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Tough love: Milan Lucic is older, wiser, but no less frightening

Oilers enforcer Milan Lucic

Jim Rogash/Getty Images

He is not the man he used to be. Milan Lucic is older and wiser. He is not the fellow who taunted fans in Montreal from the penalty box a few years ago, making an obscene gesture and pretending to hoist the Stanley Cup over his head. He is not the same guy who became engaged in a late-night scuffle once outside a poutine joint in Vancouver.

A man changes with time and circumstances. Lucic was close to his dad, and was shocked in 2015 when Dobro Lucic killed himself. His father was an immigrant from Serbia who came to Canada when he was 27. He was a longshoreman, an occupation every bit as tough and gritty as a hockey enforcer.

It is not to say that Milan Lucic is softer now, but he is more mature. He remains the most frightening player in the NHL, and has helped Connor McDavid enjoy an MVP-calibre season. The Art Ross Trophy winner is rarely roughed up, and that is because of the fear that Lucic, his hulking 235-pound bodyguard, will retaliate. He will, but not without thought.

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"When I came into the league, I kind of knew the way to make a name for myself, and for me the best way was to stick up for myself and my teammates," Lucic said Tuesday after the Oilers practised at Rogers Place for their first-round playoff game on Wednesday against San Jose. "You don't think of much when you enter the league at 19 or 20. You are full of piss and vinegar and single and living your dream.

"Now it is 10 years later and I have a wife and two kids, and I have a better understanding of what's good and what's bad. Of course, things change."

Lucic picks and chooses his fights now. He went 20 games at one point this season without a penalty, and is barely in the top five on the team in penalty minutes. He finished the regular season with 23 goals, three more than Taylor Hall scored in New Jersey. Lucic had 50 points, including nine in the past 10 games as the Oilers pushed their way up the standings. He had a natural hat trick – three straight goals – when Edmonton dispatched with the Sharks last week in San Jose. Before that, with the Oilers trailing 1-0, he had an extended slugfest with Micheal Haley.

"We are lucky to have him at this time of year," Oilers' coach Todd McLellan says.

"Milan's completely, emotionally attached to this group now and his play has reflected that. He has stepped up to the plate."

Lucic has fought only six times, and has deferred when opportunities presented themselves. He had a quiet stretch early on, but has finished with a flourish. That is in keeping with his stature as a veteran and assistant captain. Combined, the Oiler players have only participated in 342 postseason games. Lucic has been in 102, and won a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2010-11.

"Maybe I was pressing a little too hard in December and January," Lucic says.

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The Oilers announced his signing as a free agent with great fanfare on Canada Day. He was one of the biggest names available, and it was a sign that things were markedly improved when Edmonton was able to get him. At the time, he said he came because of McDavid – that a guy only gets to play with a talent like that perhaps once in a lifetime. He was gregarious and accommodating and his wife, Brittany, was there with him. Together, they have two little girls.

Lucic is not what you expect. There is much more to him than the tough guy on the ice. He is friendly and outgoing and doesn't give easy answers during interviews. He talks from his heart and commands respect from his teammates. He has been there and done that, and done it well.

In his mid-teens, McDavid made a video and imagined himself playing on a dream line with Lucic. Reality is better than fiction.

"His is such a great voice in the dressing room," McDavid said Tuesday. "He knows what it takes to do this, and we know guys on other teams aren't taking liberties with me or any of our other young players."

Louie DeBrusk, a brawler when he played with the Oilers and three other teams in the NHL, says there is nobody in the league that can compare with Lucic.

"He is the type of player that every tough guy wants to be," says DeBrusk, now a broadcaster. "He is one of the toughest guys in the league, but he is going to score 30 goals one of these years for the Oilers.

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"I can't think of another guy in the NHL that is like him."

It hasn't always been that way for Lucic. He remembers breaking in with the Bruins in 2007, and playing only limited minutes for about half of the season. He credits Marc Savard and David Krejci for taking him under wing, and making him a better, more confident player.

"They taught me about playing smarter and being more efficient," Lucic says.

You can see that in him as an older player. He is 29, and the playoffs are only a day away. The Oilers are in them for the first time in nearly 11 years. Edmonton won 47 games this season, its most since 50 in 1986-87. The Oilers came within an eyelash of unseating Anaheim atop the Pacific Division.

"There was a lot of uncertainty about the Oilers this year," Lucic says. "Coming in, I thought we would most likely be pushing for a wild-card spot rather than the division lead. So I can't really say that I saw it coming.

"A lot of has to do with Connor, but other guys have stepped up their game, too. It shows that there is a will here to win."

He says he has been telling his teammates that if they keep playing as well as they have, they can go far into the postseason.

"It's the first time for many of them, so it is definitely going to be a new experience," he says. "But even for a guy who has been there, it is still exciting. You always look forward to this time of year.

"I am excited to see what Connor is capable of in the playoffs. He took his game to another level at the end of the season. I am fortunate to call him my teammate and am excited to be at his side and be part of this journey with him."

He is not the man he used to be, but in one way, Lucic is.

"At the end, what I focus on is keeping that love I had for the game as an eight- or nine-year-old kid," he says. "I remind myself of that every day."

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