All eyes may be on Phil Kessel and Zdeno Chara when the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Boston Bruins open their playoff series Wednesday night but the outcome could well be decided by how the Bruins' hard-nosed pluggers like Milan Lucic and Shawn Thornton fare against their counterparts from Toronto.
Since both teams take a physical approach to the game, those who employ the hitting game better and chip in with the odd goal should make the crucial difference. Thornton, who looks like the fellow Central Casting sends over when the call comes in for a shop-worn club fighter, isn't so sure.
"I don't know, man, I'm not really into making predictions," he said. "Both teams are built fairly similar and that makes for a good series."
But Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference says someone like Lucic can rouse the entire team even if he isn't scoring. Lucic's take-no-prisoners style of play inspires everyone to put a little extra into their own game.
"His game is one of those ones where it's outwardly obvious when he's on top of it," Ference said after the Bruins' morning skate. "It's loud and chaotic. People who have never even watched hockey in their life could sit down and tell that he's having an impactful game.
"When you look across the room and see guys that are trying everything they can to get their game up to that level, it pushes everybody else up. It puts [on] that demand of 'I'm taking care of myself, so make sure you're doing the same for me.' "
However, there will be pressure on Lucic, 24, to score as well, something that was troublesome this season. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound force knocked opponents around as usual but only scored seven goals in 46 games, down from 26 last season and 30 in 2010-11 when he played a prominent role in the Bruins' Stanley Cup win.
One of the reasons the Bruins stumbled over the last half of the season, finishing with just three wins in their last 10 games, was a lack of production from their second line of centre David Krejci and wingers Nathan Horton and Lucic. Krejci had 33 points in the regular season but Horton managed only 13 goals in 43 games.
Horton missed the last five games of the season after suffering an undisclosed injury in a fight with the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jarome Iginla. But he went through a full practice with Lucic and Krejci on Tuesday and skated with them again on Wednesday morning and is expected to be ready for Game 1, even though head coach Claude Julien said his status is a "game-time decision."
Lucic and Krejci showed signs at the end of the season their game is back in order. Lucic finished with a goal and two assists in the Bruins' last two games. A Lucic who is both hitting and scoring will be quite a handful for the Leafs in what everyone knows will be a physical series.
"There will be bodies projected into one another to start the game," Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle said, noting the first round of the NHL playoffs is historically the most intense. "We expect the Boston Bruins to come out and hit; we expect the Toronto Maple Leafs to do the same. It's going to be a physical series."
But Julien wants his bruisers to know their limits.
"You can be physical but you've got to be disciplined at the same time," Julien said. "I can say that from our end of it and I'm sure the other team is going to say the same thing. It's important not to take costly penalties that are going to cost your team either a game or a series."