The sight Nathan Horton spotted would have paralyzed any player: Toronto’s 6-foot-3-inch, 214-pound Dion Phaneuf, known around the league as a punishing hitter, closing in on him like a blue-and-white locomotive.
Horton wasn’t scared.
The Bruins right winger held his ground and executed the play that needed to be made. Just before the ruthless Phaneuf tried to check him out of Ontario and into Quebec, Horton chipped the puck off the boards and up to David Krejci. Seconds later, Krejci scored to give the Bruins a 4-3 overtime win Wednesday and a three-games-to-one lead in their first-round playoff series.
Horton was slow to get to his skates after the wallop, but he skated without assistance to the dressing room. Once inside, Horton received the Army Rangers jacket the players hand out to the teammate they believe most contributed to the win.
On Thursday, following an off-ice workout at TD Garden, Horton said he was feeling fine. He will be in the Game 5 lineup as the Bruins aim to close out the Leafs Friday.
“I knew he was coming,” Horton said. “I tried to chip it and get myself around him, too, when I chipped the puck. Obviously he took me out and I couldn’t get around him. But it worked out well.”
In the first three games of the series, Horton was putting pucks in the net. In Game 1, he tipped a Wade Redden shot past Maple Leafs goalie James Reimer. In Game 2, because Horton was driving to the crease, he was positioned correctly to have the rebound of Milan Lucic’s shot glance off his skate and into the net. Horton capped his goal-scoring streak in Game 3 when he snapped a short-range shot past Reimer.
Two of Horton’s three goals were game-winners. Horton, of course, has a history of scoring such goals. Two years ago, he netted the overtime winner in Game 7 against Montreal in the first round of the playoffs. Horton also scored the only goal in a 1-0 Game 7 win over Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference finals.
On Wednesday, Horton had to pay a far more painful price to pick up his third postseason helper.
The game-changing play started with a sequence that has become repetitive. Toronto’s Phil Kessel sniffed around for a scoring chance on the right side. Zdeno Chara broke it up with a well-placed sweep of his stick. Kessel recovered the puck, but threw it back up the wall, where Horton wanted to chip it out.
Easier said than done.
Phaneuf and Horton are not best friends. In 2010-11, they fought twice. When one has had the chance to put the other in distress, the opportunity has rarely been declined.
So when Phaneuf saw that it was Horton reaching for the puck, the defenseman might have been overly eager to pinch and connect with a tooth-jarring hit. Phaneuf dropped Horton to the ice, sending his stick tumbling into the far corner.
But that decision came with a bad consequence: the game-ending odd-man rush for Krejci and Lucic against Ryan O’Byrne. Claude Julien wasn’t sure whether to watch Krejci carry the puck or see if Horton could peel himself off the ice.
“That winning goal, it was one of those where you’ve got one eye looking at that outnumbered situation,” the Bruins coach recalled. “The other eye on whether your other guy is going to be getting up. It’s a little bit of both. When that goal was scored, the first thing I did was to see if Nathan was still lying on the ice or if he was up. He’s fine. Just a bit of a body blow from an aggressive forecheck on Phaneuf’s part. It ended up playing in our favor.”
It is a play that Julien discourages. Julien’s system relies on his defensemen to stay at home in the patches of real estate for which they claim responsibility. It is up to the Bruins’ forwards to steer puck carriers toward the defensemen, who can use body positioning and stickwork to break up plays.
A defenseman can wallop an opposing puck carrier with a game-changing hit. But the risk — as Phaneuf showed — is higher than the reward.
Horton is now the Bruins’ second-leading postseason scorer. Horton has three goals and three assists through four games. The leader is Krejci. The top-line center has five goals and 10 points, most of any postseason performer.
Krejci is usually the disher, looking to set up Lucic and Horton for goals. But with Krejci coming off a Game 4 hat trick, Horton wants to put the puck on his center’s stick in Game 5.
“He does everything,” Horton said. “People say he’s a great passer. He can score goals. He can play defense. He’s hitting. I think he’s doing everything. It makes him a special player. He’s showing everybody again how special he is.”