Saturday, June 15, 2013

A healthy scratch has made Lucic a better power forward

By Larry Wigge

A coach is disappointed with a player. He needs him in the lineup, but ...

The only way to approach the player is by making him a healthy scratch. It hurts. It stings. Everyone ... knows what's going on.

Milan Lucic suffered that terrible fate, when he was a healthy scratch for the April 20 game against Pittsburgh. Coach Claude Julien made an example of Lucic. He didn't know how else to reach the 6-4, 220-pound power forward.

His confidence was shot. Lucic's game was a mess. He had scored just twice in his last 27 games. He looked utterly unworthy of the big-money contract -- three-year deal worth $18 million -- he had signed in September, the one that would make him the highest-paid forward on the team when it kicked in.

Milan made no excuses. He blamed only himself.

Lucic had only one goal and two assists in the last four games after being a healthy scratch -- to finish the regular season with seven goals and 20 assists in 46 games. BUT ... his five goals and 11 assists in 17 playoff games, including Boston's first two goals and an assist on Patrice Bergeron's third period goal -- which gave the Bruins a 3-1 lead in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals.

Boston lost that 3-1 lead and lost in triple overtime 4-3.

"Shoulda, woulda, coulda is not going to get you anywhere," said Lucic. "It's not going to win us a game in the end. We need to focus on Game 2 as fast as we can."

The message from the coach had been delivered to the fullest extent.

"You take it as a challenge to yourself as a professional and as an individual to get your game back up to where you want it to be," Lucic emphasized. "Fortunately that has happened."

It's a little unusual to see fans wearing the jersey of a visiting player who had only scored eight goals in his only NHL season. But with Milan Lucic ... well, anything's possible.

On a late October swing through Western Canada in 2007 Lucic's rookie season, there were more and more Boston No. 17 jerseys in the crowd at Edmonton, Vancouver and then Calgary. And there was an occasional LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUU raining down from the crowds.

"I was a little nervous in each city. My legs felt like they were in quicksand at home in Vancouver. But when I'd look up in the stands and see the odd No. 17 and hear some of the fans cheer for me," Lucic's smile widened after each game as he paused to gather his emotions. "Well, it caught me by surpise. But it also made me feel at home."

Lucic isn't the most fluid skater. Neither is he the most naturally talented athlete on the ice. But ...

There are two goals to Lucic's season -- 20 goals and 100 penalty minutes. Even though he has scored 30 and 26 goals the last two season, he has no plans to abandon the physical side of his game. 

"That's a part of my game and you know it's something I've worked hard at in creating my space since I was a rookie," Lucic explained. "It's been there, definitely this year, and I need to keep that physical side to it because I don't think I get the one thing without the other. So I've just got to focus on being physical and doing those types of things."

Said Bruins coach Claude Julien, "I guess, as you mature in this league and you become, more of a wily veteran, you understand that all of those parts of your game are important. What I like about him, a couple things. His skating is No. 1, and then he's physical. He's finishing his checks, he's punishing people. And what that does is it keeps other teams on their heels. But it also keeps him at the top of his game. When he's physically involved and he's skating, that's when he's at his best. I think he's figured out those two things go hand in hand and he's been giving us that for quite a while now."

That personality is what has helped Milan Lucic grow to kind of a cult figure in Western Canada ... and New England.

"I think he's already becoming an icon in Boston," Bruins G.M. Peter Chiarelli said with a smile. 

"He's so big in Boston that people are beginning to talk about his hits and hits fights and his goals as they did power forwards like Cam Neely and Terry O'Reilly," Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara said.

The power forward battling LUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCIC gained fame in his junior days with the Vancouver Giants of the Western Hockey League with his punchouts, hits and 30 goals and 38 assists in helping the Giants win junior hockey's Memorial Cup championship in 2007 -- less than a year after the Bruins spotted his talent and selected him in the second round, 50th pick overall, of the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

It's the personality and workmanlike attitude that endears Lucic to everyone he meets. Milan's dad, Dobro, is a longshoreman in Vancouver who immigrated to North America from his native Serbia when he was 27. His mom, Snezana, came to Vancouver when her parents moved from Serbia when she was just two.

"My dad was a soccer guy, but he saw that hockey was a big sport in Canada so he said it was OK for me to play. Besides ... "

Lucic chuckled to himself before completing his thought, "My uncle played in the NHL. So, if it was good for Dan, it was good for my dad."

The Dan in question is former journeyman defenseman Dan Kesa, who played a total of 139 games with Vancouver, Dallas, Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.

In one brief question and answer session, Lucic answered my break-the-ice questions. Hockey genes, workmanlike parents to drive a prospective young hockey player. But he didn't answer the one about the obstacle he had to overcome to make it to the NHL.

"I've never been what you'd call a natural," Lucic laughed. "I'll never forget being passed over in the bantam draft. And then, I was cut by the Coquitlam Jr. B team five years ago."

When the Vancouver Giants saw him playing pickup hockey on a Vancouver rink, they put him on their protected list and sent him back to Coquitlam, where he worked on his skating and shooting and, well, everything.

"Is that it?" I wondered, hoping for something more.

He said, "Have you seen me skate? Well, I don't exactly have the best form. That ..."

Here's where the rise from a real obstacle comes in. "When I was 15, my mom noticed I couldn't straighten up. My back, it was crooked. Doctors did some tests and told me I had something called Scheuermann's disease. They tell me it's a condition that, while painless, causes the upper back to curve."

Milan's bubbly personality is what this story is all about. He's a natural, even if he doesn't think so. A natural in the way he treats people.

The bottom line here is that Milan Lucic stays the same off the ice while he improves every step of the way on the ice.

I said no more about Lucic's big nose, but at one point last season Julien couldn't find anyone to room with the rookie after his broke his nose because ...

"Two games in the league and I already had my own room ... because of my snoring," Milan laughed loudly. "Some of the guys said they could hear me snoring outside the hotel"

The Vancouver connection was perfect ... just as perfect as Boston was when Lucic heard his name at the draft in Vancouver in June of 2006.

"I knew all about the Big, Bad Bruins reputation. Stanley Cups. Hard hitters. Fighters. Guys who could beat the crap out of people," he said with a big smile. "That sounds a little like me, don't you think?"

A quizzical look replaced the smile before Milan added, "But it's not like I have hands of stone. When I'm around the net, I think I have the ability to finish off a scoring chance. I've just got to show people."

"He's a natural born leader," former Calgary Flames coach Brent Sutter said of Lucic, whom he named captain of Canada's Junior team against Russia in the Super Series of 2006. "When you think about where he was at six years ago to where he is now, it's pretty amazing. It's strictly because of his determination and his heart."

That determination, that personality, that competitive nature, all the sign of a Big Bad Bruin.

If you've seen the attention Milan Lucic gets in Boston for being himself, well, you know why.

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