Fourth-line mashers Marcus Foligno and Joel Eriksson Ek sandwiched all six feet, eight inches of Tyler Myers with their collective 434 pounds at top speed, forechecking the panel looser than postseason penalty standards.
So, when play halted to allow a fix-it crew onto the ice, the sides returned to their respective corners like prize fighters thirsty for a quick breather, a Gatorade squirt and possibly a Vaseline wash.
Eighty-two regular-season games in the modern NHL can lull a hockey fan into a false sense of safety, like a rope-a-dope. We won’t blame you if you forgot what hockey looks like when all checks are finished, goalies are stood up for, whistles get tucked and hate is the new love.
“It’s where the bad blood begins,” said Blake Wheeler, who not so long ago fought his own teammate during practice.
“That’s kind of the way it looks in the playoffs. The first period’s a bit helter-skelter, and guys are laying the wood a little bit. The second period was a little more physical. Buff with a huge hit. They had some guys make some big hits. That’s the way it’s going to be.”
After captaining his group to the first playoff victory in franchise history, the veteran Wheeler said he knew nasty would be on the menu. Teenager Patrik Laine did not.
“I didn’t expect that. It was a lot more physical than I thought,” Laine said. “But I like that.”
Going by their regular-season averages, a Jets-Wild tilt should feature 39 hits. This one boasted 70, several of which could make the overnight highlight loops. It hurt to watch.
Dustin Byfuglien, essentially a balled-up knuckle on blades, rammed a clean shoulder into Eriksson Ek that fired the all-white mob into a frenzy and his victim (temporarily) into the dressing room. Buff with a huge hit:
Devan Dubnyk later dummied Mathieu Perreault to the ice as he rushed the crease:
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) April 11, 2018
“You never get a game like this [in the regular season]. You’ll never get to know how hard it actually is until you play it,” said Jets defenceman Joe Morrow, who drew on all of five playoff games last spring with the Bruins for wisdom.
“I knew right away that you need to come out with a hot start and you need to play physical and strong. You can’t let your guard down. If something hurts, you can’t show it. It’s just a different beast.”
One game drilled home what a war of attrition it is to win 16.
The Wild arrived down their best defender in Ryan Suter and jolted Jared Spurgeon back into action after being sidelined for four weeks with a torn hamstring, forcing Mathew Dumba to log a silly 30:03 of ice time.
A punching bag all night, Perreault appeared to injure his shoulder after getting clipped by Mikko Koivu in open ice and tried to battle through a few more shifts before eventually being slammed around to the point of TKO. There is no update on his undisclosed upper-body injury.
“He brings so much energy to the team, so much skill,” Morrow said. “It’s sad to see him get knocked out in the first game of the playoffs.”
With first blood drawn, it’s only getting rougher from here — and that plays into Winnipeg’s wheelhouse. The Wild ranked dead last in hits this season, averaging fewer than 17 per night. The Jets threw more than double that (39) Wednesday night.
So how does this sudden amplification in ruggedness toy with a player’s psyche?
“It keeps you focused in the moment. You know you have to play hard and you’re going to get hit and you have to stay in the zone. If you’re not paying attention, you’re going to get hurt,” Morrow explains.
“I didn’t grow up in an era where it was a large, large part of the game, but it still makes such a gratuitous difference in the momentum. I thoroughly enjoy it. I think it’s awesome.”
As does chanting, towel-waving, win-thirsty Winnipeg.
“It just adds to the emotion to it and gets the crowd into it,” said Morrow, still riding high off a good ol’ fashioned Western Conference clash.
“Seven games in the playoffs as a series is excruciating on your body, and I think both teams know that and understand that. I think that’s why the game turns to be such a physical game. We’ve got the size and the grit for that.
“If they want to play that game, we can play it all night long.”