More than a year later, Aaron Johnson still remembers the thump. On Nov. 17, 2011, Johnson was playing for Columbus against the Bruins at TD Garden.
Johnson entered a corner. So did Milan Lucic. You can guess what happened next.
“I took a bad hit from Lucic,” Johnson recalled. “I think it was in the first period. That one kind of got me in the game.”
Johnson is now on the other end. The ex-Blue Jacket is pushing for the No. 7 blue line job with the Bruins. Johnson now can think of Lucic as a teammate instead of an inbound freight train.
One of the more significant questions for the Bruins is how quickly Lucic and linemates David Krejci and Nathan Horton can gain traction in the 48-game season.
Management and the coaching staff can project, within reason, how the three other lines will perform. Patrice Bergeron’s threesome will be a two-way threat. Chris Kelly and his wingmen will provide scoring depth and be defensively responsible. The fourth line will skate hard, bang, and give teammates a jolt.
The variances in Krejci’s line, however, swing more wildly.
When they’re on, Lucic, Krejci, and Horton can be as dominant as any offensive threesome. In 2010-11, they were three of the Bruins’ four leading scorers. Lucic (30-32—62) and Krejci (13-49—62) tied for the team title. Horton punched in 26 goals and had 27 assists.
Krejci can rival former junior teammate Claude Giroux as a clever playmaker. Lucic and Horton can combine brawn and finesse. They can steal your lunch money on the playground, then score straight A’s in the classroom.
“He’s a big body, but not only that, he can skate for his size and he can certainly shoot the puck,” coach Claude Julien said of Horton. “That’s certainly going to help.
“Looch is the same way. If he can use his size and strength to his advantage, that’s not a line that too many teams like playing against when they see those two guys coming. They’ve got to create that situation for us and put a little bit of a scare in other teams when they’re on the ice.”
On Feb. 27, 2011, Horton dropped Edmonton’s Theo Peckham in a fight with a straight right. Later in the game, Lucic and Jim Vandermeer had a five-bell scrap.
That three-man mix of muscle and offensive acumen — the Kings had a similar blend in Dustin Penner, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter — is a rare commodity in the NHL.
“Tough to defend,” Johnson said. “They have a lot of skill on that line and physicality. Two hard components to play against. If they can keep that chemistry, I think they’ll have a great year.”
The line’s potential ceiling, however, is framed against a possibly frightening floor. Horton hasn’t played since Jan. 22, 2012 when he sustained a concussion. Saturday’s season opener against the New York Rangers will take place nearly one full calendar year since Horton’s last game.
Horton has been sharp in camp. The right wing has skated with power and grace. His shot is heavy and on target.
Horton saw something close to game action Tuesday night in the Bruins’ scrimmage against Providence at TD Garden. He skated well and initiated contact in the Bruins’ 7-5 loss.
“It felt really good to be out there,” Horton said. “It’s different than anything else. I’ve been doing scrimmages, a little shinny, practices. It’s way different being on the ice in a game situation. It feels so good to be back. I have no worries, no nothing. I just feel myself. Just trying to push as hard as I can, move my feet, and try to get back as soon as possible.”
Horton says he’s no longer thinking about his head. But it’s impossible to project how he will adjust to NHL game pace when surly defensemen come knocking.
Lucic might also require a re-entry period. He didn’t play during the lockout. Julien acknowledged that bigger players sometimes can take more time to find their game legs.
If Lucic and Horton both struggle early, the line could be more of a liability than an asset.
It might be unfair to expect instant offense because of the inactivity of Lucic and Horton. But the Bruins need the trio to click for their identity of four-line depth to grab hold.
“Unfortunately, a lot will depend on them, too, as far as our success as a hockey club,” said Julien. “It’s unfortunate, but they’re one of our top lines.
“David is the one that’s played. Milan hasn’t played in this first half of the year. Nathan hasn’t played in over a year. Unfortunately, we have to rely on those guys hopefully to find their game quickly.
“All I can say is that every day in practice, they’re looking better and better. I’m seeing that chemistry come back. They seem to know where each other are. They seem to be able to find each other. That was something I was going to keep my eye on. Hopefully get that line back on track.”
The Bruins learned for stretches of the last two seasons how Horton balances their lineup. With Horton in place, Rich Peverley has played on the third line with Kelly.
Last season, after Horton played in his final game, the Bruins never found an appropriate replacement. When Peverley played in Horton’s spot, neither that line nor the third threesome was as sharp. Tyler Seguin didn’t have chemistry with Lucic and Krejci.
If healthy, Horton will be motivated. The right wing will be an unrestricted free agent at year’s end.
. . .
Providence scored six goals on Tuukka Rask on 24 shots in Tuesday night’s scrimmage. Max Sauve led Providence with two goals and an assist. Anton Khudobin played for Providence and allowed five goals on 33 shots. “A lot of goals scored that we would have liked to have back on both sides,” Julien said. “We all know our goaltenders struggled tonight. That doesn’t make them any less good than what we think they’re going to be. We’re going to keep working with those guys.” . . . Chris Bourque, Brad Marchand, Krejci, Dennis Seidenberg, and Peverley scored for the Bruins. “I thought the tempo of our game wasn’t bad,” Julien said. “It was more the execution and the decision-making that really hurt us a lot. We weren’t moving the puck as quickly as I’d like to see. We’re a team that really has to grind teams out to have success.” . . . Adam McQuaid fought Bobby Robins in the third period. McQuaid didn’t like a hit that Lane MacDermid threw. Robins came to his teammate’s defense and popped McQuaid with several solid shots. Julien said McQuaid was fine.