- Chris Forsberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- There's still plenty of hockey to be played in the Stanley Cup finals, none of which will involve Bruins forward Nathan Horton. But if Boston is able to complete this comeback and hoist Lord Stanley's trophy for the first time since 1972, Horton deserves consideration for the Conn Smythe trophy, because this series hasn't been the same since the scary hit that left him with a severe concussion and ended his season Monday night.
Rallying around their fallen teammate, the Bruins have decidedly out-hit, outscored and outplayed the Canucks from the instant Aaron Rome sent Horton crashing to the ice little more than five minutes into Monday's Game 3.
The Bruins scored eight of the nine goals that night in a lopsided Game 3 triumph, then, with Horton's No. 18 ever present throughout the arena Wednesday, blanked the Canucks, 4-0, in Game 4 to even this series at two games apiece as it shifts back to Vancouver.
"If we really want to make Nathan happy, we know what we have to do to make him happy, and that's to win the Stanley Cup," Bruins coach Claude Julien said before Wednesday's win.
How appropriate, then, that the fuse was lit Wednesday by the last -- and only -- Bruin to etch his name on the Smythe trophy. Bobby Orr, who garnered the award in 1970 and 1972, served as honorary team captain and ignited the crowd by waving a banner with Horton's No. 18 on it before the start of the game.
Horton's jersey was as popular a wardrobe choice as Orr's vintage No. 4 on this night. Everywhere you turned there was another sign in support of Horton -- from an "Entering Nathan Nation" to "Do It for Nathan" to the understated "Get well, Nathan," it wasn't hard to see Boston rallying around the 26-year-old center.
In the final moments of the game, the crowd chanted "Na-than Hor-ton" while serenading a brilliant effort at both ends from a Boston team that has taken its play and physicality to a level it was seemingly unable to reach before Horton went down.
Since the Horton incident, the Bruins have outhit the Canucks, 60-53; Boston has outscored Vancouver, 12-1; and it's the Bruins that will pack the momentum for the long trip to Canada's west coast and Friday's pivotal Game 5.
What's more, Boston got a heck of a sendoff as Horton made a surprise appearance in the Bruins' locker room after Wednesday's win.
"When I personally got to see him in the locker room, I was incredibly happy and it gave me a big boost," admitted Bruins netminder Tim Thomas. "He was there to pass the [team's MVP] jacket on. We didn't pass the jacket on the last game with him gone. I think the team would have been happy leaving it with Horty for the rest of this series, but he wanted to give it away and keep the tradition going that we'd started."
Horton earned that jacket after potting the winner in a Game 7 triumph over the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference finals. Remember that when considering his candidacy for the Smythe award, as it goes to the most valuable player of the postseason and Horton produced 8 goals and 9 assists in 21 games before the injury. He netted three winners and was plus-11 for the postseason.
And for the last two games, he has provided a mental boost the Bruins desperately needed with their title hopes slipping away.
"It's had some impact because Horty is a great guy and he's very well loved on this team," said Thomas. "Watching him going down, we want to finish what we started for him. To be honest with you, we want
to do it all for ourselves and for each other.
"You have to have that drive or you probably wouldn't have arrived in
the finals where we're at right now. So it's had some impact, but it would be hard to put a number on a percentage of how much of an impact it's had."
That's a sentiment echoed by Bruins forward Shawn Thornton, who hesitated to suggest Boston might never have flipped the switch had it not been for the Horton incident.
"I'm not speculating on shoulda, coulda, but I'm happy with the way we've played the last couple games and hopefully we can continue that," said Thornton.
"You want to play well for a guy like [Horton] because he's such a good teammate. It's been a pretty good hockey series and I love Nathan Horton and feel bad that he's hurt, I really do. But I just don't want to see that be the defining moment, a hit like that shouldn't be a defining moment of a great hockey series."
It doesn't have to be the defining moment. But it's undeniably one of the reasons Boston has evened this series. And the electricity of Boston's postgame locker room after Horton's surprise appearance spoke volumes about the impact he continues to have despite not being able to be on the ice.
The Bruins share the TD Garden with the Boston Celtics, whose season motto was, "It's all about 18." Who knew it would live on well after the Boston hoopsters failed in their own quest to secure a world title this season.
With no one certain when the next time the Celtics will play a game (a lockout looms this summer in the NBA), they ought to hand off the motto to their Garden roommates. What's more, there's a gigantic No. 18 sign on a main road leading to the Celtics' practice facility in Waltham. Someone should go fetch the sign, touch it up with yellow and black paint, and hang it near the Garden. A reminder of what Boston is playing for.
The Bruins have evened this series at two games apiece, and it's in large part because of No. 18.
Chris Forsberg covers the Celtics and occasionally the Red Sox and Patriots for ESPNBoston.com.
Ever since the Game 3 hit on Nathan Horton, the B's have been on a mission.