As they skated up the ice during a three-on-three drill at Monday’s practice, Patrice Bergeron gave Anton Blidh several whacks. Upon completion of their rush, as both players went off for a change, Bergeron delivered a final slash to the back of Blidh’s leg. Blidh barely noticed.
Blidh, a 21-year-old with six games of NHL experience at the time, had dared to put a body on Black-and-Gold royalty.
“That was a small one,” a smiling Blidh said of his tangle with Bergeron. “We didn’t start fighting, throwing the gloves. I think that’s good. We compete hard in practice. You practice like you play. Bergy and me, we talk a lot off the ice. We’re good friends. What happened on the ice stays there.”
The NHL is becoming the No Hitting League. The game is all about speed, backchecking, and trading chances at high tempo. The conflict that made the sport great is waning. Fighting is on the way out. Enforcers are instinct. Peace and good will have become the league’s hallmarks.
The decline in belligerence is what’s made Blidh’s edgy entrance a welcome addition. Blidh was picked in the sixth round of the 2013 draft and now has an NHL job, in part, because of how well he places opponents’ tempers on full boil.
Blidh does things that most modern NHLers consider unsterile: jabbing, slashing, elbowing, chirping, and generally serving as an in-your-face nuisance. Everybody hates Steve Ott, Antoine Roussel, and Andrew Shaw except their coaches and teammates, who understand the value of irritation.
Blidh’s style is a reminder that physical play and the anger it can produce should not be scrubbed clean from the sport. In fact, it should be encouraged.
“He’s drawn some penalties, and for the most part he’s stayed out of the penalty box,” coach Claude Julien said of Blidh, who has cruised through seven games without an NHL infraction. “So if you’re smart about it and he does a good job, I have no issues with it. If anything, I liked his game. He was forechecking. He’s one of those guys that’s going to go to the front of the net. I keep talking about that almost every press conference I have with our net-front presence. He’s not afraid to go there. I like that. Sometimes doing those kinds of things really ticks off the other team. He’s not doing anything wrong. He’s doing his job.”
In Sunday’s 1-0 win over Los Angeles, during a net-front puck battle, Drew Doughty dropped Blidh with a two-handed chop to the right foot. Doughty, the reigning Norris Trophy winner, did not enjoy the battering he absorbed from Blidh as the left wing hunted the puck.
Naturally, the Bruins bungled the following power play. But Blidh’s net-front competitiveness took Doughty off the ice for two minutes. Blidh knows no other way to play, even if it requires regular postgame ice bags.
“I love it,” Blidh said. “It gets people [ticked] off. But I love it. We get energy from that and maybe a power play.”
Blidh plays a sandpaper style that is pure Saskatchewan. Nobody blinks when a Manitoba boy such as Ryan White grinds and claws and pounds his way into both an opponent’s jersey and head.
But Blidh is from Molnlycke in Sweden, a country that is known for producing skilled and cerebral skaters. Ex-Bruin P.J. Axelsson, for example, was hard to play against. But Axelsson employed skating, positioning, smarts, and stickwork — pillars of the Swedish development model — to drive players cuckoo.
In contrast, Blidh recognized, upon his 2013-14 varsity recall to Frolunda of the Swedish Elite League, that he needed to play a certain way to stay with skilled players such as then-teammate John Klingberg. Doing fancy things was not it.
“Everybody here was maybe a goal scorer when they were younger. Even me,” Blidh cracked, looking around the dressing room at Warrior Ice Arena after Wednesday’s practice. “I know I can score goals. But maybe not the skilled goals.”
Exhibit A: Blidh’s first career NHL goal on Tuesday. It was not a one-timer or a bar-down snipe. Blidh engaged the Islanders’ Travis Hamonic, one of the NHL’s most physical players, in a race for the puck and bumped the defenseman aside. Once he settled the puck, Blidh’s sharp-angle shot caromed off the right skate of defenseman Nick Leddy and past goalie Thomas Greiss.
Through seven games, Blidh has one goal and one assist while averaging 10:10 of ice time. Blidh and linemates Dominic Moore and Jimmy Hayes were three of the Bruins’ best players against the Islanders because of their no-fear approach. They skated hard, played strong on pucks, and barreled into the danger areas.
The Bruins may not be fighting to score goals if underperforming top-six forwards such as Bergeron, David Krejci, David Backes, and Ryan Spooner played with Blidh’s abandon.
“It’s not that the guys aren’t always ready,” Julien said. “It’s the fact that guys aren’t as desperate as they should be. When it’s 3-0 in the third period and we’re down by three goals, all of a sudden you see a different team. Somehow, you’ve got to be able to capture that look, that intensity, and that desperation right from the get-go.”
Blidh’s nickname is Bleeder. It’s appropriate.
. . .
David Pastrnak, out for the last two games following elbow surgery, was one of nine forwards to practice on Wednesday. Pastrnak traveled with the team to Florida after practice and could play against the Panthers on Thursday or against Carolina on Friday. Frank Vatrano could also make his season debut on the trip. Tim Schaller and Noel Acciari are most at risk of losing their lineup spots when Pastrnak and Vatrano return.