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Pittsburgh Penguins' Brooks Orpik is taken off the ice after being injured in the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Boston Bruins in Boston, Saturday, Dec. 7, 2013.MICHAEL DWYER/The Associated Press

Claude Julien admits Shawn Thornton "crossed the line" when the Boston Bruins forward attacked Pittsburgh Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik in one of the ugliest NHL games in recent years and left him unconscious on Saturday night.

But, the Bruins head coach said, Thornton was only answering in hockey fashion to an earlier hit by Orpik that left his teammate Loui Ericksson concussed. Also facing a suspension is Penguins forward James Neal, who kneed Bruins forward Brad Marchand on the head shortly after the Orpik hit and before Thornton jumped Orpik.

"Nobody is proud of what happened last night, absolutely not," Julien said Sunday night, shortly before the Bruins played the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre. "It's pretty obvious when you look at it, [Thornton] did cross the line and others did, too."

However, Julien went on to say, "I'm not sure [Thornton] would have done what he did there had there not been an incident before."

The "incident" came 30 seconds into the game when Orpik levelled Eriksson with a blind-side hit as the Bruins winger turned his head to try and field a bouncing puck. Eriksson had to be helped to the dressing room and sustained his second concussion this season. He did not play against the Maple Leafs.

Neither did Thornton, who was suspended by the NHL pending an in-person hearing this week. An in-person hearing means a player is eligible to be suspended for six or more games. Neal was told he faces a telephone hearing, which means he can be suspended for up to five games.

Thornton challenged Orpik to a fight shortly after the Eriksson hit but the Penguins defenceman declined. However, at the 11:06 mark of the first period, Thornton knocked Orpik to the ice and then jumped on him and punched him on the head at least twice. Thornton received a match penalty for a deliberate attempt to injure another player and was ejected from the game.

Orpik lost consciousness briefly and left the game on a stretcher. He was taken to hospital and was released in time to travel back to Pittsburgh with the Penguins on Saturday night. But Orpik is thought to have a concussion and is not expected to play for the Penguins Monday night.

After the game, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said he thought Orpik's hit on Eriksson was a clean body check.

"I heard Dan Bylsma's comments after the game, and I respectfully disagree that it was a legal hit," Julien said. "[Eriksson] didn't have the puck. I watched the replays and I thought Brooks [Orpik] was just kind of lining him up no matter what. He seemed to line him up for a hit rather than play the puck."

Julien said Thornton went too far in retaliating, though, and he expects a stiff suspension from the NHL's director of player safety Brendan Shanahan.

"I agree, he did cross the line. He got caught up in the emotions," the coach said. "He's going to suffer the consequences and so will we.

"The one thing about [Thornton] is everyone who knows him personally knows he's an honest player and an honest person and if he says he really regrets it, he really did."

Thornton, who was not at the Leafs game, expressed his regret about attacking Orpik after the Penguins game.

"It's always my job to defend my teammates," Thornton said. "I've prided myself for a long time to stay within the lines. It's hard for me to talk about it right now. I can't say I'm sorry enough. I'm sure I'll be criticized for saying it. But it's true. I hope he's doing all right. I heard he's conscious and talking. I'm happy to hear that."

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