ST. PAUL, Minn – “Right in the neck.”
Eric Staal is explaining where Winnipeg Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey hammered him with a plank of graphite when the 6-foot-4 centre had the nerve to drift into the slot during a rare power play in a raucous Game 4.
After absorbing Morrissey’s vicious stick — what Devan Dubnyk called “a cheap play” — Staal went directly to the bench to seek a trainer’s attention.
“I’m the tallest guy on the ice. He cross-checked me in the neck. There’s not much more you can say,” Staal went on, his club now potentially 60 minutes from elimination. “Everyone saw it. I don’t know how no one with stripes saw it, but that’s besides itself. It is what it is.”
What it is is the penultimate death blow to the Wild, now down 3-1 in the series with two of the next three games (if necessary) in hockey’s toughest road building and the standard of the next tilt’s officiating is anyone’s guess.
“It cost us the game,” Wild coach Bruce Boudreau said. “My take is, it’s the same take that everybody in the building saw it as the refs looked at it and they decided not to call it because we were already on the power play.
“This was a 1-0 game that should’ve been a 0-0 game going into overtime at this stage.”
One missed whistle may not have been the difference, but Josh Morrissey was certainly a difference-maker: good, good and ugly.
Game 4, the tightest game of the series thus far, spun on succession of events and they all involved Morrissey’s hockey stick.
Minutes after escaping penalty for his shot on Staal, Morrissey fed a smart, soft entry pass after a Wild zone clear that gave forwards Mark Scheifele and Kyle Connor just enough time to swing back onside, and re-attack.
Those two finished off a pretty give-and-go that ended with Scheifele one-timing a puck in tight top-shelf on Devan Dubnyk with a scant 29 seconds remaining in the first frame.
“That line was really buzzing the whole night, but especially on that shift. They chipped it out. I was able to knock it down,” Morrissey explained. “Something we talk about is a quick-strike attack the other way before they can get their gap and get set up. I just tried to make a little area pass and it was just about perfect. My curling’s not bad.”
If his bludgeoning of Staal was a problem, this was poetry.
It was the type of subtle little touch, captain Blake Wheeler says, that should rank the understated 23-year-old sophomore among the NHL’s “elite” defencemen.
“So much confidence and patience to allow us to tag up. The vision there, to see where their team was, to see the middle of the ice open… there’s potential for an odd-man break [against us],” Wheeler said. “I don’t know how many guys can make that play, but we sure are lucky to have a guy who can.”
Then he made another.
Wild winger Nino Niederreiter was busting off the wing for a partial breakaway that would’ve tied the game, but Morrissey zipped back and picked off the puck with a stick check that erased arguably the Wild’s best shot at tying the game.
“Nino has a breakaway, and it’s Morrissey that breaks it up. He should be out of the game,” Boudreau said, trying to stifle his fury. “I can’t believe…Still a little heated about it, but I got to watch what I say. But [the refs] were looking right at it and they told us they didn’t see it, so you make up your minds.”
Morrissey, whom coach Paul Maurice calls one of the cleanest Jets, insists the cross-check was purely accidental and apologized to Staal.
“I’m in the middle of the game, why would I want an apology?” Staal said. “I’m all for playing hard. I love it. It’s part of the game, but that wasn’t a good play.”
Maurice may have planted an owe-us-one seed in the officials’ minds when he suggested Marcus Foligno should’ve been punished for colliding with Tyler Myers (now injured) in Game 3. Earlier in the day, Boudreau called out Maurice’s protests as gamesmanship.
“[Morrissey] is about as clean a player as we have on our hockey club all year. He certainly wasn’t looking to send a message or anything like that,” Maurice said. “It was a missed call. And we’ve got ones we wanted last game that didn’t happen.”
Added Wheeler: “Certainly no intent there. You go to the net at this time of year, you’re going to get some cross-checks.”
Morrissey himself chalked up the neck check to competition, the same visceral approach that has already robbed this big-boy series of three key players (Tyler Myers, Matthieu Perreault, Zach Parise) and sent a handful more down the tunnel for repairs. Playoffs.
“I try to pride myself on playing the game hard, playing honest. I’ve never been suspended in my life, and it was a complete accident,” Morrissey said. “I wasn’t even looking when I made the initial move. I would never try to do that to anyone on purpose.
“They’ve been scoring a lot of goals on their power play from that slot area, and we were focusing on competing hard in that area tonight—getting sticks, getting them out of there because they’ve had success with tips.”
Says Wheeler, noting Morrissey’s ability to erase chances and kick-start offence: “He’s got the best stick on the team.”
Or the worst, depending on the shade of your sweater.