BOSTON, MA - MARCH 29: Nathan Horton #18 of the Boston Bruins celebrates his goal in the third period against the Chicago Blackhawks on March 29, 2011 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Boston Bruins defeated the Chicago Blackhawks 3-0. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Boston Bruins forward Nathan Horton is still new when it comes to the NHL playoffs, but his persistence in Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning paid off, and now his team is a win away from the Stanley Cup Finals.
His effort, or lack thereof, in the first period of Monday night's 3-1 win over Tampa Bay made that very evident. Horton took two penalties bridging the first and second period -- one for interference and another for slashing -- in succession, putting the ever-dangerous Lightning power play to work, albeit without any success.
In spite of that, Horton has proved himself as a gamer in these playoffs, scoring two overtime winners, including the series-winning goal against Montreal and amassing six points in the four-game sweep of Philadelphia.
But against Tampa, Horton had struggled, tallying only a goal and two assists -- each of them in Game 2 -- while his line has regularly been bit by the invisible bug.
Claude Julien talked about it prior to Monday's game, noting that they "want to be difference makers every night" and "that's what we're hoping they're going to be [Monday night]."
When Horton went to the box twice in the span of 2:58, it was just another instance of playoff growing pains for the Welland, Ont. native who was playing in his 96th game of the year, when prior to six weeks ago had never played more than 82 games in any NHL season.
But just like the effervescent smile that never seems to leave Horton's face, the former Florida Panther has been persistent all season long. When goals weren't coming, he looked to make the pass; when passes weren't connecting he used the body to create space for his linemates; and when none of that worked, he wasn't exactly unafraid to drop the gloves to get his boys going.
And Monday night, after he got out of the box for the second time, coach Claude Julien left him on the ice with his regular line. Julien's supported Horton all year long, and once again his belief in the all-star winger was rewarded.
David Krejci won an attacking-zone faceoff to Milan Lucic, who moved the puck to the wall and found Horton high in the slot. A seeing-eye pass from Lucic got to his opposite wing right where he needed it, and Horton buried the shot -- the first time the Bruins had beaten Mike Smith all series long, snapping an 85:15 scoreless streak for the once-backup Tampa Bay netminder.
Horton's goal wasn't the game-winner -- that came some ten minutes later when Brad Marchand got behind Martin St. Louis and tapped in a beautiful pass from Patrice Bergeron on the strong-side wall -- but it was the goal they so badly needed.
The Bruins, after all, had at that point been held scoreless by Smith for nearly 70 minutes. Frustration was creeping up, as evidenced by Horton's sloppy penalties. And it wasn't just the Bruins who were frustrated; the fans at TD Garden booed them off the ice after the first period (a booing they surely deserved after being outshot 14-4), and the concern that the season might be over sooner than anyone wanted was starting to creep in.
But Horton found a way, just like he's done anytime his team needed a lift all year long. No thanks to his errors -- which he apologized to Julien for after the game -- the Bruins have a 3-2 series lead and a chance to win the Eastern Conference for the first time since 1990.
If he keeps finding a way to pick his team up, it may not be the last title they win this year.
Read more on the Eastern Conference Final at our Lightning vs. Bruins series hub. Get local coverage on the Bruins at SB Nation Boston and Stanley Cup of Chowder. Get local coverage on the Lightning at Raw Charge and SB Nation Tampa Bay.