VANCOUVER – Casual hockey fans that would tune into playoff games did not know who Nathan Horton was until this year. Now, they know him well.
Horton has served as Boston’s playoff hero, scoring series-clinching Game 7 goals in the conference quarterfinals and finals. All of this has come after never making the playoffs in six years with the Panthers.
“I hadn’t been through it, but I always wanted to,” Horton said last week after his most recent game-winner, which sent the B’s to the Stanley Cup finals. “I always knew I had more in me, and you know just always keep with it and stick with it. When you’re involved in such a good situation like I am with the great teammates that we have, it’s exciting to be in this spot with them.”
Horton came to Boston with the last reputation anyone would want. The book on the former third overall pick was that he didn't care, that he was indifferent to the game for which he was paid millions. Yet from the moment he was acquired by the B's prior to last June's draft in a deal that sent the 15th overall pick, a third-rounder and Dennis Wideman to the Panthers in exchange for him and Gregory Campbell, there's been no sign of a heartless Horton. In fact, it’s been just the opposite. He was at every captain’s practice (voluntary skates late in the offseason), and his willingness to stick up for his teammates has been apparent all season long.
He never seemed enraged during his mid-season scoring slump, but he isn't to be faulted for keeping his emotions in check especially when its an area in which he has at times struggled (something to which a now dried-off Lightning fan can attest).
One guy who had a front row seat for Horton’s ups and downs in Florida will once again see plenty of him when the Stanley Cup finals begin on Wednesday was Roberto Luongo. The two haven’t kept in touch with one another since they stopped being teammates in 2006, but Luongo isn’t surprised to see his former teammate has seized the biggest stage in the game.
“He's always had talent,” Luongo said of Horton. “You could see it when I played with him. He's got an enormous amount of talent. He knows how to score goals, he has a good shot and finds the corners and things like that. I'm not surprised at all to see him have that type of success.”
Luongo was between the pipes in Horton’s rookie year, when a power struggle between coach Mike Dudley and general manager Mike Keenan played a large role in the fact that the team had three coaches in the 2003-04 season. He also saw Horton’s adjustment into the league, and the flak that he caught for not being great. After all, the team had traded out of the No. 1 spot in the draft and made him their top pick.
He was a Panther, but the perception was that he was a dog. One Stanley Cup run later, it’s become a question of whether he’s changed drastically since coming to Boston or whether that passionless player in Florida really existed.
“When you're losing, things always tend to come out,” Luongo said. “Nobody looks good when you're losing. That's the way it goes in sports in general. You can find the faults with every player. When you're on a winning team, everybody looks good. That's pretty much how it goes.”
Whether or not he slacked off in Florida (he did admit back in November that he had a hard time staying motivated with the team losing as much as it did some seasons), he’s done a great job of giving himself a new reputation. He plays hard, and this postseason he gotten the results.
“That's usually what tends to happen when you go into a hockey market,” Luongo said. “I think you elevate your game. There's a lot of expectations, and the pressure. You have no choice but to perform every night. In Florida, we obviously didn't have great teams there. A lot of losing seasons and expectations weren't very high. That's way sometimes you tend to get lost in the shuffle a little bit.”
That’s something that can be applied to Luongo himself as well. After being traded to Vancouver in June of 2006, Luongo saw both his goals against average and save percentage improve from where they were in Florida. Now, the former teammates who got used to losing in Florida are playing one another, knowing that the series will end with one of them hoisting the Stanley Cup.
In Luongo’s case, he probably could have seen it coming. He’s spent the last few years on a talented team and saw his club reach the conference semifinals the past two years. Horton, on the other hand, still had to get out and convince people he wasn’t the player many believed he was.
“I don’t think it’s because his heart was questioned that he established himself into a big game player,” Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli said recently of Horton. “There’s no connection for me in that. It’s the fact that he hasn’t been in the playoffs, and he’s able to be the clutch player that he has been.”
Horton has 17 points in 18 postseason games, and given how big some of his goals have been, he’s been a major reason as to why the Bruins have played so many contests. Horton has been a major part of the Bruins’ current run, turning in a pretty gutsy showing for someone in their first rodeo.
“Gutsy” isn’t a word many used to describe Horton is previous years, and soon it may once again be rarely used in association with him. This isn’t to say that Horton’s heart isn’t clearly there – it’s just that “Stanley Cup champion” would have a better ring to it. Change is good, and Boston’s realizing how good it can be.