CHICAGO — Pull up the clip. Listen closely. After Brent Seabrook obliterated David Backes with an illegal hit Saturday – knocking him out cold – the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues scrummed in the corner. Backes regained consciousness, wobbled to his feet and tried to get involved, but he couldn’t keep his balance. A trainer had to hold him up against the wall.
And this is what one Blackhawk had to say to a fellow player who had suffered a brain injury:
“Wakey, wakey, Backes! Wakey, wakey!”
We can’t say for sure who it was, but Duncan Keith was the only Blackhawk in the vicinity facing Backes at that moment. Keith would not confirm or deny it was him. "I don't remember everything that gets said," he said.
[Watch: Did Duncan Keith mock David Backes after Seabrook hit?]
The CBC microphones didn’t pick up everything, either. Captain Jonathan Toews was right there, too, and had been jawing at Backes already. Toews said Backes had asked him to fight. Standing with his injured teammate, Blues winger Alex Steen turned and yelled at someone: “Show some [bleeping] class!” A moment later, Steen added: “That’s [baloney], Johnny!”
“I saw them talking to him,” said Blues winger Ryan Reaves. “It makes it a little more gutless. I don’t think there’s any need for that. He doesn’t even know where he really is. I think if they want to start getting into that battle, we can play the same way. We’ll see where it takes us.”
Game 3 of this first-round playoff series is Monday night in Chicago.
What the Blackhawks did was classless. It was [baloney]. It was gutless, because it shows zero guts to taunt a guy who can’t fight back. But the Blues lose their claim to moral superiority when they threaten to “play the same way,” and if they’re smart, they won’t do something stupid.
How both teams handle this situation will play a large role in what happens next.
The Blues have a 2-0 series lead. They have gotten the Blackhawks off their game. Seabrook went out of his way to smoke Backes during a penalty kill late in the third period while protecting a one-goal lead. He received a major for charging and a game misconduct for it – leading to the tying goal with 6.4 seconds left in regulation, giving the Blues the opportunity to win Game 2 in overtime – and then a three-game suspension. That’s justice enough.
[Related: Brent Seabrook suspended 3 games for charging David Backes]
“Duncan’s comments or his mannerisms or whatever, [the NHL] can deal with that,” said Blues coach Ken Hitchcock. “I’m sure there’ll be somebody saying something to him.”
Asked about retaliation, Hitchcock said: “It’s not retaliation. We want to win, they want to win. The game’s full of emotion. It’s about playing your best. Whatever you have to do, you have to do. It’s a nasty, physical, intense series. That’s what playoff hockey is all about.”
There are no angels here.
“I’m sure they’ve got video of our guys taking runs at their guys,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve got video of their guys taking runs at us. It’s the price you pay to win at this time of year. Especially when you’ve got two really good teams going at it, this is what happens. We’ll figure out the right line to get to and not cross.”
This is the reality of the NHL Thunderdome – the side you won’t get on “reality” TV shows like “NHL Revealed” and “24/7.” Those shows are great. They give glimpses behind the scenes. HBO sprinkles swear words like salt and pepper. But league censors don’t allow the nasty, ugly stuff. If we only knew what these guys say to each other on the ice all the time.
"Maybe some things are said in the heat of the moment," Toews said. "Most of that stuff goes unheard on the part of the fans and the media. It's not easy to not regret some things that might have been said on that play or any other play."
The playoffs were already perilous, with players pushing the boundaries in hot competition for the Stanley Cup. Then the league returned to a divisional playoff format this season, increasing the odds of bitter rivalries. Now here we have the Blues and Blackhawks. Both are Cup contenders, but if they keep this up, whoever emerges from this series will be weakened for the second round.
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The Blues already have lost their captain for who knows how long. With a 2-0 series lead, they have to view this not as a best-of-7, but as a race to four wins. They have to seize the opportunity to get out of this as quickly as possible, so they can get out of it alive and have as much juice as they can for the Colorado Avalanche or Minnesota Wild.
The Blackhawks have lost a top-pair defenseman for three games, a guy who has two of their six goals in the series, and they have to stretch this thing to six or seven now. They are capable of it. They faced a 3-1 series deficit against the Detroit Red Wings in the second round last year, and they came back to win in seven games and went on to win the Cup. But they will make it harder on themselves if they keep trying to match the Blues physically.
The Blues love to hit. They have been mean in this series. Just a couple of examples: Backes went right after Toews early in Game 1, nailing him with a clean, hard check, knowing full well Toews was coming back from an injured shoulder. Reaves rocked Toews into the boards in double overtime of Game 1, and he ran over Michal Rozsival early in Game 2 and received a minor for charging.
“That’s their game,” Rozsival said. “They play physical. That’s what the playoffs are all about. Obviously when you play the game, we all want to compete. You just can’t be hit. You just can’t receive hits. Sometimes you’ve just got to give a hit, too. You can’t let them kind of bully us all the time.”
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No, the Blackhawks can’t let the Blues bully them. But they can’t stick their knees out, the way Bryan Bickell did twice in Game 2. He was caught only once and received only a minor for kneeing. They can’t keep slashing, the way Keith did in Game 2. He whacked at Vladimir Tarasenko’s ankle early, then hacked at T.J. Oshie’s hand just before the Seabrook-Backes hit. He wasn’t caught either time, but the TV cameras caught him. You know the refs will be watching now.
The Blackhawks think the physical stuff got them into the game Saturday. But they spent too much time in the penalty box, and it ultimately cost them the game. When they have carried the play in this series, they have done it by using their strengths – speed and skill. That’s what they have to do more often. If the Blues are hitting, that probably means the Blackhawks have the puck.
“With a lot of the emotions, you’ve got to keep your head cool,” said Blackhawks defenseman Johnny Oduya. “That’s something we’ve talked about.”
Both teams need to keep their cool, in their own best interests. But that’s easier said than done, of course. This isn’t about moral superiority. It’s about survival.
“Maybe it isn’t pretty, but this obviously has the potential to be a long, hard series,” Hitchcock said. “Who knows who’s got how many players left at the end? But just got to keep going.”
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