Even though Nathan Horton had scored only one goal in his previous 11 games — a stretch in which he posted 1-3—4 totals — Bruins coach Claude Julien detected an encouraging sign in the way Horton skated in Thursday night’s home victory over the Florida Panthers.
“You could see that his game was turning and going in the right direction,’’ Julien said.
The Bruins coach was on the mark with his hunch after Horton nearly matched his totals of the previous 11 games with a Gordie Howe hat trick — 1 goal, 2 assists, 1 fighting major — in Saturday afternoon’s 4-1 victory over the Washington Capitals at TD Garden.
Horton recorded his first goal since Feb. 28 against Ottawa when he gave the Bruins a 1-0 lead at 14:12 of the first period, converting from the high slot on Milan Lucic’s crisp centering pass from behind the Capitals’ net.
“Guys are scared of him,’’ Horton said of Lucic, who was a strong presence on the forecheck. “He’s such a big body with great hands and he’s good with the puck. He saw me up in the slot and threw it past a couple of guys and made a great pass.’’
Horton added two assists, on David Krejci’s tally at 17:15 of the first, which gave the Bruins a 2-0 lead, and on a pretty no-look drop pass on Andrew Ference’s first goal of the season for a 3-1 lead at 8:02 of the second.
“On David’s goal, it happened that I didn’t get enough on the puck to rim it around and I looked up and Looch had the puck again,’’ Horton said. “He’s just a great player and that’s the way we’ve got to play.’’
Marcus Johansson was credited with the Capitals’ only goal when Krejci, 10 seconds out of the box after an interference penalty at the end of the first, tried to send the puck to the corner. It wound up bouncing off Johnny Boychuk’s left skate and into the Bruins net.
It did little to put a damper on Horton’s breakout afternoon.
“It just feels good to contribute, seeing as I haven’t scored for a while,’’ said Horton, whose linemates each had 3 points. Lucic tied his career high with three assists, and Krejci had a goal and two assists.
“I think our line played a lot better,” Horton said. “It’s like what Claude said, ‘When you’re thinking too much, you’re not making plays and you’re making more mistakes when you do that.’
“We just tried to get the puck deep on every score. I chipped the puck deep into Looch’s corner and I don’t know how he got the puck every time, but that’s the way we have to play. It gets us in the game when we’re playing in their zone and when we’re not playing in our zone. It’s a lot more fun.’’
Horton highlighted his afternoon with the first “Gordie Howe” he could remember by going toe-to-toe with Matt Hendricks at 19:49 of the second. It came just eight seconds after Brad Marchand recorded his first fighting major of the season, landing a combination of uppercuts and overhand rights to win a lightweight undercard bout with Mike Ribeiro.
“I kept running into him and he was always there,’’ Horton said of Hendricks, who seemed to be spoiling for a fight from the outset. “I don’t know how that was, but every time I’d swing back around, we kept bumping into each other. It’s just how it happened.’’
Horton was spotted jawing with Hendricks from the penalty box at the start of the third period. Horton gestured toward Boston’s bench, as if to say that Hendricks would have to answer to his teammates.
“Did I point to the bench?’’ Horton said. “I don’t even remember.’’
Did he tell Hendricks he would have guys waiting for him when he got out of the box?
“I didn’t say that,’’ Horton said. “But he probably knew it because we stick together. It doesn’t matter who it is, everybody’s got each other’s back.’’
It was expected that Shawn Thornton would call out Hendricks, who chose to instead go with Adam McQuaid when he asked as well.
“Nobody’s going to want to go with Thorty, he’s pretty scary,’’ Horton said. “We’ve got a tough team and everyone’s got each other’s back, and that was a big point in the game for us, in that way. It got everybody going.’’Michael Vega can be reached at email@example.com.