ARLINGTON, Va. — Leave the euphemisms about playing with an “edge” or “emotion” to Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien and his players.
There are other ways to describe the shift in tenor of the reigning Stanley Cup champions’ first-round playoff series against the Washington Capitals: more hits, more scrums, more penalties, more sticks in opponents’ faces.
Capitals coach Dale Hunter went so far as to say Tuesday that the Bruins have been going after the head of center Nicklas Backstrom, who returned to Washington’s lineup March 31 after missing half the regular season because of a concussion.
“It is crossing the line,” Hunter said. “To grab his head all the time is not the right way to play.”
Asked Tuesday, an off day in the series, whether he thinks the Bruins are targeting Backstrom’s head, Hunter replied: “Oh, yeah.”
“If you noticed it, every scrum, Nicky comes out with no helmet on. He gets blockered to the head by (goalie Tim) Thomas the game before,” Hunter said. “So he’s protecting his head.”
Hunter expects the NHL to overturn the match penalty Backstrom got for putting his stick in the face of Rich Peverley at the end of Boston’s 4-3 victory in Game 3 on Monday. Hunter said Backstrom “was trying to protect his face,” because Peverley had his stick raised.
“He’s got to protect himself. If you get a second concussion, you’re out a long time. If it wasn’t there, if a stick wasn’t in his face, Nicky Backstrom’s not that kind of player. He doesn’t just cross-check somebody in the face. He’s not like that,” Hunter said.
Capitals forward Troy Brouwer echoed that assessment.
“There’s been a couple times where they’ve gone after his head and grabbed him and thrown him to the ice,” Brouwer said. “So I can understand why Nicky is a little bit nervous about when sticks come up.”
Boston leads the best-of-seven series 2-1 heading into Thursday’s Game 4 at Washington, which Backstrom will miss unless the league rescinds his automatic suspension. A hearing was scheduled for Tuesday.
“I’m proud of ‘Pev’ for standing up on his feet, taking the cross-check to the face, and not embellishing,” Julien said during Boston’s media availability, which was before Hunter’s remarks. “And that’s what I want my team to keep doing.”
Boston defenseman Greg Zanon said about Backstrom’s penalty: “It was high. He definitely hit him in the face. It’s not the first time this series somebody’s taken a cross-check in the face. There’s nothing we really can do. It’s up to the league.”
Boston and Washington combined for 12 penalties worth a total of 26 minutes in Games 1 and 2.
And in Game 3? That game alone featured 16 penalties worth 35 minutes, and one gesture not likely to be forgotten anytime soon.
After a skirmish involving Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner and Bruins forward Milan Lucic, Alzner put a fist near his own eye and rotated his hand, as if to say, “What a crybaby!”
“I don’t think you have to wake ‘Looch’ up. ‘Looch’ is always awake. He’s a pretty composed guy. But if you poke the bear, eventually he’s going to get at you,” Zanon said. “You just don’t want to aggravate him, because he’s going to be aware at all times out on the ice now.”
Both teams were definitely talking the talk between Games 3 and 4.
“I don’t think we want to be a team that plays after the whistle, but we definitely want to play with that edge and that hunger between the whistles, and sometimes there are shoving matches,” Bruins center Chris Kelly said. “That’s just hockey, just playoff hockey. I know this group will never be back down from that, but we don’t want to be known as a team that after the whistle is getting involved in stuff like that. We want to play hard between and be that big, physical, honest hockey team.”
Julien addressed that topic with his players before Game 3, noting that they weren’t necessarily playing with as much, well, emotion as they did during last year’s run through the postseason.
“I said the emotional level of the series wasn’t where I wanted it to be, knowing our hockey club, and we had to elevate that and get a little bit more involved,” the coach said Tuesday. “And when we’re emotional, and we’re more involved, we win battles, and we create more things. So that’s what happened yesterday.”
And there could be more of the same later this week.
“We expect them to come out hard again on Thursday night,” Washington’s Brouwer said, “and you should see a very spirited, excited team out of us on Thursday, as well.”