BOSTON – The gray curtain pulled back, and an unexpected visitor walked into the Boston Bruins' dressing room Wednesday night. The players were already celebrating the 4-0 victory over the Vancouver Canucks that tied the Stanley Cup Final 2-2, but now that they saw Nathan Horton(notes) they yelled and cheered even more.
They hadn’t seen their teammate since he took a brutal hit in Game 3, lay flat on his back, stayed on the ice for several minutes, got strapped to a stretcher, had his head immobilized and left the arena in an ambulance. He spent the night in the hospital and went home the next day to recover from a concussion.
Horton didn’t say much. But he smiled.
Horton told his teammates they had done a great job and he was proud. Then he took the kitschy late-’80s jacket the guys give to the hero of each victory – the one he had earned by scoring the winner in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals, the one they had left hanging under his nameplate Monday night because he wasn’t there to pass it on, the one they would have been happy to leave there for the rest of the series in his honor. He bestowed it upon Rich Peverley(notes), who replaced him as the first-line right winger and bookended the blowout with two goals.
“Everyone was pretty emotional to just be able to see him,” Peverley said, keeping on the black jacket after the game, even though he was sweating in the sweltering dressing room. “No one’s seen him since everything happened. He wanted to give it out tonight.”
The Bruins wanted to give it their all for him. The night began with the greatest Bruin of all time, Hall of Fame defenseman Bobby Orr, waving a No. 18 Horton flag to fire up the fans before the game. The team carried the flag from there.
As the high-definition scoreboard screens made references to Horton throughout the game – showing Horton highlights, plus Horton signs, Horton T-shirts and Horton sweaters in the crowd – the Bruins played with passion on a hot night at TD Garden.
They hit. They skated. They pressured. They smothered the Canucks’ best skaters, and they pumped four pucks past Roberto Luongo(notes), forcing Canucks coach Alain Vigneault to pull him and igniting yet another goaltending crisis in Vancouver.
Since defenseman Aaron Rome(notes) delivered a late shoulder to Horton’s head in the first period of Game 3 – drawing a four-game suspension, four times longer than any other in Cup finals history – the Bruins have outscored the Canucks, 12-1. Suddenly, they look nothing like the team that lost Games 1 and 2.
“I would say they were probably the hungrier team the last two games,” Luongo said.
Twice in two days, I wrote about what a bad trade this was for the Bruins. Losing Horton means so much more to them than losing Rome does to the Canucks. Horton is a scorer on a team that often struggles to score, with eight goals in the playoffs, including two Game 7 winners. Rome is a depth defenseman on a team deep on defense.
I still believe this was a bad trade. But it didn’t look so bad Wednesday night. Peverley, whom the Bruins acquired Feb. 18 from the Atlanta Thrashers, the guy who entered the game with two goals in the playoffs, jumped from the third line to the first line and doubled his goal total. Ballard struggled badly in place of Rome, whom the Canucks had moved up to the first pairing to replace the injured Dan Hamhuis(notes). There is a reason Ballard had been a healthy scratch despite his five-year, $21-million contract.
The Canucks suddenly face a situation eerily similar to the one they faced in the first round. Raffi Torres(notes) smoked Brent Seabrook(notes) and woke up the Chicago Blackhawks, who beat them by scores of 7-2 and 5-0. The Canucks went on to win that series in seven, but only after blowing a 3-0 lead, benching Luongo and winning the last two games in overtime.
When they go home for Game 5, the fans will not chant Nathan Horton’s name the way the Boston fans did in the third period Wednesday night. But the Canucks cannot assume the emotion will die down and they will win in the end, even if they still are the superior team on paper, the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy as the NHL’s top regular-season team.
Captain Henrik Sedin(notes), last season’s NHL scoring champion and most valuable player, has no points in the series. Twin brother Daniel Sedin(notes), this season’s NHL scoring champion and an MVP finalist, had a goal and an assist in Game 2 but has produced nothing else. Ryan Kesler(notes), who had 11 points in the second round alone, has no points since an assist in Game 1. The power play – ranked first in the regular season – is 1-for-22. The defense is scrambling, and Luongo, who had regained the form of a Vezina Trophy finalist, is back to being leaky again.
“We know we have to play better,” Henrik Sedin said. “We can’t look back now.”
The Bruins are going to keep fighting. This game stayed mostly under control until late, when Canucks winger Alex Burrows, the villain who bit Bruins center Patrick Bergeron in Game 1, slashed the stick out of the hand of brilliant Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas(notes). It was part peskiness, part frustration and part practicality against a guy who would post a 38-save shutout. Once Thomas regained his grip, he whacked Burrows in the leg. Burrows went back at him. Thomas took him on, and Seidenberg ended up taking him down to the delight of the crowd.
Imagine the roar if the fans could have seen Horton in the dressing room moments later.
“I’d heard he was OK, but then I heard it was a severe concussion,” Thomas said. “I didn’t know if OK meant he was going to live or [what]. When I personally got to see him in the locker room, you know, I was incredibly happy, and it gave me a big boost.”
Same went for every Bruin.
It’s a great story. It’s also a shame, of course.
“You want to play well for a guy like him, because he’s such a good teammate, but it’s been a pretty good hockey series,” Bruins winger Shawn Thornton(notes) said. “I love Nathan Horton. I feel bad that he’s hurt. I really do. But I just don’t want that to be the defining moment. A hit like that shouldn’t be the defining moment of a great hockey series, I don't think.”
It shouldn’t be, but we’ll see. It’s at least a turning point. Now that this series is 2-2, down to best two out of three, headed back and forth across the continent at least twice more, who knows what else is in store? The defining moment of a Stanley Cup champion could be still to come.