When the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins met for the third and final time this season Saturday, both teams expected the type of close, physical contest that has exemplified their recent history – and one that could set a tone for a possible Eastern Conference Final rematch.
The Penguins came out hitting from the opening shift, with defenseman Brooks Orpik laying a big, open-ice check on the Bruins’ Loui Eriksson. Eriksson went down backwards on the play, suffering his second concussion in five weeks.
“I think the hit is a good hockey hit,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “The puck is going around the wall there, it takes a strange bounce, [Eriksson] touches the puck and it’s a good hit.”
Five minutes later, Boston enforcer Shawn Thornton challenged Orpik to answer for the hit with a fight, but Orpik declined, and Thornton went to the box for a roughing penalty that resulted in a power-play goal and 1-0 lead for the Penguins.
“I thought, [on the] first shift, Brooksie set the tempo,” said Penguins forward Brandon Sutter. “I’m not sure what the big problem was; it was a clean hit. He comes out and gets a big hit like that and gets us going. They’re a physical team and we expect [tough] games against them.”
Shortly after that, Pittsburgh’s Deryk Engelland and Boston’s Milan Lucic scrapped. The Bruins tied the contest midway through the period and, less than a minute later, the rapidly escalating emotions came to a head.
Bruins agitator Brad Marchand went down after getting tangled up with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. Skating up ice during the sequence, Pittsburgh forward James Neal clipped Marchand in the head with his knee.
“Marchand went down as Neal was skating by, and [Neal] didn’t really make an attempt to get out of the way,” Bylsma said.
Neal, who will face a phone disciplinary hearing with NHL Player Safety head Brendan Shanahan on Monday, couldn’t disagree. “He’s already going down and I guess I need to try to avoid him,” Neal said. “I’m going by him [and] I don’t get out of the way. I need to be more careful and get my knee out of the way. I’m not trying to hit him in the head or injure him or anything like that.”
That’s when Thornton decided to take care of unfinished business with Orpik, grabbing him out of a scrum, pulling him to the ice and punching him twice in the head. Orpik was motionless on the ice for several minutes, attended to by doctors and trainers and, eventually, stretchered off and taken to Massachusetts General Hospital.
“Clearly they took exception to [the hit], they put people on the ice to take exception to it and the events that ensued, you saw,” Bylsma said.
“[I’ve] never really seen anything like that,” Neal said. “I thought the confrontation was over after [Thornton] asked to fight a few times and kept going after [Orpik].”
“It’s hard to focus on hockey when you see a teammate and friend just laying there. He’s motionless; you don’t know what’s wrong with him,” Crosby said. “The whole building was pretty quiet. I think they realized it was pretty vicious.”
Coming out of the penalty box from his two-minute kneeing penalty, Neal found himself wide open on the left wing to take a pass and wrist a shot past Bruins netminder Tuuka Rask. The Penguins’ 2-1 lead held up through the remainder of a physical and often ugly game that included 67 hits, Marchand cutting Penguins forward Chris Kunitz with a high stick, and the Bruins losing center Chris Kelly to a broken ankle on a slash from Pittsburgh’s Pascal Dupuis.
In the end, the Bruins stunned the Penguins with two goals in the final 1:29 – with captain Zdeno Chara burying the game-winner with just 13 seconds remaining in regulation – and sent the team back to Pittsburgh without so much as a point.
“We did a pretty good job until the end,” Crosby said. “They pulled their goalie, put some pressure scoring on that chance, and [it was] pretty frustrating to give up that last one there with 13 seconds left. We made a couple mistakes that hurt us.”
“When it’s late in the game and they’re down by a goal, you know they’re going to come hard,” Sutter said. “That’s just one of those games on the road against a good team that you’ve got to win. When you’re up by a goal late like that, you’ve got to find a way to close it out.”
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury didn’t look happy with his letdown at the end, but the area around his crease was also left exposed by some tired Penguins defenders. Blueliner Kris Letang was on the ice for both late goals, wrapping up an evening where he played more than half the game at 31:18.
“I think the biggest factor in tonight’s game is that you’re down a man very early in the contest, and that’s really the most difficult part – a lot more minutes for a lot more guys,” Bylsma said. “I think we’re very capable back there with the guys we had tonight; it’s just a lot more minutes, a lot more grind on those guys.”
Orpik, who was released from the hospital after a battery of tests and returned home with the Penguins Saturday night, has a concussion at a minimum. He’ll join Paul Martin (fractured tibia) and Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) on the shelf, leaving Pittsburgh without three of its top four defensemen for the foreseeable future.
“It’s going to be a wait and see on how long Brooks is going to be out, and we’re still probably another two, two-and-a-half weeks before we get anybody back from injury,” Bylsma said.
Pittsburgh will likely also lose Neal to a multiple-game suspension, a significant blow to a team with four forwards already on injured reserve and Neal’s linemate, Evgeni Malkin, day-to-day with a lower-body injury. Malkin and Neal have been the league’s top two scorers since Neal returned from injury November 9, with the latter racking up 20 points (10G, 10A) in 15 games.
Thornton, who will meet with Shanahan in person, will likely sit for more. The Bruins forward, who has no prior disciplinary record with the league, has gotten to know Orpik, who is from Boston and skated with him during last year’s NHL lockout, and was emotional in his postgame comments.
“I made a mistake; I’m aware of it,” Thornton said. “I’ve been told that I’ll be having a hearing and it’s hard for me to say much more than it’s not my intention [to injure]. I feel awful; I felt sick all game.
“It’s always my job to defend my teammates, but I’ve prided myself for a long time to stay within the lines. It’s hard for me to talk about it right now. I can’t say I’m sorry enough and I’m sure I’ll be criticized for saying it, but it’s true. I hope he’s all right; I heard that he’s conscious and talking, and I’m happy to hear that.”