- James Murphy, Bruins reporter, ESPNBoston.com
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BOSTON -- Nathan Horton endured seven NHL seasons without the playoffs as a Florida Panther before being traded to the Boston Bruins last June. When the postseason rolled around earlier this month, Bruins team president and Hall of Famer Cam Neely made sure to pull the winger aside and give him some advice on how to handle his first playoff experience.
"Well I just -- for me, it was more about just enjoy what it's like to play in Boston in a hockey city that has a huge fan base and is passionate about their team and their players, and [I told Horton to] just kind of feed off of that and enjoy it, really," Neely said after Horton scored his second playoff overtime winner to propel the Bruins to a dramatic 4-3 victory over the Canadiens on Wednesday night and to a rematch with the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals. "This is a fun game. It is a sport, it's a game; it's not fun all the time, but for the most part, it should be fun."
Even through lengthy dry spells when he couldn't find the back of the net, Horton never stopped smiling or looking on the bright side, and always expressed his gratitude to be on a playoff-contending team. And he is most definitely enjoying his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
After Game 7, a beaming Horton described what it felt like to help the Bruins franchise win its first Game 7 since 1994 and beat the hated rival Canadiens after trailing 2-0 in the quarterfinal series.
"I'm really enjoying it," Horton said. "Every day is exciting. Every day is a new day, but it feels good, definitely, to get used to this, continue winning. That's what it's all about. I haven't been in the playoffs and I've had a lot of time to think about it, so it's definitely better than I imagined. It's fun to be here, and it's exciting."
But Horton admitted he never envisioned it being this exciting, or becoming a clutch playoff performer in only seven games.
"You know, just getting to the playoffs, that's what I was thinking about," Horton said, referring to the day he was dealt from Florida. "Again, this is like a dream come true, and for us to win in Game 7 is pretty special. But we still have a long way to go, a lot of work ahead of us."
Bruins coach Claude Julien -- who went to bat for Horton on numerous occasions when the media and fans called him out during his scoreless stretches -- couldn't have been happier to see a player whom many consider one of the nicest on the team be rewarded for his hard work and determination.
This is like a dream come true, and for us to win in Game 7 is pretty special. But we still have a long way to go, a lot of work ahead of us.
"-- Bruins winger Nathan Horton
"When you score two overtime goals in a series, you understand how big a piece of the puzzle this guy's been for our hockey club," Julien said. "I thought he had -- as we've talked about this year -- he had a really good start the first month and then he cooled down a little bit. But what I saw from Nathan at the half point on until the end was that it was a guy who really became a lot more consistent in his game. His preparation was good. Whether he scored or not, he was battling; he played hard. So I think he's really grown a lot in the second half, and right now, scoring those two big goals, he's been saving it for seven years, right? So he had a lot of winning goals in him."
Julien also saw Horton use his 6-foot-2, 229-pound frame more and become a physical presence. To Julien, the scoring and that physical edge go hand in hand.
"The second half, he's just been, you know, a guy coming to play hard every night. And when you play hard, you're more physical," Julien said. "But that's part of the thing that's made him a better player."
Neely knows the playoffs are when players really get noticed and judged in their careers, and he's happy that Horton has been able to embrace that to become a clutch performer.
"I mean, it's his first playoffs, he's been in the league a handful of years and he was excited about getting to Boston, excited about playing in the playoffs," Neely said of Horton. "He's scored a couple big goals for us. So I think if you look at hockey players' careers, the first thing you kind of look for is their playoff career more so than their regular-season career. And I think guys understand that and they know that. They know what playoff hockey is all about. They get excited about playoff hockey. And Nate is no different. He's come in here and held his game and scored big goals for us."
Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas concurred.
"It's awesome," Thomas said. "I said last time [Horton scored the game-winner], it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. But he's making a name for himself as a big-game player, and that's great to see.
"For a guy who has never had the opportunity to play in the playoffs, he's making a reputation. We wouldn't have won this series without him."
James Murphy covers the Bruins for ESPNBoston.com.