It's hard to put a value on Nicklas Backstrom's head. After missing 40 games with a concussion, the Washington Capitals center was starting to look like his old self despite being back for just seven games.
So coach Dale Hunter was none too pleased when the Boston Bruins started going after Backstrom, targeting his head in post-whistle activity. Even as Backstrom was the one handed a match penalty for cross-checking Rich Peverley in the face in Monday's Game 3, Hunter defended the 24-year-old.
"I think he was just trying to protect his face. If you watch it, his stick's right in his eyes, and it's a dangerous play on their part," Hunter said Tuesday. "Every scrum, Nicky comes out with no helmet on, he gets blockered to the head by [goalie Tim] Thomas the game before. He's protecting his head. He just came off for 40 games. You have to protect your head. With his stick being in his face like that, it was a dangerous play on his part."
While Hunter railed against the Bruins for their actions against Backstrom, the Caps center was the one in front of NHL vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan for a hearing about the cross-check at the final buzzer that drew a match penalty and an automatic one-game suspension. That one-game suspension was upheld Tuesday night, with Shanahan calling Backstrom's conduct "excessive and reckless."
"Peverly raises stick in a close proximity to Backstrom's face. Backstrom reacts by thrusting his stick forward in a cross-checking motion, striking Peverley in the visor," Shanahan said in the video announcing the suspension. "Even though Backstrom might've felt threatened by Peverley's stick, the fact is, Peverley is in a defensive stance and it is Backstrom who is approaching him."
Despite being used to playing without Backstrom — as he was out from January through March — losing him in the playoffs, especially in a series the Caps trail 2-1, hurts. He scored the game-winning goal in overtime in Game 2 and has been one of the most dynamic players on the ice throughout.
But Monday night, Boston players knocked Backstrom off his game a bit, leading Bruins center Chris Kelly to say he understood the "frustration" shown on the cross-check.
From the Caps' perspective, it was skittishness on Backstrom's part.
"Nicky's had a concussion this season, and there's been a couple times where they've gone after his head and grabbed him and thrown him to the ice," right wing Troy Brouwer said. "So I can understand why Nicky is a little bit nervous about when sticks come up in his head."
Hunter made it clear he thought Backstrom would not be suspended because Peverley's stick came up first. It did not turn out in the Caps' favor; figure on Mike Knuble or Jeff Halpern replacing him in the Game 4 lineup.
Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber got nothing more than a $2,500 fine for slamming Detroit Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg's head into the glass, and New York Rangers forward Carl Hagelin and Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw drew three-game bans for their hits.
The Caps will have to adjust and prepare to play without Backstrom, but the Bruins won't change much.
"It's not the first time this series somebody's taken a cross-check in the face. There's nothing we really can do," defenseman Greg Zanon said. "We just prepare for Game 4; whether he's in the lineup or out of the lineup, we're going to [take] care of ourselves to do what we can to hopefully come out with a win."
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