Bruins Need Milan Lucic to Bounce Back After Injuries, Increased Expectations Caused Postseason Struggles

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Bruins Need Milan Lucic to Bounce Back After Injuries, Increased Expectations Caused Postseason Struggles Throughout his career, Milan Lucic has always found a way to elevate his game when it mattered most — until this past spring.

After a breakthrough regular season in which he shattered his personal bests with a team-leading 30 goals and 62 points, Lucic appeared poised for a huge playoff run. Instead, for the first time in four NHL seasons his goals and points per game both plummeted.

In his first three postseasons with the Bruins, Lucic nearly doubled his regular-season goal output. He went from 0.17 a game to 0.33, while his point production rose from 0.45 a game to 0.67. But this spring his numbers were reversed, with his goals dropping from 0.38 a game to barely half that at 0.20 and his points per game falling from 0.78 to 0.48.

"I don't know what happened," Lucic said at the club's breakup day. "Every playoff year, especially the last three years, it almost came easy to me. But this year, especially in that first round, was a challenge for myself. For some reason I just didn't feel like myself. I didn't feel like myself when I had the puck on my stick. I didn't feel like myself when I was skating like I did early on in the season."

Obviously, the Bruins were able to survive Lucic's struggles and win the Stanley Cup, and winning that title more than made up for any personal frustrations on Lucic's part.

Lucic also did come up with some key performances to contribute to the Cup run. He didn't have a goal in the first round against Montreal, but set up Nathan Horton's series winner in overtime of Game 7. He then finally scored his first two goals in Game 4 against Philadelphia to help complete a second-round sweep of the Flyers and added two more goals against Vancouver in the Cup Final.

Still, his modest 5-7-12 totals in 25 playoff games fell well short of the expectations raised by his stellar regular season and past postseason exploits.

Injuries were a partial explanation for the struggles. Lucic battled through a sinus infection at the start of the playoffs and had trouble breathing through a broken nose that required offseason surgery. "It always felt like I had a cloud in my head," Lucic said.

A broken toe suffered early in the conference final when he was hit by a Tyler Seguin slap shot in practice didn't help matters either. "It really, really sucked," Lucic said of that injury, which did not need surgery. "You don't realize how much you actually push off it until you break it."

But as banged up as Lucic was, he also recognized that the biggest factor in his struggles was mental, not physical. The pressure to produce after his huge regular season proved difficult for him to handle despite his past playoff success, which had always come while playing a secondary role in the offense.

"It was the first time that I had to deal with expectations like that," Lucic said. "I've never had a problem with it until this time. It almost seemed like, I'll be honest, it felt like I let the pressure of expectations get to me and I was putting so much pressure on myself to live up to those expectations that I forgot just the little things that I did that resulted in me scoring 30 goals and being such a clutch player. I think that was the main difference between the last three years and this year."

The pressure won't get any easier this upcoming season. All the Bruins will face increased scrutiny as every opponent will be out to prove themselves against the reigning champs. But now that he's established himself as a top-line performer and has a 30-goal campaign on his resume, not to mention a $4.083-million cap hit, the spotlight will be shining on Lucic more brightly than ever.

Lucic has handled pressure before. Last season was the first year of his big money extension, and he acknowledged in training camp that much more would be expected of him with that deal. He went on to boldly proclaim that his goal was to reach 20 goals for the first time, despite coming off an injury-plagued season that saw him score just nine in 2009-10. He reached 20 before the All-Star break, and went on to add 10 more for good measure.

He did that without abandoning the physical style that has helped create those scoring chances and endeared him to Boston fans. Lucic led the Bruins with 167 hits in the regular season, and also had a team-high 71 hits in the playoffs despite his injuries. When he slumped midway through the season with a 12-game goal drought, it was a return to that robust style that helped snap him out of it. After picking up just two fighting majors in his first 47 games, he had five more in his final 32 games of the regular season.

He'll have to pick his spots at times now that he has emerged as such a key part of the team's offensive attack, but Lucic still has to establish that physical presence to be at his most effective. And playing that physical game may just be the best way to handle the mental pressures of the ever-increasing expectations faced by the budding power forward who just turned 23 in June.

The Bruins certainly need him to shake off any frustrations from his lack of postseason production and get back to being a dominant force as he was throughout the regular season.

NESN.com Bruins beat writer Douglas Flynn will be answering one question facing the Bruins this offseason each day until Aug. 8.

Saturday, August 6: Will the Bruins be able to find more consistency on the penalty kill?

Monday, August 8: Has Claude Julien finally silenced his critics and proven himself to be an elite coach in the NHL?

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