April 19, 2012

B's Lucic tunes out distractions

By Kirk Luedeke

ARLINGTON, VA.—Boston Bruins power winger Milan Lucic is no stranger to playoff controversy, having gone through what Nicklas Backstrom is dealing with. 

Bruins winger Milan Lucic (Getty Images)

The NHL upheld a one-game ban to the Swedish playmaker after he was assessed a match penalty late in Monday’s 4-3 victory against the Washington Capitals at Verizon Center. The Capitals subsequently issued a statement disagreeing with the decision Wednesday.

Lucic received the same kind of one-game suspension during the first round of the 2009 playoffs when he delivered a blow to the head of then-Montreal forward Maxim Lapierre. In accordance with NHL rules, the match penalty calls for an automatic suspension pending a league review.

However, even as assembled media tried to get him to weigh in on comments made about him and the escalating physicality of the first-round series after practice Wed., Lucic refused to take the bait. Instead, it appears that the 23-year-old take a page from the book of another famous Boston sports figure to try and prevent a war of words that has been going on in recent days.

“It is what it is obviously,” Lucic said, channeling New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. “He’s saying stuff to try and protect his players and that’s about it for us. Our main focus isn’t about what’s really said in the paper or anything like that. We’re just focusing on our game and what we need to do to win Game 4.”

Lucic’s comment was in response to a question in which referenced Capitals head coach Dale Hunter’s claim that the Bruins had been targeting Backstrom’s head during Game 3. The former 100-point scorer from two seasons ago missed 40 games this year to a concussion suffered on an illegal hit from then-Calgary forward Rene Bourque in early January. He only returned to the Washington lineup at the end of the regular season.

“Obviously the league suspended Backstrom with what they thought was the appropriate amount of games,” said Lucic. “It’s over and done with and with him out of the lineup being a big part of the team on our mindset we can’t take them lightly at all. They battled a lot of the end of the season without him and played well without him, and they’re still going to bring their best because it’s a big game for both teams.”

Lucic’s comments did not provide any of the “red meat” that generates buzz and attention for the wrong reasons, but also demonstrates the growth process that comes with maturity and the experience of having gone all the way to a Stanley Cup championship a year ago.

Having been without a key player like Nathan Horton for the Stanley Cup final series (and for the entire half of 2011-12), Lucic and the Bruins understand better than most the mindset a team develops when they can rally around someone the way the Capitals appear to be doing with Backstrom.

“What we’ve learned in the past is that where we need to focus is on ourselves and our game,” he said. “We know they’re going to bring their best and they’re going to come at us hard. For us, we want to do whatever we can to give ourselves a chance to win.”

Lucic’s coach, Claude Julien, was a little more colorful in his response to Hunter’s claims, however.

"There's no reaction, really," Julien said after practice. "That doesn't make sense. We don't. I don't know any coach that would tell his team to go after somebody's head. That speaks for itself and that's all I'm going to say about that."

However, the coach didn’t stop there.

"These players are all part of the P.A. [players association] and the fact is, and I'll say it again, there's not a coach in this league -- not one -- that will tell his players to target somebody's head.

"Concussions are a serious and sensitive thing. We all respect that, so anyone who thinks otherwise is totally wrong.”

In the end, the emotions on display by both sides are indicative of a closely-contested playoff series, one that saw the first two games decided in overtime, with a third that was not settled with the decisive goal until 1:50 remained in regulation.

"I don't blame Dale for defending his player, if that's what he's trying to do,” said Julien. “To me, it's going to war for your team and that's why I'm not commenting more on that. I'm not going to comment on his comments of protecting his player, if that's the case, but if he really believes the other way, that's the part where being accused of head hunting is ludicrous."

Lucic has yet to find the back of the net in the 2012 playoffs, so it is important for him to make his presence felt in other ways if not on the score sheet. He did that in Game 3 by playing his trademark physical style of hockey, the kind that has drawn comparisons to some of the best power forwards of the past. Although not as prolific a scorer as a Cam Neely or Brendan Shanahan in their primes, Lucic is the rare player who can alter the pace and flow of a game by himself with a big hit or fight.

“We just worry about ourselves and what’s in this dressing room,” he said. “That comes from past experiences and how we’ve dealt with things in the past.”

Given his experience of having been in Backstrom’s shoes, Lucic understands the situation and how crucial it is for his club to take advantage of a weakened Washington lineup Thursday.

“The emotions and the heat have risen in this series and we knew it was going to get to this point,” he said.  “That's what the playoffs are all about. You create that passion and that hate for another team. The fans get into it."   

Kirk Luedeke can be reached at kluedeke@hockeyjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter at @kluedeke29.