Horton looking like a sure shot
New Bruin is on target so far
WILMINGTON — Since his departure from South Florida and touchdown in Boston, Nathan Horton has been like Jack Nicholson’s Joker, a smile permanently fixed on his face.
And that was before he buried three of his first five shots as a Bruin, a shooting percentage that has his coach smiling, too.
“If he can score three goals on every five shots, I’ll take it,’’ said Claude Julien with a grin yesterday at Ristuccia Arena. “That’s my positive way of looking at it.’’
Horton, acquired from the Panthers with Gregory Campbell on June 22 for Dennis Wideman, a 2010 first-round pick, and a 2011 third-rounder, was brought in to help turn around a league-worst offense that stumbled badly without Phil Kessel.
Through two games, Horton hasn’t disappointed.
Riding right wing with Milan Lucic and David Krejci on the first line, Horton has scored three of the Bruins’ five goal s. In the season-opening 5-2 loss to Phoenix, Horton pumped two pucks past Ilya Bryzgalov. The following night, he beat Bryzgalov once and assisted on Lucic’s game-opening goal in the Bruins’ 3-0 victory.
“He’s as advertised,’’ said Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli. “He’s strong. He’s a shooter. He’s strong on cycle, strong on the puck. He’s got a terrific shot.’’
Horton, who is coming off a 20-goal season (he was limited to 65 games after then-and-now teammate Dennis Seidenberg broke his leg on a stray dump-in), was projected to skate alongside Marc Savard. But with Savard sidelined because of postconcussion syndrome, Horton has been taking feeds from Krejci, the de facto No. 1 center.
So far, there have been zero chemistry issues, as the two have combined with Lucic to form a line that should draw plenty of heat from opposing checkers and shutdown pairings.
Just as impressive as Horton’s ability to finish has been his sense of reading his teammates, anticipating plays, and putting himself in position for scoring chances. On all three goals, Horton read the play and created enough separation from defenders to carve out shooting space.
“There’s that sense for the game,’’ Julien said. “Players have that sense that they know where to go. They time it well.
“He’s got the privilege here of playing with a pretty good centerman in Krech that will find him when he’s open. He’s taken advantage of that.
“At the same time, he’s given us the impression that he’s really excited at being here. When you’re excited, you feel like playing. Those kinds of things just accumulate as far as good things happening.’’
In the third period last Saturday, with his team down by four strikes, Horton netted his first goal. The play started with Krejci engaging Adrian Aucoin for the puck in the left corner. At first, Horton drifted toward Krejci to provide support. But when Krejci sent the puck down low to Lucic, Horton circled back into the high slot to elude the Phoenix checkers.
As Lucic cut behind the net, he drew Martin Hanzal and Ed Jovanovski. Horton, seeing two Coyotes funnel toward Lucic, darted between wingers Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney into the high slot. After locking eyes with Lucic, Horton collected his linemate’s feed and snapped a shot past Bryzgalov to get his team on the board.
“I was thinking in my head that I could get open if I stayed a little higher,’’ Horton said. “That’s exactly what happened. The forward and the defenseman both left me, then Looch saw me when he was coming around the net. Great pass by him.’’
Less than six minutes later, with Phoenix’s Eric Belanger serving a hooking penalty, Horton recorded a power-play goal. First, Zdeno Chara cut off Petr Prucha’s clearing attempt at the blue line along the left boards. Horton backed into the high slot away from Prucha and Scottie Upshall. The puck rolled toward him, Horton settled it, and he whistled a shot past Bryzgalov at 9:03 of the third period, making it a 4-2 game.
The next night, Horton punched in his third goal, this time in the last minute of the second period. As with many scoring chances, a sharp defensive-zone play kick-started the opportunity. Johnny Boychuk sent a pass behind his net to Chara, and the captain promptly snapped a pass to an in-stride Krejci at the blue line. Horton joined Krejci, who banked the puck off the left boards deep into the offensive zone.
Because of their speed through the neutral zone, both Krejci and Horton overwhelmed Lauri Korpikoski, who had tracked down the puck behind the Phoenix goal line. With two forecheckers in his face, Korpikoski coughed up the puck to Mark Recchi.
Once Recchi, having come on for Lucic, gained control, Horton stepped into a net-front pocket away from Korpikoski.
Oliver Ekman-Larsson lunged at Horton, but the right wing turned and whipped the puck past Bryzgalov before the defenseman could close the gap.
“I think their D just assumed that it was going to go out,’’ Horton said. “I don’t know what happened. Maybe he just gave up.’’
At this rate, Horton will finish 2010-11 with 123 goals — 31 more than Wayne Gretzky’s record of 92 in 1981-82. Perhaps even a third of that would be good enough to keep him and the Bruins smiling.