Events like these end up being dissected in minute detail, the replays repeated frame by frame, although one’s conclusion often depends on whose livery you happen to cheer for.
The agreed-upon facts are these: Ottawa Senators defenceman Eric Gryba smashed into Montreal Canadiens centre Lars Eller at top speed as he tried to gather a puck near his own blue line.
Eller wasn’t looking, and Gryba’s shoulder appeared to catch him right on the button.
From there, opinions diverge.
“Dirty hit,” said the Habs’ Rene Bourque.
“A hockey play,” countered Sens coach Paul MacLean, a former NHL player, “that ended up going bad for Lars Eller.”
Habs coach Michel Therrien wouldn’t comment on the incident, and was visibly exasperated when reporters kept asking him questions after the game, slapping his lectern at one point – one senses he has a lot to say on the subject but wants to wait for the league to investigate.
And the league surely will, given Gryba was given a major penalty and tossed from the game.
Supplemental discipline, if any is forthcoming, will surely centre on whether NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan feels Eller’s head was targeted, and the principal point of contact. Though it was a north-south play, the Habs will doubtless argue that Gryba came in through Eller’s blind side.
After the game, Gryba said: “I stepped up to make a hit and had my shoulder down. My elbow was down and there was no intent to hurt him. I hope he’s okay.”
Actually, the 23-year-old Dane isn’t okay and may not be for a little while. Eller spent Thursday night in hospital with a concussion, facial fractures, and several broken teeth.
An NHL building isn’t supposed to be this quiet, especially not in the playoffs.
The hush fell over the Bell Centre shortly after the 13:28 mark of the second period between the opening first-round game between Ottawa and Montreal when Gryba stepped up and caught Eller as he tried to accept a pass from defenceman Raphael Diaz.
MacLean said “the player I would be mad at is 61 (Diaz)” and that the spot where Eller was hit “is a dangerous place to be.”
He continued to say that “that play’s been there as long as the game's been around."
Defenceman Raphael Diaz, who made the fateful pass, was crestfallen after the game, saying he was convinced Eller was open and that “of course you don’t want to make a pass like that . . . it’s not fun to see a teammate like that.”
Eller was evidently unconscious even before he thudded the ice, face-down.
Trainer Graham Rynbend was already hopping off the bench when line-mate Alex Galchenyuk took off after Gryba, who earned a major penalty for interference.
More team medical personnel quickly joined him as the pool of blood under Eller’s head spread outward, as a stretcher was rolled out, Rynbend motioned for quiet.
And to think that just 19 seconds earlier, the building had been at its frenzied loudest, after Rene Bourque had roofed a gorgeous backhand into the top corner past the razor-sharp Craig Anderson, it was a reply to Erik Karlsson’s gorgeous opening goal on a typical Karlsson rush.
Rivalries are built on ill-will and if the incensed faces on the Habs’ bench were any indication, whatever warm feelings existed between the sides were dissipated when Gryba’s shoulder met Eller’s face, let alone by the 4-2 final score in favour of the Senators, who have now stolen home ice advantage in the series.
That Eller’s linemates, Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher combined to set up the go-ahead goal – Gallagher cashed, as usual, from the lip of the crease – provided a bit of poetic flair.
But the Sens are the NHL’s best penalty-killing team for a reason, and Montreal could pad its lead no further, despite a 1:20 five-on-three advantage gifted to them when rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau took down Habs defenceman P.K. Subban as he rushed into the Ottawa zone.
As much as the Habs wanted to make the Sens pay for the Gryba hit, it was the penalty-kill that provided the Sens with a rallying point.
In a game that had been dominated to that point by Anderson, who was bombarded with 50 shots on the night and burnished his credentials with amazing saves on Bourque – whom he stoned on a breakaway – and Jarred Tinordi, among others.
“The story of this game is pretty simple,” said Therrien, “it’s Craig Anderson.”
This tilt also featured command performances from Karlsson, who slalomed through the Habs defence for a goal added an assist, and Subban. Ottawa tough guy Chris Neil won’t soon forget the open-ice hit from Subban that had the crowd in full throat.
The third period saw captain Daniel Alfredsson leap to the fore.
After Jakob Silfverberg tied the game on a fortuitous slapshot that somehow eluded Montreal’s Carey Price, Alfredsson had the kind of shift that has made him the bane of the Habs’ existence for going on 20 years.
First he fired a shot on Price, then raced behind the net to grab the loose puck, cycling it back for defenceman Marc Methot, whose point shot fluttered in off Price’s outstretched glove as Milan Michalek provided the screen.
It was a second soft goal, although all Therrien said of his goaltender was “I’d tell you he wasn’t as good as Anderson.”
Montreal, as is their wont, responded with a stretch of furious pressure, and at one point the crowd erupted for what it thought was the tying goal – although the tally was immediately waved off after Brandon Prust was adjudged to have bowled Anderson over with his stick.
Salt was rubbed into Montreal wounds with just over six minutes to play when Silfverberg’s shot was misplayed by Price and bounced into the net off former Hab and Bell Centre favourite Guillaume Latendresse.
It was a downbeat ending to a sombre evening.
The Bell Centre has seen its share of famous occasions, Eller’s injury is merely the latest in an unfortunate series of infamous ones.
On the Habs’ bench, winger Max Pacioretty won’t have been able to help himself from replaying the night in 2010 when he woke up with a broken neck and a severe concussion after being rammed into a stanchion by Boston’s Zdeno Chara.
Earlier this year, Habs prospect Blake Geoffrion suffered what will likely be a career-ending skull fracture in an American Hockey League game.
As he watched his former teammate lying on the ice, Geoffrion tweeted “ugly hit. Know how that feels. Stomach is in a knot after watching that.”
With reports from Roy MacGregor