- Joe McDonald, Reporter, ESPNBoston.com
- 0 Shares
His 19 points (seven goals, 12 assists) are the most in the NHL this postseason, and he helped the Bruins to a 3-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins with a pair of goals in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night at Consol Energy Center.
Somewhat in the background this spring, Nathan Horton, Krejci's linemate, has quietly improved upon his regular-season play, and that progression has accelerated throughout the playoffs.
Horton registered a three-point night in Game 1 with a goal and two assists. It was his fourth multi-point game of this postseason and ninth of his playoff career. In the last three games, he has two goals and four assists for six points. He's also leading all players with a plus-17 rating in the playoffs.
And it's not just increased point production. His skating, forechecking and backchecking have helped the Bruins reach this point of the playoffs. During the regular season, he scored 13 goals and added nine assists for 22 points in 43 games. It wasn't quite the offensive production the Bruins wanted from their top-line winger, but Horton is one of those types of players who excel on a bigger stage.
"It's the same thing as David," Bruins coach Claude Julien said. "When you look at guys and how well they perform, it's not what they change in their game because they're the same player, it's probably more about the excitement, the intensity and being even more prepared than they are during the regular season. There are a lot of guys you're going to see do extremely well during the regular season, and you get into the playoffs and they're nowhere to be seen. Or you see guys with good seasons, and David Krejci to me has had a really good season this year. I think he's been as consistent as we've ever seen.
"Nathan, at times, with some injuries that set him back and it took him a while to get going, but he's at the top of his game right now. I've been saying this for the last couple of weeks: In order to win the Stanley Cup you have to be playing your best hockey at this time of the year and that's what those guys are doing right now."
During the 2011 Cup run, Horton had eight goals and nine assists for 17 points, including a plus-11 rating in 21 games. His Stanley Cup season ended with a concussion after he was on the receiving end of a vicious late hit by the Vancouver Canucks' Aaron Rome in Game 3 of that series.
He returned the following season but suffered another head injury on Jan. 22, 2012, then missed the rest of the season and the playoffs. The work stoppage earlier this season allowed more healing time for Horton, even though he was deemed healthy had the 2012-2013 lockout-shortened season started on time.
When the puck finally dropped on Jan. 19, it had been nearly a full calendar year since Horton had played in a game. It showed at times during the regular season and there were stretches when he struggled. Once the Bruins reached the postseason, he has become a high-caliber player again.
"We often say that when there are 82 games in the season, there's guys that get bored a bit," explained Julien. "It's not what people want to hear, but when I say 'get bored' trying to get up for 82 games is maybe unrealistic. You always want to get the best out of your team, but when it comes to playoff hockey we know that every game means a lot, it creates more excitement. That's why people say playoff hockey goes up a notch from regular season, well, that's because games mean a lot more and that's just a natural thing in players' minds."
Whenever this season ends for the Bruins, Horton will become an unrestricted free agent. He has said in the past that he would like to remain in Boston, but his asking price may be out of range for the Bruins. However, if the Bruins can win their second Cup in three seasons, general manager Peter Chiarelli has made it no secret that he likes the core of this team and would like to keep it together since it has become a perennial winner.
The Bruins' top line of Milan Lucic, Krejci and Horton was inconsistent during the regular season, but their production in the playoffs has been spectacular for Boston.
"When they play that way they're a hard line to stop," Bruins forward Daniel Paille said. "We have two big bodies with Looch and Horty, and I think Horty is really underrated in terms of a setup man. I know he's more known as a goal scorer, and Looch is this big body, and you can't say enough about David with his game. They can definitely be a huge factor for us when they play that way."
When told of Julien's description of talented players being "bored" during the regular season, Paille took a different approach.
"I'm not sure it's so much boredom but it's more trying to pace yourself, I guess," Paille said with a laugh. "Playoffs is when you want to play and you have to work to get there, and they did a good enough job for us to get here and their play speaks for itself right now."
The NHL schedule is no doubt a grind and it can be difficult to produce every night, but the special players prove it during the playoffs. That's the case for Horton.
"He's been great," Bruins assistant captain Patrice Bergeron said. "Last night was a perfect example. He was huge on all three goals and that line has been great for us the whole playoffs."
Nathan Horton has elevated his game to top form alongside David Krejci.