Milan Lucic is fully aware of the expectations. Every time he scores a goal, puts a body through the glass, or pummels a Montreal Canadien with his right paw, he hears the chatter from hockey “experts” and fans alike. But as much as people in Boston have been quick to crown the city’s next superstar on skates, they should realize that Cam Neely isn’t on the verge of a comeback tour.
Though the comparisons are certainly unfair to the Bruins’ 20-year-old power forward, Lucic still has reason to believe his future in the league is a bright one. But he’s not Neely.
Neely defined his position and was the poster boy for goal-scoring tough guys. He scored 50 goals or more on three separate occasions, including a 50-goal campaign in just 49 games in 1993-94. A Hall of Famer and a five-time All-Star, Neely was as dominant an all-around player as they come.
Since Neely retired in 1996, Bruins fans hadn’t seen anyone come close to resembling No. 8. But in training camp before last season, Lucic forced the Bruins to make room for him on the opening-night roster. He was supposed to be just another youngster invited to camp. Instead, he became the closest thing to a Neely clone Bruins fans had ever seen.
At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, Lucic immediately established himself as an NHL mainstay, throwing his weight around while showing an ability to score. Add the notion that fighters around the league were starting to question whether throwing their hands with “Looch” was a good idea, and it made for every Bruins fan’s dream.
An eight-goal, 19-assist regular season combined with two playoff goals made for quite the rookie campaign, considering nobody in the organization had even penciled him in heading into the year. But the promising start caused expectations to soar to levels that can be overwhelming for any young player.
“You can take it any way you want,” said Lucic. “You can let the expectations get the best of you, but for me, I didn’t really focus too much on them. I just want to go out there and try to play my game, and not worry too much about what people are expecting of me. Obviously, I have my own expectations, and I go from there.”
Knowing that a demotion to his junior club wasn’t an option heading into this season, Lucic has spent most of the year as the top-line left winger. Having missed eight games with shoulder and foot injuries, Lucic entered Tuesday’s game at Carolina with 13 goals, 18 assists, and a plus-14.
“I’ve had some setbacks with injuries, but it’s been a good year for me, statistics-wise,” said Lucic. “I just try to go out there and help the team win. I’m trying to get better as the season goes on, and to try and get my game back up to where it needs to be come playoff time.”
Lucic has struggled offensively at times. But Bruins coach Claude Julien isn’t blaming that on the pressures of living up to the hype. He says Lucic is simply getting away from his game.
“When Looch has been struggling a little bit, he’s been trying to play [Marc] Savard and [Phil] Kessel’s game, which is the skill game,” said Julien. “I think for him it’s north-south. It’s using his strength and size. He drove to the net [in a 5-2 loss against San Jose on Feb. 10]. He was there as a net-front presence, and he scored some goals.
“Sometimes he’s forcing plays because of who he’s with. The best thing for him, and we had a talk about that, is that he’s on that line for a reason, because of what he brings, not because of what he has to do to try and be like [Savard and Kessel]. If that was the case, we’d put somebody else there.”
Lucic looked to snap out of any bad habits with that two-goal performance against Western Conference-leading San Jose. Even with the loss, his hard-working goals off rebounds and hanging around the net gave everyone at the TD Banknorth Garden a glimpse of the real Lucic.
“It’s nice to get back on the scoreboard with some goals,” said Lucic. “They were goals getting to the right areas, getting to the net. You get rewarded when you go to the net and get pucks to the net. That’s one thing that I need to do and keep doing.”
Danny Picard covers the Bruins for OT and can be reached at email@example.com