BROSSARD, Que. – It didn’t take long for the first NHL playoff series between Canadian teams since 2004 to turn into a war both on and off the ice.
Angry Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien accused Ottawa Senators counterpart Paul MacLean of “disrespect” on Friday for his comments about a hit that put Habs centre Lars Eller in hospital.
Therrien said MacLean showed no compassion for the injured player when he placed the blame after Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarter-final on Eller and Canadiens defenceman Raphael Diaz, who made the pass that led to Ottawa defenceman Eric Gryba’s crushing hit.
Eller, one of the Montreal’s hottest forwards with 13 points in the final 12 games of the regular season, suffered a concussion, as well as facial and dental injuries in the second period of Ottawa’s 4-2 win on Thursday. He was released from hospital Friday and was resting at home.
The team had no estimate on how long he would be out of action.
Gryba was suspended for two games by the NHL late Friday afternoon for an “an illegal check to the head.” The rookie had not previously been disciplined by the league.
Eller looked to be out cold on his feet as he crashed face-first to the ice and was bleeding heavily as he was taken from the Bell Centre ice on a stretcher.
“We do not see malicious intent by Gryba on this play. Eller is eligible to be checked and Gryba does not extend an elbow or launch into the head,” Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s senior vice-president of hockey operations and player safety, said in a video posted on the league’s website. “However, Gryba’s route is not correct and we do not feel that he makes enough of a full body check for this hit not to qualify as an illegal check to the head.
“In our view, in attempting this very difficult check, Gryba does not hit squarely enough through the body. Eller’s head is the principle point of contact and the subsequent contact to Eller’s right shoulder is secondary.”
Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien spoke to the media prior to the league’s announcement and was still seething about MacLean’s comments.
“Inappropriate comment,” said Therrien. “No respect for the player on the ice who was bleeding. No respect for his family in the stands. When he compared that to a hockey hit, the comparison he made was with the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. This is why we’ve got new rules, to avoid those hits when a player is vulnerable. That’s why we’ve got rules.
“That was a lack of respect to Lars Eller and his family and I’m never going to accept that. Never.”
After the game, MacLean absolved Gryba of blame and said players are taught to keep their heads up, comparing the hit to those dished out in earlier eras by blue-liners like Doug Harvey, Barclay Plager and Scott Stevens. He also said Eller should be mad at Diaz, who he referred to only as “No. 61.”
Shanahan said the Diaz pass had no impact on the hit.
“The pass that Eller received just prior to the check is completely irrelevant to whether or not Gryba delivers a reckless, illegal check to the head,” he said.
MacLean said he was simply defending Gryba.
“Everyone was blaming my player for doing what he’s supposed to do,” said MacLean. “All I did was point out what happened.
“I feel bad for the kid that got hurt but that’s what happened. It was a hockey play that went bad for him. If that’s being harsh or cruel … that’s too bad. Grow up.”
Shanahan said some onus is on players to be aware of an impending body check.
“However, since the inception of the current illegal check to the head penalty, no player should expect that his head will be made the principle point of contact, whether intentionally, or as we feel occurs on this play, recklessly,” he said.
Already without Eller, the Canadiens also announced that veteran forwards Brian Gionta and Max Pacioretty would miss Friday’s Game 2 with upper-body injuries, forcing changes to their three top lines.
Canadiens enforcer Brandon Prust was still angry over the Eller incident and at MacLean.
“I don’t care what that bug-eyed, fat walrus has to say,” Prust said of MacLean.
When asked if he felt Gryba should be suspended, Prust said: “I trust that, actually trust is a big word, I hope the league makes the right decision.”
He paused and then added: “You know, I hope he doesn’t get suspended.”
MacLean was not put off by Prust’s comments.
“I’m trying to coach the game and they can say whatever they want,” he said.
Canadiens players said Diaz was wrongly blamed for making a “suicide” pass—one that leaves the recipient open to a big hit.
“When the forward’s open in front of you, you have to move the puck quick and that’s what he did,” said defenceman Francis Bouillon.
Reaction was heated among fans and media as well as the coaches. The Ottawa Sun ran a front page picture of a dazed Eller bleeding on the ice with the headline “First Blood Sens.”
Many felt it was a legal hit, while others saw it as a hit to the head that, intended or not, warranted a suspension.
In Boston, Bruins coach Claude Julien saw it as a sign that things have changed in hockey.
“I remember when I played, if something like that happened, we were mad at our own player for the suicide pass,” he said. “That’s the way it was then.”
Added Toronto Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle: “Obviously it’s a vicious bodycheck and you don’t like to see a player get hurt. But again it’s not up to me to determine if it’s a suspendable offence.”