Setting aside the NHL’s risibly weak response to Jacob Trouba’s Ed Ames-like axe smack to Trent Frederic’s head Saturday afternoon at Madison Square Garden, let’s consider how the Bruins responded in that moment.
The pushback went like this:
(This white space ideal for doodling)
Granted, sometimes turning the other cheek, or entire head, is the proper response. But when the refs keep their whistles in their pockets — as did Messrs. Jordan Samuels-Thomas and Francis Charron — then there remain instances when an ol’ tyme hockey response is still appropriate, if not the only reasonable option.
Someone in the Bruins lineup, be it Frederic or any of the other 17 Black and Gold free-skating employees, needed to go mano a mano with the stick-swinging Trouba. Instead, the Bruins responded with hockey’s version of one hand clapping.
Engaged in a shoving match around the Blueshirt net late in the second period, the 6-foot-3-inch Trouba disentangled from the 6-3 Frederic with a late, emphatic sweep of his stick, the blade cracking against the side of Freddy's head and possibly face.
There are myriad ways to interpret these, shall we say, spontaneously combustible moments. But from the two views readily available online, the more detailed video clip shows that Trouba indeed had sound footing on both skates and swung up at Frederic’s head to make impact.
The Ranger defenseman — known as one of the game’s hardest, most fearsome, and opportunistic hitters — didn’t look to be struggling to regain balance at the time he swung. His right foot, previously sliding, was planted firmly as he delivered his follow-through … whack!
No call on the ice, and the NHL’s Department of Player Safety (aka The Little House of See No Evil), later in the day tickled Trouba’s wallet for $5,000. That’s the max fine allowed by the collective bargaining agreement in such circumstances. For a guy who carries an $8 million cap hit, that’s Friday night poker money for Trouba. No room for discussion there, of course, because the NHL Players’ Association signed off on these things long ago.
The announcement from DOPS noted the fine was for high-sticking. It was never called that on the ice. The incident didn’t get a mention in the game sheet. Better if DOPS had termed it simple, excusable assault because, in most cases, a high-sticking call at least merits a two-minute penalty. The Bruins not only were victimized by the hit, but also were denied the dignity of a power play. Sort of a compound fracture.
The guy in Black and Gold expected to call Trouba to task, had Trouba cared to be called or not, would have been Milan Lucic.
The Bruins, remember, hired Looch back again in July for just that kind of “North America’s Dirtiest Jobs” duty. They lacked that certain physical je ne sais quoi last spring in the playoffs when Florida’s Matthew Tkachuk was poking his nose too much into their Cup dreams. The hulking Lucic was going to cover that concern this season if it ever arose, like, say, it did Saturday afternoon in a packed MSG tinderbox staging the league’s two hottest teams.
Lucic is out of that equation now, perhaps forever, after his alleged physical altercation last weekend with his wife. He currently is listed on an indefinite leave of absence and last week, per the Bruins, entered the NHL/NHLPA Players Assistance Program. They have to assume he is not coming back, even if he is ultimately cleared of the Massachusetts court system, makes peace at home, and wants to resume his career.
The club’s more immediate concern, 20 games into the season and following back-to-back defeats, is finding a willing, competent body to be that guy who takes on Trouba, or whoever else comes calling — be it in the regular season or the more important postseason.
Who’ll be the guy to settle things down, provide the Bruins a backbone, and offer a deterrent when the opposition knows the only price it currently risks is perhaps paying a $5,000 gratuity?
That very subject came up Saturday, prior to the 1:12 p.m. puck drop off Broadway, when coach Jim Montgomery met with reporters for the morning-of-game media scrum outside the dressing room.
“We always express team toughness,” noted Montgomery, asked by a Globe reporter for his candidate to assume that “sandpaper-plus” role. “And I think Looch was a big part of that.”
Still, added Montgomery, he believes the franchise has players “who can grow and own that type of grit that we are going to look for.”
Overall, though, he said he’s relying on what he described as “five-guys-in-there” mentality.
“You’ve got to be initiators, not retaliators,” added Montgomery. “We need a little more initiators in the game.”
As presently constituted, sans Lucic, the Bruins cupboard has a paucity of fight-ready contributors. Frankly, with Nick Foligno now in Chicago and Lucic inactive, it comes down to Frederic, Frederic, … and Frederic. He has fought once this year after logging a dozen bouts across the two previous seasons. He also is playing right wing on the second line — usually not a guy coaches want to risk getting their hands dinged up.
The fights themselves typically aren’t as meaningful or tone-setting in today’s game, in part why we see so few of them. But the NHL still has enough of that physical intimidation factor — think Trouba, and think Tom Wilson with the Capitals — that it remains necessary in some games to have that matching intimidation factor in residence.
It’s all the more necessary when the refs lose control of games or, like Saturday, can’t tell the difference between chopsticks and a dangerous stick chop.
Toughness in today’s game has to be a team mentality. In fact, its best iteration is when all lines and defense pairings doggedly hunt pucks with energy, requisite will, and physical persistence. But there are those certain times, when sticks and tempers fly, someone has to step up and be the guy.
The league saw Saturday that the Bruins still need that guy.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.