Grudge matches: When it comes to NHL playoffs, hate … is good
St. Louis Blues center David Backes, dazed and knees wobbling, did his best to rise to his feet and stand up for himself as a scrum broke out around him.
Seconds earlier in Game 2 of the Blues’ first-round playoff series against the Chicago Blackhawks, he had fallen victim to a vicious hit to the head by defenseman Brent Seabrook for which Seabrook would be suspended for three games.
A microphone picked up a disembodied voice, presumably that of a Blackhawks player, taunting his seemingly concussed opponent.
"Wakey, wakey, Backes," the voice said. "Wakey, wakey."
Backes missed the ensuing two games before returning to home St. Louis ice in Game 5. But with Chicago winning three straight games since "the hit," one thing is for certain: Seabrook, who has earned the status of Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of the Blues, will probably have to answer for what he did at some point before this series concludes.
His presence is likely to ratchet up the hate factor in a series that already has seen its share of vitriol: Blackhawks forward Bryan Bickell’s unpenalized kneeing of the Blues’ Vladimir Sobotka and Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville uncharacteristically grabbing his crotch to protest a non-call in Game 1. (Quenneville was fined $25,000 for the gesture.)
Familiarity, as they say, breeds contempt and nowhere does that maxim become more true than in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In some cases, the grudges are borne out of serious injuries like that of Backes. In others, they arise more out of irritants — like former Philadelphia Flyers forward and current New York Ranger Daniel Carcillo getting flipped the double bird by a Claude Giroux-sweater-wearing Flyers fan after he scored in Game 3 at the Wells Fargo Center.
"Nothing surprises me about this city and the way people act," Carcillo told reporters after the game of his former home, where he played from 2008 to 2011, once earning 207 penalty minutes in a season.
Almost every series has its bad guy or guys for opposing teams and fans to despise. For Colorado, it’s Minnesota forward Matt Cooke, one of the league’s arch-villains over the past decade. Cooke earned a seven-game suspension for kneeing the Avs’ Tyson Barrie in Game 3. Barrie is expected to miss four to six weeks as a result.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was asked about the Cooke incident earlier in the week.
"Is this your first Stanley Cup playoffs in the first round?" he said in response to a reporter’s question in Philadelphia. "Seriously? The Stanley Cup is the hardest trophy in all of sports to win. It’s physical. It’s intense. It takes two months. Wasn’t there a series two years ago between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh? There’s a lot of passion that our players bring to the ice every night."
Ire-raising incidents come playoff time are almost too numerous to catalogue. The Detroit-Colorado rivalry of the late ’90s and early 2000s rose to legendary status as each team won the Cup twice between 1996 and 2001. Denver Post reporter Adrian Dater wrote a book about it entitled "Blood Feud: Detroit Red Wings v. Colorado Avalanche: The Inside Story of Pro Sports’ Nastiest and Best Rivalry of Its Era." The book’s cover features a photo of a famous goalie fight between Colorado’s Patrick Roy and Detroit’s Mike Vernon.
Like many grudge matches, what sparked the hate in that one was a dirty hit. Colorado forward Claude Lemieux crushed the face of Red Wings forward Kris Draper into the dasher board during the 1996 Western Conference Finals. Draper suffered a broken jaw, a shattered cheek and a broken orbital bone. Dater writes about how on March 26, 1997, Lemieux’s first game back in Detroit following the hit, Lemieux continued to receive death threats. As a result, the Avs stationed a body guard outside of Lemieux’s hotel room the night before that game. The Avs also received a police escort from the airport to the hotel.
That is the stuff of legend. So far this playoff season there are no indications that anything will rise to that level. But the seeds have been sown. In the Western Conference, the upstart Dallas Stars, the No. 8 seed and trailing three games to two, are giving top seed Anaheim a serious test of wills after falling 2-0 in the series.
Dallas won Game 4 when center and captain Ryan Getzlaf, who finished second in the league in points during the regular season, was a surprise scratch. In Game 1, Getzlaf got hit in the face with a slap shot and has since worn a shield to protect his jaw. In Game 3, Stars irritant Antoine Roussel hit Getzlaf in his jaw during a shoving match after the whistle.
"We’ve warned the refs about them, anyway," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau told reporters after Game 3. "It’s just something that I guess you do anything to win, but it’s not something that I think our team would do. We’ll take them and be as physical and be as mean as they want, but obviously they know there’s something wrong with his jaw, so they’re going after it."
In the Boston-Detroit series, almost every game has been closely contested, even though the Bruins lead the series 3-1. In Game 1, Bruins wing Milan Lucic speared the Red Wings’ Danny DeKeyser in the groin. He was fined $5,000.
For whatever inexplicable reason, the playoffs tend to bring out both the worst and the best in those involved. It’s what makes them must-see TV.
"I don’t know why I did it but it was the heat-of-the-moment things that unfortunately I did," Lucic told reporters. "I believe in playing within the rules and, for me, I definitely won’t be heading down that road again."
So he says. But it’s something that DeKeyser and Red Wings fans are sure not to forget for a while.
That’s how hockey grudges go.