BOSTON – The 2019 Stanley Cup Final is just two games old, and already two players have been checked with such force, they haven’t returned.
Wednesday’s 3-2 St. Louis Blues overtime victory was a gritty, thrilling, dangerous reminder that big-boy hockey is alive and well.
It will rip your helmet off, run your goalie, cut you open, mock you to your face, and flirt with suspension. And it just might help you throw a 34.5-pound hunk of silver into the air.
“It was a man’s game. It was an in-your-face battle of the wills. And they got the better of it,” said Boston banger David Backes. The former Blues captain can now be seen shouldering his old teammates to the mat.
“If we were all friends smiling out there, then we wouldn’t be doing the game justice. This is the pinnacle of the game. This is for the ultimate prize. I don’t think there’s anybody that’s enjoying anyone on the opposition at the moment. That’s the way the hockey game should be. I think there should be an element of desperation on both teams’ part. It’s the Stanley Cup Final.”
That it is, and with the Blues digging in something beautiful/ugly for the franchise’s first-ever Round 4 victory, the animosity is real.
On Monday, it was Torey Krug’s helmetless steamrolling of Blues teenager Robert Thomas that commanded the most replays.
On Wednesday — at least as far as the NHL’s department of player safety is concerned — it will be Oskar Sundqvist’s first-period smashing of an awkwardly-twisting Matt Grzelcyk face-first into the glass. (No word on a hearing yet, but the DOPS is taking a close look.)
After getting crumpled in the same corner where his father, John, a longtime member of the TD Garden’s ice crew, watches the games, Grzelcyk hit the deck and stayed down for a few minutes before leaving the match on his feet, with some assistance from a trainer. The defenceman was taken to the hospital for further evaluation.
Sundqvist was given a penalty for boarding on the play, one of 10(!) minors the Blues have committed in this series. He refused to comment on the check.
“I don’t think that’s a hit we want in our game. It’s from behind, elevated, into his head, into the glass. If that’s a two-minute penalty, I think there’s going to be a shortage of defencemen in this series by the end of it,” Backes said.
“If I’m making that hit, I’m probably watching from the bleachers for a few, but we’ll see what happens with their player.”
Added Brad Marchand: “The video shows. We’ll see which way the media spins it.”
Vowing to drive more bodies to the paint, the Blues also committed two goalie interference infractions in this one, as both Sammy Blais and Jordan Schwartz knocked Conn Smythe favourite Tuukka Rask on his rear end and into his cage.
Zdeno Chara’s left arm was bleeding something gruesome when he blocked a shot to hold the lead in Game 1.
In Game 2, Tyler Bozak’s face was opened up by a Connor Clifton blade, and Joakim Nordstrom summoned a standing ovation by fearlessly throwing his body in front of Colton Parayko slappers. The evening’s best centre, Brayden Schenn, threw a game-high eight hits himself, and Marchand was spotted mocking Patrick Maroon with a cry-me-a-river gesture.
We should probably expect this mix irreverent venom and smashmouthery when ruthless Patriots coach Bill Belichick waves the Spoked B flag in the stands before puck drop and NFL owner Robert Kraft gets off his seat and twirls a rally towel to rile the locals mid-game.
Sure, skill is still very much on display — Vladimir Tarasenko’s second-effort backhand goal was a wow moment — but late May is no time for the faint of heart.
Through three rounds, the average NHL playoff game featured 51.5 hits.
Game 1 of the final brought 65 of them.
Game 2? Eighty-one, 50 by an unapologetic, resilient St. Louis squad that forechecked with aggression and bullied to the net according to a top-down identity that starts with coach Craig Berube.
“We’re a physical hockey team,” Berube said. “We’re going to play physical.”
Regardless of the legality of the Sundqvist hit, Grzelcyk’s early absence gave the Blues a distinct advantage.
Down to five D-men, the Bruins copped to fatigue, mental and otherwise.
Zdeno Chara, at age 42, needed to log 25:45 of ice time. Krug played 26 minutes, and Charlie McAvoy 27.
“We’re a pretty conditioned group, but it does play a factor to not have his presence on the bench. He’s a positive, upbeat guy. He moves the puck really well,” Brandon Carlo said. “His presence is definitely missed.”
Without Grzelcyk’s clean breakout passes and 16 minutes of work, Cassidy figures the Bruins fell into trouble in their own end.
“Get our forwards going through the neutral zone is a strength of our game, so we lost some of that element,” Cassidy said. “I think it showed.”
The momentum has seesawed already, violently so.
The combatants now have two days to lick their wounds and prepare for the next battle.
Game 3 goes Saturday in St. Louis. It will be loud and angry, mean and wonderful.
“That’s what makes the Stanley Cup Final fun,” Marchand said. “It’s exciting. It’s competitive.”
Keep your head up.