It should have been a feel good comeback win for the Boston Bruins, who vanquished the Pittsburgh Penguins and won the season series by taking the last two of the three regular season meetings between the two Eastern Conference titans.
David Krejci and Zdeno Chara scored two goals within 1:16 of each other in the in the final 90 seconds of the third period in the 3-2 victory over Pittsburgh at TD Garden, and once again guys like Krejci, Chara and Milan Lucic showed a championship’s unwillingness to go easy into that good night. Coming off a frustrating defeat at the end of the Montreal Canadiens 48 hours earlier, it should have been exactly what the hockey doctor ordered.
But instead it was marred by some brutally uncomfortable violence in the first period: Loui Eriksson was done after the first shift of the game with his second concussion in less than two months, Brooks Orpik was rendered unconscious on the Garden ice before being wheeled off on a stretcher and both Shawn Thornton and James Neal are facing lengthy suspensions for showing wanton disregard toward the safety of their fellow players.
Both teams clearly wanted to make a statement in their final regular season matchup with another playoff meeting likely, and that statement left a mess that the NHL is now going to be forced to clean up.
It didn’t help matters that referees Brad Meier and Gord Dwyer left the game spin completely out of their control with a series of missed chances to calm things down in the first period.
“There’s two teams here that have to be honest, and say it’s not the kind of hockey you want to see in the first period. There were some people that are injured, and we don’t want to see those kind of injuries…it’s as simple as that,” said Claude Julien. “It takes two to tango, as you know. If one team is saying, ‘It’s not my fault,’ then they obviously have to look in the mirror or look at the tape, and see there’s two teams that are responsible for what happened tonight.
“We have to take responsibility and the League will deal with it, and go from there. Those are unfortunate incidents when you see guys getting injured; that’s called Eriksson and it’s also called [Brooks] Orpik. Those are two injuries that you don’t like to see in our game.”
One can’t possibly excuse Shawn Thornton for his regrettable actions. Executing a slew foot on Orpik during a stoppage in play, and then pounding the Pittsburgh defenseman repeatedly in the head, while down on the ice, until he lost consciousness is much closer to assault than a hockey play.
Thornton was understandably upset and remorseful following the game. He has spent his entire 15-year professional hockey career adhering to “The Code” as an honest enforcer, and has always prided himself on avoiding dirty hits intent to injure. But it was pretty clear watching Johnny Boychuk and Loui Eriksson seriously injured on hits in back-to-back games that Thornton tapped into his innate instinct to protect his teammates at all costs.
That caused No. 22 to snap, and cross the line into a place that’s going to earn him an 8-10 game suspension.
“I feel awful. It’s definitely not what I’d want to see, or what anybody would want to see,” said Thornton, with tears welling up in his eyes. “Obviously I made a mistake. I’m aware of it. It’s hard to say much more than it wasn’t my intention, I feel awful and I’ve felt sick for the entire game.
“It’s always my job to defend my teammates. But I’ve prided myself for a long time with staying in the line. I can’t say ‘I’m sorry’ enough. I’m sure I’ll be criticized for saying it, but it’s true. I hope [Orpik] is doing alright.”
While every player in the Bruins dressing room was clearly instructed to give the “I didn’t see what happened” answer when asked about the Thornton/Orpik incident, Jarome Iginla is in the unique position of having had both players as teammates.
“You definitely hate to see anybody leave the game and be taken off on stretchers. It’s hard, you know, we want to play hard, everyone wants to play hard, and you want to battle. Emotions run high and everything, but nobody’s looking for that result,” said Iginla. “Our last game with Johnny [Boychuk] – it takes a lot of wind out of everybody and the crowd. It’s something with [Brooks] Orpik tonight, and you just hope that nobody is seriously hurt.
“It’s an intense game, it’s a physical game and it’s an emotional game. As players, the dislike that you have on the ice and the want to win, nobody wishes that on any player and doesn’t want those situations. You know they’re unfortunate and they don’t want them to happen, and we wish the best for [everybody].”
Thornton will have an in-person hearing for his transgressions, and will suspended until he sits down with Brendan Shanahan for an inevitable suspension despite his squeaky clean record during 11 NHL seasons. James Neal will have a phone hearing with the NHL Player Safety Department, and continue to pretend he didn’t purposefully knee Brad Marchand in the head despite his own coach admitting he made no effort to get out of the way.
Orpik will undoubtedly return to good health in time, and then continue to take runs at opponents without even a hint of attempting to answer for those hits should characters like Thornton come calling. A simple, honest fight between Orpik and Thornton would have gone a long way toward defusing the whole situation, as would have a penalty on Orpik after he leveled Eriksson without the puck in the first shift of the game.
But none of that happened, and instead everybody is talking hits, concussions and suspensions.
“It kind of escalated to the point where I don’t think anybody is proud of what happened in this first period; both sides I would hope [aren’t proud],” said Julien. “So it’s one of those games that unfortunately you get off to that start, and it took a long time. To be honest with you, it was a real weird feeling throughout that whole game.
“Obviously we’re real happy that we were able to score those late goals and win this hockey game. But at the same time, it kind of got tarnished a little bit. It’s a real unfortunate situation. But you know what? The only thing I’m going to say is let’s not just look one way here. There’s a lot of blame to go around, and we all have to take responsibility for that.”
That responsibility will be paying the suspension price for their actions on the ice, and unfortunately both the Bruins and Penguins have supplemental discipline and head injuries to deal with the foreseeable future because both teams lost control in a gruesome, unsightly opening period.
You always wouldn’t even know it was one of the season’s best regular season finishes given what everybody was talking about afterward.