EDMONTON – It wasn’t all that long ago Milan Lucic contemplated retirement.
Scoreless in his first 18 games in Calgary, a third-period benching by coach Bill Peters had him frustrated, confused and “questioning whether I should just hang em up.”
“It just wasn’t fun for me anymore.”
My, how things have changed.
Five games into the Flames’ postseason and it’s Lucic who is riding the club’s first five-game playoff point streak since Jarome Iginla and Daymond Langkow turned the trick in 2006.
His one-timer to set up Dillon Dube’s opening goal in a 3-2 win over Dallas on Tuesday was just the latest in a fascinating series of developments surrounding the 32-year-old that many had written off years earlier.
Heralded as a team leader on a squad riding a significant wave of emotion after three straight wins, no one is having more fun these days.
Asked about the resurrection of his game, passion and career, and the Flames’ lone Stanley Cup winner will tell you the catalyst for change was simple.
“What changed was the coaching change,” said Lucic, who couldn’t get a straight answer from Peters on where he stood.
“I just felt like I didn’t have much of a role on the team. Then, probably the guy who knows me more than anyone in the league ends up being the head coach and puts me in a role where I can succeed. That’s ultimately what’s changed. Not just him, I give a lot of credit to my teammates as well. They really stuck with me and made me buy into the group.”
Now they’re buying into whatever ol’ Looooch (as the fans chanted every time he touched the puck) is selling.
It’s exactly what the Flames hoped for when they dispensed of James Neal in a swap of pricey contracts last summer, anticipating they could somehow draw out the emotional engagement that disappeared from Lucic in Edmonton after so much success in Boston.
The man who deserves most of the credit for reinvigorating Lucic is indeed interim coach Geoff Ward, who was a longtime assistant in Boston with the Vancouver native.
“When he came to Calgary he said he wanted to get back to the way he used to play,” said Ward, whose penchant for empowering and listening to players is polar opposite to the approach Peters took before his ugly departure on Nov. 29.
“Most of the work has been a credit to him. At the pause we were starting to see him round into form. He’d been scoring some points just before the pandemic break and seemed to be on an upswing. My experience with him is when he’s on an upswing, he is usually able to continue it. I think he’s carried that right through the pause, into the early games here.”
The points are a bonus for a man anchoring a third line wrecking crew alongside Dillon Dube and NHL playoff hit leader Sam Bennett. Starting in all three periods Tuesday to set early physical tones and create energy, the line that scored twice against Dallas is now being centered by Lucic, whose 62 per cent efficiency in the faceoff dot is a shocker given how little he’d done it for years.
Yet another new wrinkle in the game of the bruising winger.
Everything he’s touched this summer has turned to gold, providing leadership and mentorship to a young team that feeds off his playoff knowledge, experience and adrenaline.
No one north of Red Deer could have predicted it would turn out this well with him in a Flames uniform, especially off the start when Neal had his early scoring binge.
The narrative for both has since flipped dramatically.
“I think he’s got confidence in the way he’s playing now,” said Ward, who is using Lucic upwards of 15 minutes a night now, which includes rampant offensive-zone starts he hasn’t seen in years.
“I think he enjoys the players he’s playing with, and they compliment him well. Now we’re starting to see a guy who doesn’t have any confidence issues anymore. It’s all just about going out and playing the game. He enjoys this time of year more than any other time. He’s always been like that as a player. He loves the big moments.
“Right now he’s riding a wave and we hope it continues.”
His dramatic turnaround mirrors that of his team’s, as no one is more representative of the team’s new-found focus on defence and physicality than Lucic.
Everyone has bought into the team-first concept required this time of year, helping the group get over its playoff hump against Winnipeg in impressive fashion.
“I think Wardo has done a really good job of making everyone feel important and embrace their role,” said Lucic, who had eight goals and 20 points this season, but now sits one behind Sean Monahan’s team-leading six playoff points.
“I’ve got to say, ever since December, as a team we’ve had a lot of fun being around each other, whether it’s during practice or games, on the ice or the road. This is a really tight group and one personally I look forward to seeing every day. I think that’s the biggest difference from the first two months to what we’ve become now.”
No one’s transformation has been as dramatic or impactful than his.