ST. LOUIS — Was it avoidable? Probably. San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle’s back was turned, so St. Louis Blues forward Maxim Lapierre should have let up. NHL rules require that. But was Lapierre’s hit, which left Boyle motionless on the ice and sent him to the hospital, “dirty”? No way.
It’s always scary when a player is wheeled off the ice on a stretcher. It certainly changed the tone of the game, especially for the Blues, who never seemed to recover emotionally and suffered their first loss of the season, 6-2.
“You never want to see a player leave the ice on a stretcher,” said Lapierre, who will learn Friday at an in-person hearing with the NHL just how many games he’ll miss. “My first thoughts were with Dan and his family. It was very tough for me to see that.”
The Sharks, of course, were very upset about the hit, accusing Lapierre of unnecessary aggression. Blues players and coaches have not commented, pending league action. “It’s in the league’s hands,” Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. “I don’t have any comment right now.”
The hit, I think we can all agree, was probably avoidable. Lapierre extended his arms to push Boyle, which he shouldn’t have done. But it would have helped Boyle if he hadn’t turned his back on Lapierre just before impact.
Years ago, defensemen were taught never to turn their back to an attacking player. It was dangerous. To protect themselves, defensemen backtracking to retrieve loose pucks would take a different angle and stop at the boards to brace themselves for the inevitable hit.
Not anymore. NHL rules now prohibit any hits from behind, so we often see the puck carrier turn his back along the wall. He knows he might get hit — it happens almost every game — but he does it anyway to protect the puck. And he knows the rules are on his side.
Even so, it’s risky. Veteran players such as Boyle are well aware of the potential consequences that come with turning your back to take a hit.
In this particular case, Boyle turned his back to make a hockey play — to move with the puck or look for someone to pass it to — not to protect the puck. That doesn’t excuse Lapierre for his hit, but if Boyle doesn’t turn his back and protects himself, chances are we aren’t having this discussion.
A source close to Boyle told me Boyle understands he probably shouldn’t have put himself in that situation along the boards. That doesn’t mean he liked the hit, but he’s a smart player who understands how to play defense.
And there was more happening on the play than just Lapierre hitting Boyle. If you watch the replay closely, you’ll see that when Boyle turned, he appeared to lose an edge on his skate, causing him to lose his balance. By the time Lapierre hit him, Boyle, his head at the level of the dasher board, had no time to get his hands up to protect himself and his face met the boards.
Again, Boyle doesn’t leave the ice on a stretcher without the assistance of Lapierre, who extended his arms to make contact. But if Lapierre wanted to finish his hit, he certainly could have run Boyle into the wall at full speed.
Lapierre has a reputation of being one of the league’s more effective agitators. He’s known for his trash talking, but the idea he’s some kind of headhunter doesn’t add up. He has been suspended only once before, for a hit from behind in 2010.
“If anyone thinks when I’m tying my skates preparing to play that I’m thinking about hurting someone, they’re crazy,” Lapierre said.
The good news is that Boyle woke up the next morning in a St. Louis-area hospital with no serious facial injuries, open cuts or apparent concussion-like symptoms, according to my source.
Lapierre’s hit on Boyle wasn’t the only questionable one in the game. There were several, including a dangerous hit from behind from San Jose’s Brent Burns on the Blues’ Brenden Morrow, whose status for tonight’s game at Chicago is unknown.
The most overlooked hit of the game came from Sharks forward Tommy Wingels, who caught Blues defenseman Barret Jackman up high in the opening period. This hit seemed to set the tone for what would end up being a physical affair.
Hockey is a fast game and things happen quickly. Fans as well as the NHL have a tendency to react solely to the outcome of the hit. I find it interesting the referees on the ice had no intention of calling a penalty on the play and didn’t raise an arm until after realizing Boyle was seriously injured.
This incident was more about bad luck than a bad play.
You can follow Andy Strickland on Twitter at @andystrickland or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also writes about the Blues and the NHL at truehockey.com.