Has Milan Lucic Taken His Career to Another Level in 2013-14?

Al DanielCorrespondent IIOctober 27, 2013

BUFFALO, NY - OCTOBER 23:  Milan Lucic #17 of the Boston Bruins celebrates his goal against the Buffalo Sabres at First Niagara Center on October 23, 2013 in Buffalo, New York.  (Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images)

Boston Bruins power forward Milan Lucic statistically certified the most prolific 10-game start of his NHL career amidst Saturday night’s 4-3 loss to New Jersey.

While his production pace is not realistically sustainable, the tape and the data confirm his revamped compete level. More vitally, the circumstances suggest it will stick around.

When Lucic absorbed center David Krejci’s lateral pass on an odd-man rush and zipped a low-flyer past Martin Brodeur, he improved to six goals and 11 points. That is one better than the 5-5-10 scoring log he brandished at the 10-game mark of 2010-11.

As it happened, he finished that year with a career-best 30 goals and 62 points. Since then, he has induced irritation to Bruins buffs with bouts of inconsistency, a motif he has shared with Krejci and any given fellow winger.

Actually, those 62 points and the 61 he posted in 2011-12 tend to obscure the protracted cold spells he left on his game log in those seasons. The first hex spanned Dec. 18, 2010 through Jan. 17, 2011, when he went seven straight games without a point and 12 without a goal.

Then there was the 10-game goalless skid to close out the 2010-11 regular season, which meant Lucic had 30 tallies after 69 appearances and 30 after 79. The drought doubled in the playoffs as he sprinkled three helpers over the first 10 outings of the 2011 tournament.

Three goalless stretches lasting six, eight and seven games, respectively, plagued Lucic in October, November and December of 2011. He later stamped a 0-3-3 transcript amidst Boston’s first-round, seven-game loss to Washington.

Last year’s lockout-delayed, 48-game sprint saw Lucic hit a low not seen since his breakout circa 2008-09. He brooked three pointless skids lasting four games apiece while tuning the opposing mesh a paltry seven times.

The 72 games left on Boston’s 2013-14 itinerary equal ample room for more of those deficient days. Furthermore, even with a consistent competitive fire, a player of Lucic’s ilk is unlikely to stay north of a point-per-game pace all season.

With that said, there is enough cause to believe that Lucic can elevate his output to match or eclipse 2010-11. In addition, when and if he stalls on the scoresheet, the effort should still be more visible than in the past.

A can’t-miss factor in the leading line’s promising start is the insertion of veteran Jarome Iginla, who came via free agency to essentially plug Nathan Horton’s vacancy. Another is the fact that unlike 2011-12, the Bruins entered this season while coming off a losing cause in the Stanley Cup Final rather than a victorious outcome.

With the 2012-13 lockout spawning unusual circumstances and rendering players like Lucic prone to physical and mental rust, this is Boston’s first season of its kind since 2010. It is the first time in three years that the holdovers have convened in September with a springtime letdown still fresh in their collective minds.

Back then, it was an unprecedented, fall-from-ahead falter to Philadelphia in the second round. More recently, it was a failure to force Game 7 in the final when Game 6 was two minutes shy of going the Bruins’ way.

Given that he has gone on the record with the phrase “killer instinct” as often as he has on the team’s website alone, Lucic does not concoct much surprise with his determination. He practically fills the rest of the room for surprise with his outspoken admiration for Iginla.

Iginla, a 17-year NHL veteran, is seeking long-elusive fulfillment in the form of a Cup. That and the apparent craving for redress on the part of Lucic, and the returning Bruins in general, form a crucial intangible for 2013-14.

Furthermore, as celestial as Iginla has been and as competitive as he remains, he will not likely break the 40-goal plateau again. That means the younger half of the setup artist Krejci’s brawny wings needs to fill in his share of finishes to supplement the scoring.

So far, Lucic has done that as needed in a fashion that amplifies the authenticity of his rebound from 2012-13.

It is not just the fact that, through one-eighth of the schedule, he is one goal away from matching last year’s 46-game total. It is not that he is shooting with a stellar 28.6 percent accuracy or even that he has gone through only two nonconsecutive scoreless performances.

Rather, it is the nature, the timing and the implications of the scoring chances he is percolating, setting up and polishing off.

On Oct. 3, Lucic busted a 1-1 tie with one minute remaining in the second period and claimed credit for the decider in a 3-1 win over Tampa Bay. Two nights later, he had a hand in the two power-play conversions that bookended the scoring in a 4-1 thrashing of the Red Wings.

When Boston met Detroit again and trailed by two goals late in the third, Lucic cut the deficit to 3-2 with 80 seconds to spare. (As an aside, those who have watched the third episode of “Behind The B” saw how furiously he was digging for production that afternoon.)

This past Wednesday, his second unanswered strike after maneuvering past three Buffalo backcheckers planted a 2-0 lead 40 ticks into the middle frame. When he struck again on Saturday, it was his third non-empty netter in the first or final minute of a period and fourth within the first or last 80 seconds.

If those were not enough statements, he piloted the play that precipitated Krejci’s last-second clincher against San Jose on Thursday. He was in on Saturday’s power-play conversion and the 2-0 follow-up 86 seconds later, though he did not garner mathematical credit for either of those two.

The cornucopia of first-shift and last-minute efforts indicates that Lucic is bent on manufacturing momentum, which is particularly rich when cultivated at those points in a game.

His involvement in follow-up attacks or any other effort to augment a one-goal edge points to determination to sustain and strengthen momentum. His dogged digging against Detroit late in the Columbus Day matinee points to his will to try to curb momentum when it is working against his club.

For now, his output is properly matching that unyielding desire in all situations. His current 82-game pace for roughly 48 goals and 88 points is sure to taper off, but a goal total in the mid-30s and points hovering around 70 is reasonable at this rate.

Because he is one of many Bruins who delved into this season on short rest, Lucic’s primal X-factor for the balance of 2013-14 may be his Olympic candidacy.

As one of 47 invitees to Team Canada’s orientation camp, Lucic will know by January whether he has a passport to Sochi. The Boston faithful should hope that he falls short and reaps NHL rewards as a consolation prize.

The obvious benefit would be a break from the competitive grind, allowing Lucic to refuel for the homestretch and postseason. In addition, missing the cut could reinforce his psychological ignition circa midseason.

The latter might not even be needed, but the former will be a key to ensuring a continued translation of his new, improved competitiveness.

Unless otherwise indicated, all statistics for this report were found via nhl.com


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