COLUMBUS, Ohio — Brad Marchand may not read the headlines, as he swore Wednesday afternoon here. Believe him or not, that’s up to you. But either way, let’s agree to this: Everybody’s favorite little ball of hate sure knows how to create them.
And after his late-game cheap shot to the back of Scott Harrington’s head was caught by cameras (if not officials) in Tuesday night’s Game 3 playoff loss to the Blue Jackets, the feisty Bruins forward was back in those headlines, creating just enough off-day drama to fuel the tension of a series being played so tightly we’ve seen two overtime games and three one-goal decisions.
Marchand, with his history of suspensions and his persona of annoyance, spawned yet another perfect storm of anger, indignation, amusement, and distraction.
Just the way he likes it.
After an incident minor enough that the NHL disciplinary minds took no action, I’m not here to adjudicate the severity of Marchand’s infraction, other than to say from these eyes, the tap didn’t appear all that violent, didn’t come close to causing injury, and did occur near the end of a scrum that included plenty of shots going both ways.
Cheap shot? Sure. Dangerous one? Not so much.
When it comes to Marchand, though, reason doesn’t always matter. And that’s on him. Simply put, if you hate him (which includes just about everyone who doesn’t root for the Bruins), you’re going to hate him even more for this. And if you love him (which includes just about everyone who does root for the Bruins), you’re going to love him more. He’s the ultimate example of loyalty to the sweater over the wearer.
But what Marchand’s latest antics mean for this series is what makes this incident worthy of analysis. Is he channeling the version of himself that needs a little extra juice to get the engine going? Is the headslap an indication that something more important is about to erupt from the top-line forward, namely his first point of this second-round series?
Or is he channeling his darker angels, the ones that have put him on the NHL’s suspended list for everything from clipping to spearing to elbowing to slew footing? In that way, is the headslap reminiscent of last year’s bizarre licking episodes?
Which way Marchand goes can have a lot to do with whether the Bruins can even up the series Thursday night or whether they’ll be heading back to Boston on the brink of elimination.
“We’ve got to keep him on the right side of the line,” coach Bruce Cassidy said Wednesday, not long after his team spent about an hour on the Nationwide Arena ice looking to ignite their hard-luck offense, particularly the combo of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, and David Pastrnak that has accounted for but one goal this series.
“That’s how I deal with him as a coach,” Cassidy said. “Remind him how valuable he is to the team, that it’s playoff hockey, that your name or number is circled in their locker: ‘We’ve got to get this guy off his game.’
“What does that mean? It means you’re one of the better players. If you weren’t a good player, they wouldn’t be targeting you.
“You’ve got to understand there’s a little bit that goes along with it. He’s got to find that balance on the ice. We’ve been dealing with this for a long time. This isn’t me just going up to him saying, ‘Hey, Marchy knock it off.’
“It doesn’t work that way. He’s got to find it in himself to make sure, use his teammates around him to help him, and generally if he starts having some level of success that goes away.”
In other words, throw pucks at the net instead of throwing punches at the opponent. Score goals, not boxing points. As much as Marchand defended his actions by pointing out teammate Jake DeBrusk was on the receiving end of multiple punches in that same scrum, he has to know he can’t escape his own reputation and history.
“It is what it is,” Marchand said, shrugging his shoulders more than once in the visitors’ locker room. “There’s a lot of media attention in the playoffs and they jump onto things and hold onto it, it creates a story.
“I’m not overly concerned what’s said in the media and what fans say. It was an unnecessary play but it is what it is. Games go on and worry about the next one.
“Fans all have their opinions. They’re entitled to it. They pay us a lot of money to play the game, so thank you.”
Marchand didn’t wink. He didn’t have to. At 30 years old, with the best regular season of his career at his back (reaching 100 points for the first time), with his name already etched once on the Stanley Cup (in 2011), he knows how this works.
He is a master at crawling under people’s skin. While the hockey world spent Wednesday talking about his latest transgression, they were saying less about his line’s alarming lack of production. If the Bruins want their way back into this series, fixing the latter is more important that worrying about the former.
“I think there is frustration when top guys don’t score,” Cassidy said. “It’s not unique to our top guys; ask players around the league that are used to scoring. They get frustrated around this time of year. There’s more pressure, you don’t have as much time to work your way out of it, so there’s a little bit of that going on.”
With Marchand, there’s almost always something going on. He kept it in check all regular season, but there that rebellious streak was again Tuesday night. Now we just wait to see what it means.
Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.