When Milan Lucic was signed to a three-year contract extension worth $18 million last September, many critics questioned the signing, wondering if that was too much money to give the then 24-year-old rugged winger.
Entering this season, Lucic was coming off consecutive 20-goal seasons (26 in 2011-12 and 30 in 2010-11). But both successful regular seasons were followed by inconsistent and frustrating playoff performances. Some wondered if he really deserved that pay raise after not performing when it counted most.
But after a 2013 regular season that resembled his past playoff outings, with just seven goals and 20 assists in 46 games, Lucic finally delivered in the postseason. In terms of production he was much more consistent, with seven goals and 19 points. But what was even more impressive was the leadership he showed and how his hard work inspired his teammates.
That was probably best exemplified when he played a major role in the Bruins' improbable comeback against the Maple Leafs in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. He and his teammates erased a late 4-1 deficit to force overtime and then extend their season on Patrice Bergeron's overtime winner. Lucic had a goal and an assist in the comeback, cutting Toronto's lead to 4-3 with just 1:22 left in regulation before Bergeron tied it with 51 seconds left.
Last week Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli lauded the leadership Lucic showed in that game as the comeback started.
"I just go back to that Toronto game," Chiarelli said. "He passed it to [Nathan Horton and then he came behind the bench and the way he said it, delivered his message to the bench: 'There's one, boys. Got a couple more to go.' That, to me, that speaks to the leadership. I've been on the bench before with stuff like that said. I think it just raises the level. He was a man among boys that game. He had a real good playoff."
That level of play and that leadership never stopped until the final horn of Game 6 against the Blackhawks. Lucic nearly propelled his team to a Game 7 by giving the Bruins a 2-1 lead with 7:49 left in regulation. Although the Blackhawks erased that lead in 17 seconds and went on to win the Stanley Cup, Lucic's impact will not be forgotten by his teammates. Lucic may have had a slow start to the season and battled fatigue at times after not playing during the lockout, but he showed up when his teammates truly needed him.
"He didn't play during the lockout so it wasn't easy," linemate David Krejci said. "Almost all of us played so he kind of just jumped in the middle of a moving train. It was kind of tough but he got going pretty quickly. We had a good start as a line and then maybe it caught up to him a little bit that he wasn't playing. He was in a little bit of a slump. He stuck with it. He was still a great teammate. Then in the playoffs, he was one of our best players."
As he packed his gear up for the summer Wednesday, Lucic acknowledged that it wasn't just the lack of game action he had during the lockout but also the new contract he signed that was weighing on him.
"I think once I stopped thinking about it is when I started playing well this year," Lucic said. "I stopped worrying about living up to the expectation of the paycheck, and my game started being where it wanted to be. Obviously when you make as much as you do it's always going to weigh on you. But I think for myself what I learned the most was once I stopped thinking about that and once I stopped worrying about living up to some unrealistic expectation that I put on myself, and just focused on playing hockey that's when I was playing at my best."
That focus on hockey is reassuring to the critics and Bruins fans alike. More importantly, Lucic proved he can be a prime playoff player and leader with his size and skill set.
"It felt like you had something to prove, especially with what happened in the season and all that type of stuff," Lucic said. "You just try to get your game back, and try to have fun with it again. I saw it as an opportunity to get my game back to where I wanted it to be, and show that I am still able to be a big-game, big type of player. Thankfully I was able to peak and play my best at the right time, and hopefully I can carry that into next year."