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tara sullivan

In the name of gamesmanship, Islanders coach Barry Trotz picked unlikely target in Patrice Bergeron to label as a cheater

Patrice Bergeron (center) faces off against Brock Nelson under the watchful eyes of linesman David Brisebois during Game 5 at TD Garden.
Patrice Bergeron (center) faces off against Brock Nelson under the watchful eyes of linesman David Brisebois during Game 5 at TD Garden.Adam Glanzman/Getty

The word might as well have four letters. It’s that incendiary, at least when used in the context of sporting competition.

Cheat.

Cheating.

Cheater.

Is there any worse charge to level at an opponent?

But there was Islanders coach Barry Trotz Monday, throwing a cheating accusation at, of all people, Bruins captain Patrice Bergeron. It barely needs to be said, but Bergeron is not your usual target, as respected across the game as he is revered in Boston. He’s a class act in all corners, from an on-ice reputation that had him just days ago nominated for a record 10th straight year for the Selke Trophy to an off-ice profile showing that eight years ago he won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy for exemplary leadership and humanitarianism.

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But this is playoff hockey, and as much as that means dramatic play on the ice, with no shifts off and every minute mattering, it also means a little gamesmanship off it. And a veteran, championship-winning coach like Trotz certainly knows how to play that game. A veteran, championship-winning center like Bergeron knows how to play it too.

Oh, Trotz opened up with sugar when talking about Bergeron, but with his team heading into a hostile TD Garden environment for the pivotal Game 5 of this second-round playoff series later Monday night, he quickly veered into bulletin-board material, even if it was of the mild variety.

“Bergy’s a really good faceoff guy, one of the best,” Trotz told reporters in a Zoom call. “I think [Islanders centers] all study what he does. The biggest thing with Bergy, and really linesmen can control this, is he doesn’t like to get his stick down. He’s got to come to a stop, and then you have a fair fight.

“He’s a veteran guy who knows how to cheat on the faceoffs. I’m relying on our very capable officiating crew and linesmen to make sure the cheating doesn’t go on, because he’s good at it. All the veteran guys are, he’s not the only one, trust me. But he’s very good, he’s very capable, and he’s been a top centerman and faceoff guy for a long time.”

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Indeed he has — his four Selke wins endorse that thought, as does just about everything Bergeron has done across 17 seasons in the NHL. There’s nothing left in this game to surprise him, not when he’s played in All-Star games, not when he’s won a Stanley Cup, not when he’s been tough enough to play through injuries so bad he literally got out of a hospital bed to get to the rink, not when he’s won Olympic golds and World Championship titles, not when he so seamlessly inherited the captain’s ‘C’ from friend and former teammate Zdeno Chara.

In other words, he wasn’t about to be rattled by a few barbs from Trotz. In his own Zoom call early Monday, Bergeron’s face did not crack at all when he was asked about it, though he did allow himself a small chuckle as he gave his response.

“Personally, I’m going to worry about what I’m going to do out there and what I can do,” Bergeron said. “I think [Trotz] said it was a veteran play. I think it’s a veteran play by him as a coach to go into media talk to try to get the linesman and the officiating to think about it.”

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Touché.

Bergeron was asked later if he thought the lobbying could have an effect on game officials.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “You’re trying to put the word out there and see what happens. For me, as a player I’m going to play my game and worry about what I can control and what I can do to help my team win. That’s all I can really do.”

He was, however, thrown out of his first meeting on the dot Monday, early in the first period. Maybe it worked, but given how this series has gone, maybe that wasn’t even an advantage for Trotz’s crew.

The timing of Trotz’s barbs was odd, not only because they were aimed at a player teammates have dubbed ‘Mr. Perfect,’ one Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy lauds constantly for his near mistake-free game. The timing was odd given that Bergeron’s usual faceoff dominance has waned this postseason. Going into Monday’s game, Bergeron won 53.4 percent on faceoffs, which ranked him 12th among players with at least 100 faceoffs.

The numbers dropped dramatically in this physical, evenly-matched series against the Islanders, at 45.7 percent going into Game 5.

But Trotz decided to make an issue of it anyway, using one of the worst words in sports lexicon. Would you doubt one motivation for Bill Belichick to break the all-time NFL wins record is that it’s currently held by Don Shula? The late Shula used the occasion of his 85th birthday party to throw shade at his nearest suitor. In a story about other great coaches by Dave Hyde of the Sun-Sentinel, Shula, when asked about Belichick, responded, “Beli-cheat?”

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That’s not four letters either, but it might as well be.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.