Martin St. Louis’s tying goal at 10:50, coach Claude Julien made a gutsy decision.
Julien’s approach has been to roll four lines, feed players ice time, and break up threesomes only in last-ditch situations. But for the next 7:20, Horton, Savard, and Tyler Seguin didn’t see the ice. Milan Lucic, the No. 1 left wing, skated with Patrice Bergeron and Mark Recchi. Blake Wheeler, David Krejci, and Michael Ryder, the team’s most consistent offensive line over the last three games, stayed together, as did the fourth line of Campbell, Brad Marchand, and Shawn Thornton.
Not until 18:10, when Steven Stamkos was whistled for boarding, did Horton and Savard roll over the boards.
“Right now, it seems that five-on-five, they’ve had some chances, but they’re not producing,’’ Julien said. “You’re relying on that line to help you score some big goals. That’s the challenge right now that we have.
“You hate to break up the Krejci line. Our fourth line has been pretty steady and reliable for the most part. You’re looking to find the pieces. You hope you can get that line going instead of trying to tweak it.
“But we cut our bench down a little bit there late in the third. You have to do what you’ve got to do. Sometimes it’s a mind-set. I think right now, Looch hasn’t scored in a while, but Horts has been even longer. With Nathan, he’s got to start having more confidence in his mind that he’s capable of scoring again.’’
Savard is only 12 games into his return from postconcussion symptoms and has yet to reclaim his touch and timing.
“I think that was kind of the way things were going,’’ Savard said of the benching. “We had a couple problems in the third. I thought during the game, we played OK. Just the third period, we had a little bit of issues. That’s it.’’
It’s a different story for Horton.
The ex-Panther, no doubt eager to make a good early impression, scored two goals in the season opener against Phoenix. In the second game, Horton scored again. With 9 points in his first six games, Horton, playing alongside Lucic and Krejci on the first line, used his speed, strength, and shot to create scoring chances. Lately, he hasn’t employed those tools enough.
The coaching staff was encouraged last Thursday when Horton showed some life by dropping the gloves with Atlanta’s Evander Kane during a third-period brawl. But in December, Horton has three goals and three assists in 13 games — not good enough for a No. 1 right wing.
“Right now, I really think he’s battling with confidence. He really is,’’ said Julien. “Players go through those stages. Somehow, he’s got to help himself through it. Somehow, we’ve got to help him get through it as well. That’s all we can do right now.’’
In Florida, Horton had a reputation for not playing up to his potential as a No. 3 overall pick (2003). He skated too many soft shifts. He didn’t have the commanding presence of a top-line goal-scoring threat. Lately, that Horton has resurfaced, and it cost him third-period shifts against the Lightning.
Tuesday was one of the rare times when Julien shortened the leash on his top-line gunners. Some players respond well to a reduction in ice time. But Julien made it sound as though Horton needs to be built up, not torn down.
“He’s one of those players you have to work with,’’ Julien said. “That’s where it’s important for me to work with him. That’s what he needs. He needs more encouragement than anything else.’’
The Bruins are fortunate that during Horton’s dip, other right wings have picked up the offensive slack. Against Tampa Bay, Recchi whistled in the winning power-play goal with 19.7 seconds remaining. Ryder scored the opening goal. In his last three games, Thornton has two goals and one assist.
The Bruins are riding a three-game winning streak. They’ve won the first two games of a five-stop road trip. They’re 2 points ahead of Montreal atop the Northeast Division, and in third place in the Eastern Conference. But they need their top liners to start earning their bucks.
“You’ve got to think scoring,’’ said Julien of Horton. “In your mind, you’ve got to say, ‘I’m going to score.’ You’ve got to make it happen. I don’t know if, right now, he’s feeling the pressure of not scoring. But we’re certainly going to help him try and get through this, because we need him. It’s pretty obvious.’’
Fluto Shinzawa can be reached at email@example.com.