“Stuff happens in the playoffs,” Karl Alzner said Wednesday, after the Washington Capitals were done banging the puck around at Kettler Iceplex. Oh yes, stuff does. Lots of stuff. After-the-whistle stuff. Before-the-puck-is-dropped stuff. While-the-officials’-heads-are-turned stuff. And let’s not forget that old standby: after-the-game-is-over stuff.
“That’s what makes the game real hard,” Jay Beagle said. “Somebody gives you a cheap shot, and you want to punch him in the head. It’s an emotional game. But you have to skate away.”
In the playoffs, when the adrenaline is pumping double-time and so much is at stake, skating away is easier in the abstract than the reality. The frustration level, after all, can get pretty high, depending on how a series is going and what the officials are or aren’t calling. Once upon a time, Dale Hunter — now, of course, the Capitals‘ coach - let his emotions get the best of him after a goal by an opponent and splattered him against the boards, separating his victim’s shoulder. “Finishing my check” is what Hunter called it (before being socked with a 21-game suspension).
Nicklas Backstrom, the Caps’ most productive offensive player, got caught up in some of that “stuff” Monday night after time had run out in Game 3, a killer 4-3 loss to the Boston Bruins. Inserting himself into a tripping contest between Rich Peverley and Alex Ovechkin, Backstrom rattled Peverley’s visor with a vigorous cross-check that drew a match penalty.
It was hardly the worst crime against humanity you’ll ever see, especially considering the context: the Stanley Cup playoffs. Indeed, it was more the timing than anything else. If it had happened during the game, Backstrom would have spent two minutes in the time-out chair, and that would have been it. And if it had happened when Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s disciplinarian, wasn’t getting (deserved) grief for being too lenient with Nashville’s Shea Weber after a much more egregious episode, Nicky probably would have gotten off with a fine like Weber did.
But the first round of the playoffs has had just enough cartoonish violence, especially in the bare-knuckle match between the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, to necessitate a Laying Down of the Law. For all its brutish charm and atavistic appeal, hockey never looks worse than when “stuff” rages out of control. So examples had to be made — and Backstrom, one of several, will be a spectator Thursday night when his teammates hope to even the series at Verizon Center and avoid an elimination game Saturday in Boston.
The Capitals, naturally, are not pleased, and said as much in a brief statement. As everyone knows, Nicky missed 40 games this season with a concussion, and the feeling in the Washington locker room is that the Bruins have been paying an inordinate amount of attention to No. 19’s head - knocking off his helmet, smacking him (in the case of Tim Thomas) with a goalie’s blocker pad, that kind of “stuff.”
Since returning to the ice, Backstrom, you may have noticed, has been a bit feistier, more willing to mix it up. As Beagle put it, “A head injury is something you never want to go through again once you’ve had it. So you have to protect your head. He’s definitely been playing a grittier game.”
Still, Nicky termed his postgame lapse “stupid” — and, admittedly, a five-year veteran should know better, regardless of the circumstances. By taking a pop at Peverley, he was subjecting himself to the whims of NHL justice, never a wise idea. Let’s face it, if the Caps are eliminated by the Bruins, fans will look back on his suspension in the decades ahead as a turning point, if not The Fatal Blow.
OK, so now what? That’s the only question that matters as Game 4 approaches. Are the Capitals going to use Backstrom’s suspension as an excuse or a rallying cry? Not having him in such a crucial game certainly provides them with an easy alibi if they’re so inclined. And the Caps, you’ve gotta hand it to them, have been great in recent years at explaining away their playoff failures.
A penalty got called against us in overtime of the deciding game. The other club’s goaltender got hot. Injuries hurt us. We’re still young.
And now, perhaps: The league screwed us by suspending Backstrom.
It’s time for the Capitals to throw away their crutches and win a game like this — a game in which the odds aren’t necessarily stacked in their favor, the kind of game you have to be able to win if you want to drink from the Stanley Cup. Sure, they’ll miss their star center, the guy whose double-overtime goal won Game 2, but it doesn’t have to be the difference between victory and defeat … unless they want it to.
The series still is up for grabs. The game is at home. For the Caps, it couldn’t be any more cut and dried: Just win, baby — somehow.