If the Washington Capitals are going to rally against the Boston Bruins, that comeback is going to have to begin without star center Nicklas Backstrom, who was suspended for one game for a cross-check in Game 3.
It’s the first suspension of Backstrom’s five-season NHL career and it leaves the Capitals without their best playmaker for Game 4 on Thursday at Verizon Center. The Bruins lead the series two games to one.
The league’s decision was announced hours after both teams took turns putting their spin on Backstrom’s cross-check to the face of Boston’s Rich Peverley at the end of Monday night’s contest.
Capitals Coach Dale Hunter didn’t believe Backstrom deserved a suspension, saying his star player lashed out at the Bruins for targeting his head. Backstrom missed 40 games this season with a concussion.
“Every scrum, Nicky comes out with no helmet on, he gets blocked to the head by [Tim] Thomas the game before. He’s protecting his head,” Hunter said at the team’s Arlington headquarters. “He just came off for 40 games. You have to protect your head.”
Across the Potomac River in downtown Washington, Bruins Coach Claude Julien told reporters that the league “needs to look at it and judge it from there” but stopped short of lobbying for a stiffer punishment.
“Were not a team that will go down and start rolling on the ice for no reason,” Julien added. “I’m proud of Pev for standing up on his feet, taking a cross-check to his face and not embellishing.”
The cross-checking incident occurred as time expired in a physical contest in which the Bruins outhit the Capitals 58-36 and scored the go-ahead goal with less than two minutes remaining.
Peverley and Alex Ovechkin traded jabs in the corner of the defensive zone, then Peverley knocked Ovechkin’s feet out from under him, prompting Backstrom to come to his teammate’s aid. After Peverley waved his stick in Backstrom’s face, Backstrom thrust his stick into Peverley’s visor. Peverley was not injured.
The infraction led to a match penalty for Backstrom and an automatic one-game suspension pending a league review. On Tuesday night, Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s director of player safety, upheld the punishment.
“Even though Backstrom might have felt threatened by Peverely’s stick, the fact is Peverely is in a defensive stance and it is Backstrom who is approaching him,” Shanahan said in a video explanation posted on NHL.com. “Backstrom’s reaction is excessive and reckless.”
Shanahan also said that he took into consideration that Peverley was not injured and Backstrom had no prior suspensions on his record.
Hunter said earlier in the day: “I think he was just trying to protect his face. If you watch it, [Peverley’s] stick’s right in his eyes, and it’s a dangerous play on their part. . . . You get a second concussion, you’re out a long time. If it wasn’t there, if the 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. Because the stick was there he protected himself.”
Hunter was later asked if he believed the Bruins have intentionally targeted Backstrom’s head during the series.
“Oh, yeah,” Hunter said. “Definitely, it’s a head, you know. It’s a serious injury and they are. It is crossing the line to grab his head all the time. It’s not the right way to play.”
Backstrom was not made available to the media. Peverley wasn’t, either. Both teams were given the day off from practice.
Two of Peverley's teammates, however, made it clear they were not impressed with Backstrom’s stick-work. Backstrom was whistled three times for cross-checking infractions. In all, he was assessed a career-high 16 penalty minutes.
“I’m not really sure why somebody does that,” the Bruins’ Andrew Ference said. “I played most of the game against Backstrom. It’s not like he received any huge hits or anything like that. I don’t think the game crossed the line up until that. Obviously, it was in the face. It doesn’t feel that good.”
Greg Zanon added: “It was high. He definitely hit him in the face. It’s not the first time this series somebody has taken a cross-check to the face.”
Backstrom has two points in the series, including the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 2.