Bruins' Cup chances take hit without Horton

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

BOSTON – He lay on his back on the logo, his body aligned with the “t” in the words “Stanley Cup Final.” His stick lay at his feet. His right hand stayed stuck in the air for a moment, grotesquely, before falling slowly to his side.

“I skated by once, and his eyes were rolled back,” teammate Dennis Seidenberg(notes) said. “It didn’t look good.”

It was as ugly as it gets. After a long season of head shots and concussions and heated debates, Nathan Horton(notes) had taken the latest nasty hit here on the NHL’s biggest stage – a hit that changed the course of this game and this series, a hit we can only hope doesn’t change the course of his career.

The Boston Bruins watched Horton carted off on a stretcher in a hushed TD Garden. They heard that he went to the hospital moving his extremities. Then they poured their emotion into an 8-1 victory over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 3 on Monday night, fighting back from a 2-0 series deficit, fighting for their fallen teammate.

“Really big,” Bruins winger Brad Marchand(notes) called it. “We just wanted to make sure that we didn’t let him down, and we came together and won tonight for him.”

In that sense it was deeply satisfying for the Bruins, and it should be a little scary for the Canucks, who saw a similar scenario play out in the first round. They held a 2-0 series lead over the Chicago Blackhawks when Raffi Torres(notes) smoked Brent Seabrook(notes) in Game 3. After the NHL declined to suspended Torres, the ’Hawks woke up, won Game 4 by a 7-2 score and erased a 3-0 series deficit.

But remember: The Canucks ended up winning that series in seven games, and even if this incident woke up the Bruins, even if it results in a stiff suspension for defenseman Aaron Rome(notes), it should work to their advantage in the long run. That’s the brutal truth.

Rome is a depth defenseman, and the Canucks have comparable replacements in Keith Ballard(notes) and Chris Tanev(notes). Horton is a scorer on a team that often starves for goals. He has three game-winners in these playoffs, including two in Game 7s. The Bruins have no comparable replacement for him, and with center Marc Savard(notes) sitting out with his career threatened by concussions, they know the picture is even bigger than that.

“Your immediate concern is for your teammate,” Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference(notes) said. “I mean, it’s not for yourself about missing a guy. It’s about his health and him being taken care of. It’s first and foremost. So until we kind of know the status of that, you don’t start thinking about the hockey side of it until he’s all right.”

It happened 5:07 into the first period. Horton skated up ice, passed the puck to his left and kept his head turned to watch it. He took two steps. He was in the process of taking a third step – almost a full second after releasing the puck – when he got blasted by a shoulder to the head at the Vancouver blue line. As he fell backward, his head smacked onto the ice.

Rome struck Horton from the front in terms of Horton’s torso, so he apparently did not violate Rule 48, which the league instituted last year to ban blindside hits to the head. Horton did not have his head up, which he is still responsible for doing under the rules as they are written today. But the hit was late, and Rome jumped into it, leaving his feet as he made contact, his left elbow elevating on the follow through.

I don’t know what went through Rome’s mind at that split-second. He’s a quiet guy. He’s not known as a dirty player. He was suspected of having a concussion himself in the Western Conference final. But Rome’s instinct was to hit Horton high instead of drilling his shoulder into his chest, and that speaks to a larger problem.

It just so happens that the NHL’s blue-ribbon panel led by league executive Brendan Shanahan(notes), who will handle supplementary discipline starting next season, will present its recommendations on expanding Rule 48 when the general managers meet Wednesday in Boston. The league must do more to protect defenseless players.

“The culture of our game, that’s the stuff we need to get out of the game, the head shots,” Bruins forward Shawn Thornton(notes) said. “It’s in the league’s hands now, and I’m sure they’ll take a look at it and do the right thing.”

NHL senior vice-president Mike Murphy(notes) ought to suspend Rome. The right call was made on the ice – a five-minute major for interference and a game misconduct.

After watching Horton lay flat on his back for several minutes, after hearing the fans chant his name, after watching him carted off on the stretcher, the Bruins failed to capitalize on the power play and failed to register a single shot the rest of the period. But in the dressing room during the first intermission, they heard he was moving his arms and legs.

“You always make mention about the guy that’s gone to the hospital, that I’m sure, being there, he’d like to see this team win this hockey game,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said. “It’s always something to motivate yourself with.”

Said Bruins winger Mark Recchi(notes): “There wasn’t a lot of talk. It was more of, ‘Let’s make sure we do this for Hortie. Hortie has been a great teammate for us all year. Let’s get this win for him tonight.’ ”

And so they did.

They caught a break at the start of the second. The Canucks won the opening faceoff, but defenseman Alex Edler’s stick broke. The Bruins gained the zone, and Ference ended up scoring on a floater from the left point. The floodgates opened from there – a power play goal, a shorthanded goal and more.

After scoring a total of three goals in their past three games, the Bruins scored four in the second and four in the third. Canucks coach Alain Vigneault kept goaltender Roberto Luongo(notes) in net for all of it, possibly damaging the confidence Luongo had worked so hard to rebuild since faltering in the first round.

The officials tried to keep the game from getting out of hand in the third period, but the Bruins’ bitterness bubbled over anyway. The highlights: Goaltender Tim Thomas shoving Canucks captain Henrik Sedin to the ice while making a save, and winger Milan Lucic offering his fingers to Alex Burrows to bite after Burrows slashed Thomas.

Burrows, of course, bit the Bruins’ Patrice Bergeron(notes) in Game 1, and the Canucks’ Max Lapierre offered his fingers to Bergeron in Game 2. Julien said Monday morning that Lapierre’s behavior would be unacceptable in Boston, and to his credit, he blasted Recchi – who did something similar in the first period – and Lucic in the dressing room after the game.

Emotion helped get the Bruins back in this series, but emotion will keep them in it only if they keep it under control. Their margin for error continues to be slim. It’s even slimmer now that Horton has been sent to the hospital.

“I’m sure they don’t like us, and we don’t like them,” Lucic said. “There’s a lot on the line. I think that’s what makes this a fun series to be a part of. But going forward as a team, as far as we’re concerned, we’re still down in the series and we need to carry over what we did here today.”

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