NEW YORK, N.Y. – Surgery, suspensions and thuggery. The storylines surrounding the Eastern Conference final reached Shakespearean proportions Friday.
As he was in Game 3 Thursday night, Montreal fourth-liner Brandon Prust was slap bang in the middle of the mayhem.
What had seemed like a quiet off-day quickly turned dramatic when New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault revealed that forward Derek Stepan, laid out by an unpenalized blindside hit from Prust two minutes 45 seconds into the game, had suffered a broken jaw that needed surgery.
Three hours later, Rangers agitator Dan Carcillo was suspended 10 games for physical abuse of an official on a play that came minutes after the Prust hit, as New York looked for retribution.
Two hours after that, Prust was issued a two-game ban for what the league called a “late, violent hit.”
“What elevates this hit to merit supplemental discipline is its extreme lateness and the significant head contact that results from the way it is delivered,” the league said in a video ruling.
The Carcillo incident came 5:51 into Thursday’s game after a fight between Derek Dorsett of the Rangers and Prust. Carcillo, a fourth-liner, had been penalized for charging Prust on the play.
The league said Carcillo “physically applied force to linesman Scott Driscoll while being escorted to the penalty box.”
The suspension was automatic under category 2 of Rule 40.3, titled Physical Abuse of Officials.
It has added more drama to a series that saw Montreal’s all-world goalie Carey Price sent to the sidelines in Game 1 after coming out the worst for wear in a collision with six-foot-three, 230-pound Ranger Chris Kreider.
For Vigneault, the missed Prust call Thursday set off a domino effect whose ripples were still being felt the next day.
“Four referees missed the call,” Vigneault said. “Stepan is injured. The same player that called the hit on Price ‘accidental but on purpose.’ Late hit, everything that you want to get out of the game, that was his hit on Stepan.
“And what saddens me about that hit is, if the call is made on the ice, we’re on a five-minute power play, and what happened to Dan Carcillo, and what Dan did is inexcusable, and he’s going to pay a big price for it, but if the call is made on the ice, he’s not put in that position.
“So it’s unfortunate. Step (Stepan) right now at this time is probably getting operated on. He broke his jaw (Thursday), so we’ll have an idea of the time frame (Saturday). But those are stuff that happens during the game that you have to deal with, and that’s what we’re going to try to do.”
Dressed in jeans and flip-flops, Vigneault looked like he was in relaxation mode. But he was clearly irate at a sequence of events which he believes could have been avoided.
Stepan went briefly to the dressing room after the hit, yelling over his shoulder at Prust as he exited. But he returned later in the period and amazingly played a total of 17:45 in the game.
A team spokesman said X-rays that night were negative. But Stepan was in pain and saw a specialist Friday, when further tests detected the broken jaw.
It seems unlikely that Stepan, who centres Rick Nash and Kreider on the Rangers top line, will be back any time soon.
New York leads the series to two games to one.
Prust, a former Ranger who counts Canadian UFC lightweight Sam (Hands of Stone) Stout as a friend, was not made available Friday as both teams, skipping practice in advance of Game 4 Sunday, offered up their coaches and select players.
Montreal coach Michel Therrien defended his player.
“His intention was not to hurt anyone,” he said. “Like Kreider, his intention, even if he was going hard to the net and then laying on Carey Price, I’m sure his intention was not to hurt Carey Price. Brandon Prust, he tried to finish his check. His intention, honestly, was not to hurt Stepan.”
Prust, said Therrien, is “a guy bringing intensity to our team and he’s killing penalties. He’s a good teammate. He’s a good leader.”
Then Therrien suggested the Canadiens knew better than anybody about losing a star player.
“If there is a team that can understand the loss of a player, it’s us. We lost Carey Price in the first game of the series with the hit on Kreider when he hit Carey Price, and we felt frustrated at the time. We’re still frustrated not having our goalie, our No. 1 most important player.”
Therrien, taking a page from Vigneault’s book from the Price injury debate, called it “a hockey hit.”
Habs forward David Desharnais called it a clean hit, with Prust just wanting to get his team going.
“You never want to see a guy injured like that but, like I said, we were fighting for our lives (Thursday) and we wanted to set the tone,” he said.
At five foot seven, Desharnais is one of the Hobbit-like Canadiens. But the first-liner wins praise from his coach for his compete level. And he knows the value of getting under an opponent’s skin, as Prust clearly did in Game 3.
“They were not happy about it,” he said of the Rangers. “Everybody got a little chirp here and there and the game was on.”
A day later, the Rangers still wanted justice.
“I think guys were unhappy there wasn’t a call on the play,” Kreider told reporters. “Obviously, it was away from the play so not a lot of people saw it. But I think the sentiment today is the same as it was yesterday, that it wasn’t a clean hit. Hopefully the league deals with it justly.”
New Yorkers could use some justice, it seems.
The New York Daily News back-page headline on Game 3 was “Habs of Steal.”
“Luck goes Montreal’s way in OT as Rangers stunned at Garden,” was the kicker.
“Hold the Bubbly,” was the headline in the New York Post.