It’s been nearly two months since an errant skate blade nearly robbed Jakub Lauko of his NHL career — and most importantly, his left eye.
Avoiding disaster by mere inches, Lauko only missed seven games.
He returned to the ice on Nov. 11, suiting up with a cage due to fractures near his eye socket that still needed time to heal.
Since then, the 23-year-old winger has appeared in 14 games with Boston, tasked with injecting some straight-line speed and snarl into the Bruins’ checking unit.
But Tuesday’s home game against the Minnesota Wild marked a new milestone for Lauko.
He’s been cleared to play for over a month, eventually shedding his cage at the start of November. But with his stitches removed and his eye fractures fully remedied, Lauko received the all-clear to finally drop the gloves when needed in a game setting.
And given the pugnacious forward’s knack for conducting chaos, Lauko wasn’t planning on waiting very long before throwing a few hooks.
“It was the first week I got the green light to fight,” Lauko said. “So I went into this game — the first time that I could do my thing and play my game. Obviously, when you can fight, you can just go around, run around, trying to hit everyone. So this was the first game that I could play the way I wanted to.”
For the first time in a long time, Lauko looked like himself during Boston’s eventual 4-3 overtime loss to the Wild — blocking two shots, nearly reeling off a lacrosse goal, and landing a few heavy punches against Minnesota’s Connor Dewar in just 8:39 of ice time.
“I do think it was his best game,” Jim Montgomery said of Lauko’s play on Tuesday. “Just because of his intensity on pucks. He was physical. I think he had at least three big hits that I remember. And I thought it was the fourth line’s best game in a long time and it was much needed for us. It helped us.”
Any prescribed tentativeness in Lauko’s game was shaken out as soon as Minnesota opened the scoring at 7:44 in the opening period. Just four seconds after Marcus Johansson lit the lamp for the visitors, Lauko dropped the gloves with Dewar off the ensuing faceoff.
Lauko ultimately dropped Dewar by way of a flurry of punches, beckoning more cheers from a riled-up Garden crowd with a few yells as he made his way to the sin bin.
With Lauko still in the penalty box, David Pastrnak lit the lamp by way of a quick wrist shot at 11:29 in the first for the equalizer.
“It’s a thing that gets you going, gets the guys going,” Lauko said of letting his emotions out after his tilt. “So it’s a lot of emotion at the time. So yeah, I kind of just let it out. It’s been boiling in me for two months, so I just wanted to let it out… I think we scored right after, so I think it was a job well done.”
Even though Lauko’s primary role on Boston’s lineup is to inject energy rather than pepper the net, he nearly stamped his spot for the NHL’s goal of the year later in the opening period.
After taking a puck from Brandon Carlo near Minnesota’s net, Lauko came within inches of beating Wild goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a lacrosse goal.
“We did this some competition with a Czech league back home. They told me to do it six times in a row, I did it six times in a row,” Lauko said of his familiarity with the gravity-defying move. “I think with an opportunity like that, [if it] happens in the game, I’ll try it.
“I should have taken it a little bit further, because I hit the knob [of Fleury’s stick] and just kind of slipped out. It’s not a hard thing when you know how to do it. It’s just hard to find the right opportunity to do it. And it was a good opportunity for doing it this time, but unfortunately, didn’t [go] in.”
Even with Lauko’s highlight-reel tally snuffed out, Boston’s fourth line made the most of their limited reps against Minnesota.
The case could be made that the Bruins should have carved out more shifts for the trio of Lauko, Johnny Beecher, and Oskar Steen in the third period, with Boston relinquishing another late lead en route to an overtime loss.
“We had a meeting with Monty this morning… He thought we’ve been playing okay, but not as good as we can be,” Beecher said. “We just wanted to come out and play fast and hard. I mean, we’re not going out there expecting to score 60 goals this season.”
Boston’s ability to string together wins over a steady rate will revolve more around finishing ability in the middle-six — as well as much-needed tweaks to a defensive structure letting far too many Grade-A looks sprout up near the netfront.
But a re-energized Lauko on a tenacious fourth-line unit is a welcome sight for a Bruins team in need of a jolt during these sleepy stretches of an 82-game season.
“I think we did what we were supposed to do, we played physical and played fast,” Lauko said. “So we just need to keep working on it.”
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