WILMINGTON, Mass. -- One reason the Boston Bruins are once again a Stanley Cup contender -- and appear to have a realistic shot at becoming the first team since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and '98 to repeat as champions -- is their depth up front.
Like the rest of the team, the top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Nathan Horton got off to a rough start this season. As the team steadily improved, that trio continued to be inconsistent. But as the second half of this season begins and the Bruins find themselves without their second-leading goal scorer, Brad Marchand (16 goals in 37 games), for another four games, Lucic, Krejci and Horton appear to be reverting to form and look more like the line that dominated in the regular season and Stanley Cup playoffs last season.
Krejci now has a nine-game point streak going, with 14 points over that stretch; Lucic has seven points in his last five games; and Horton has five goals and six points in his last four games. Following practice Wednesday, all three players agreed that their chemistry appears to be back, and the main reason is that they're keeping it simple, playing their game and not letting external or physical issues affect them.
While Lucic has admittedly struggled with inconsistency in the past, he has probably been the most consistent on his line despite being suspended, fined and unjustly ejected from the Bruins' 4-3 loss to Vancouver on Saturday. Both Krejci and Horton admitted they have let injuries and other issues creep into their game at times this season, and praised Lucic for his ability to stay focused.
Krejci, when asked what he has been doing differently over the last 10 games, shrugged and said, "Not too much really, just keep my feet moving and not worry about what the media is saying. I don't really care and I don't read that stuff anyway, but I think I was playing fine before and now I am just skating better."
That outside pressure Krejci referenced was prevalent in the beginning of the season when he missed games, battling a nagging undisclosed injury, and admittedly worried about being in a contract year. But as he got healthier and then signed a three-year extension with Boston worth $5.25 million per season on Dec. 2, he has focused more on his game and the points have racked up.
"It's good to not think of that and the contract," Krejci acknowledged. "I'm just playing our game and having fun out there and we're winning so that's great."
Horton, meanwhile, entered the season weighed down by the memory and effects of the season-ending concussion he suffered in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals. After scoring only two goals and having only five points in October, Horton told the media that he was indeed not himself and that, while he didn't believe he had post-concussion syndrome, he was thinking about the injury too much and his timing was off. His game picked up in November, but the inconsistency continued.
Now, Horton said he feels more comfortable on and off the ice and is playing with a clearer head.
"I think, just like most guys, I play my best hockey when I am not thinking too much and hesitating on plays, and I'm doing that now," Horton said. "It seems like right now that's how it's going for me. I'm more comfortable and I'm just having fun out there. I also think technically I wanted to start shooting more. I was getting only like one shot a game and now I'm just shooting whenever I can and then getting to the net for rebounds. If you shoot, anything can happen, and I'm thinking more that way now.
"The start of the season definitely the concussion was an issue," he added. "I definitely wasn't myself and didn't feel the way I wanted to. It wasn't, like I said then, like post-concussion syndrome or something like that I think, but more me just trying to get my timing and confidence back and yeah maybe being a bit hesitant with my physical game. It was definitely tough, but as the team started to win and in like November and into December I felt better, and I feel much better now."
That was never more evident than in the loss to the Canucks on Saturday when Horton had four shots on net and was playing more physical -- as highlighted by his first-period fight with Canucks forward Dale Weise.
"You know, even though he didn't score against Vancouver, I thought that was one of his best games of the season," Lucic pointed out. "It was because he was winning all the battles, getting in there and playing almost pissed off. His goals of late have all been goals of finding pucks around the net and going to the net, getting in those areas and getting involved. It's great to see and we need more of that from him because he's at his best when he is doing that."
As for the recent success of his other linemate, Lucic actually gave himself a pat on the back for a recent pep talk he gave to Krejci as the team returned from the Christmas break.
"I was actually kind of joking around with him after Christmas break, saying, 'Hey! Break's over! Time to go!' And he's definitely responded," Lucic said. "He's found that confidence in his game again and I think the big thing with him is what I was talking about and pushing the pace. He's definitely capable of controlling a play and that's what makes him such a great player. ... When he is making his pace a high level and bringing along 'Horty' and me with him, that's what makes us such a great and dangerous line."
Krejci credited Lucic for being the consistent backbone of the line and a calming presence while he and Horton found their way.
"He really hasn't let anything throw him out of his game," Krejci said of Lucic. "He goes out there and works very hard every day and he skates really well because that's the biggest thing for him. He is very smart with the puck too and he can pass the puck better than people think -- and of course shoot it very hard. He makes good decisions out there and it makes it very hard for teams to defend him with that and his size. I love playing with that guy."
Among the trio, the feeling is clearly mutual.
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com. Ask a question for his next Bruins mailbag here.