CHICAGO – Less than two months ago, there was Milan Lucic, a healthy scratch for only the second time in his professional career. His confidence was shot. His game was a mess. He had scored just twice in his last 27 games.
He looked utterly unworthy of the big-money contract extension he had signed in September, the one that would make him the highest-paid forward on the team when it kicked in.
But he made no excuses. He blamed only himself. And he sat on April 20.
He has been a different player in these playoffs, a major force, a scoring threat nearly all the time. And he was that again Wednesday night, turning that drought of two-in-27-games into two-in-one-game. Lucic, who turned 25 this week, tallied the first two goals for the Bruins, as they went up by two on the Blackhawks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final, though they eventually fell in triple overtime, 4-3.
“We had our chances to end it,” Lucic said. “[Corey Crawford] made some big saves and we didn’t capitalize on them, and they won the game.
“At the end of the day, you’ve got to turn the page, and focus on Game 2. Shoulda, woulda, coulda is not going to get you anywhere. It’s not going to win us a game in the end. I think we need to focus on Game 2 as fast as we can.”
Still, it wouldn’t hurt the Bruins to get another performance like Game 1 — at least from Lucic.
When the three stars of the game were announced, he was there, the second star. Lucic was, of course, roundly booed by the Blackhawks fans that filled the United Center. It was with good reason. He is a threat.
After scoring just seven goals in 46 games in the lockout-shortened regular season – after seasons of 30 and 26 the past two years — Lucic now has five goals in 17 games in the postseason. He added an assist to that, on Patrice Bergeron’s third-period goal, pushing him to 16 points in the playoffs.
Those are not the stats of a man without confidence.
“It was nice to get on the board,” Lucic said. “It was just being at the right place at the right time.”
He got the first one from the slot, 13:11 into the first period, set up by Nathan Horton and David Krejci. The second came 51 seconds into the second period, seemingly putting the Bruins in charge. For that goal, Lucic gave the credit to Zdeno Chara, saying, “Z did a great job turning the puck over on the red line. We were able to get a quick break and, once again, [Krejci] made a good pass.”
And it wasn’t just the goals. Lucic added four hits and five takeaways through the first overtime. He demonstrated his skill, his physical ability, and it was crucial in keeping the Blackhawks in check.
In a game that needed everything from its players, Lucic certainly gave the Bruins that. His points came from out-muscling the Blackhawks, from winning the puck along the boards, for fighting through plays.
By the end, he had slowed, as everyone had. Lucic, after all, ended up logging 38 minutes and 14 seconds of ice time, second only to Krejci (38 minutes, 41 seconds) among the Bruins’ forwards.
He was still out of breath when he addressed the media after the game.
“It definitely gets tougher and tougher, but at the end of the day you’ve got to find a way to dig deep and try to win the game,” Lucic said. “I think we played well in all three periods in the overtime to give ourselves a chance to win.”
Lucic has impacted these playoffs, and the just-started Stanley Cup Final in ways that seemed unimaginable back in April when poor performance turned into pressure turned into poor performance. That cycle was, fortunately for the Bruins, eventually broken, and the old Lucic emerged — something he proved yet again on Wednesday.
And because of that, because of the turnaround, the lackluster regular season can easily be forgotten. Lucic has performed when it mattered, even more so than he did in the 2011 Stanley Cup run, when he had 12 points in 25 games. That total has been surpassed – with as many as six games to go.
As he said, “Nice to get a few, and hopefully I can keep that up.”