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According to Hunter, high aim is low blow

Things got testy at the end of Game 3 after Nicklas Backstrom hit Rich Peverley in the face. Things got testy at the end of Game 3 after Nicklas Backstrom hit Rich Peverley in the face. (Barry Chin/Globe Staff)
By Nancy Marrapese-Burrell
Globe Staff / April 18, 2012
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ARLINGTON, Va. - Familiarity breeds contempt, and there was plenty of the latter in Monday’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals between the Bruins and Capitals.

The chippiness in the series was a main topic in the postgame dressing rooms, and even more so yesterday as a result of Nicklas Backstrom’s match penalty at the end of the game.

Backstrom cross-checked Bruins forward Rich Peverley in the head and was assessed a penalty that calls for an automatic one-game suspension unless the NHL elects to rescind it or extend it. Backstrom had a phone hearing with the NHL’s department of safety Tuesday and was suspended for Thursday night’s Game 4.

The Capitals were far from prolific on the subject yesterday at their practice rink. In fact, no players - including Backstrom - were made available on site. Instead, it was coach Dale Hunter who addressed the situation.

The irony that Hunter made a fine living doing things during his long playing career that were fraught with controversy wasn’t lost on anyone.

He defended Backstrom completely, saying that the talented forward was only protecting himself. Backstrom missed 40 games this season because of a concussion. In Hunter’s view, the Bruins have been targeting Backstrom’s head.

“I don’t think he’s going to be suspended,’’ said Hunter. “If you slow it down, frame by frame, where was [David] Krejci’s stick? It was up in his face first.’’

Hunter presumably meant Peverley, since Krejci was at the bench at the time of the infraction and no other Bruin was near Peverley.

“Nicky, because of a stick in his face, the guy put his stick up like that and Nicky reacted to it,’’ said Hunter. “He was trying to protect his face. If you watch it, the stick is right in his eyes. It’s a dangerous play on their part.’’

Backstrom was assessed four penalties in the game, three of which were for cross-checking. The first was at the 20-minute mark of the first period, the second at the 16:46 mark of the third, and the last being the match penalty. That track record can’t be helpful to his case.

Yet Hunter argued it was just the latest example of the Bruins going after Backstrom up high.

“If you notice that, every scrum, Nicky comes out with no helmet on,’’ said the coach. “He gets blocker to the head by [Bruins goalie Tim] Thomas in the game before, so he’s protecting his head.

“He just came off of [missing] 40 games. You have to protect your head. With [Peverley’s] stick being in his face like that, it’s a dangerous play on Boston’s part.’’

Hunter also said Bruins forward Milan Lucic was targeting Backstrom’s head.

“What did Lucic do to him in a scrum?’’ said Hunter. “He grabbed his head, so Nicky is protecting himself. He’s got to protect himself. If you get a second concussion, you’re out a long time.

“If the stick wasn’t in his face, Nicky Backstrom is not that kind of player. He doesn’t just cross-check somebody in the face. He’s not like that. Because the stick was there, he protected himself.’’

Hunter believes the Bruins are crossing the line between hard play and dirty play with regard to Backstrom.

“To grab his head all the time is not the right way to play,’’ said Hunter.

A little elbow room

Hunter, like many of his players, felt there was more available real estate for both teams in Game 3 than there was in Games 1 and 2. Hence, the total of seven goals scored. There was one goal scored in Game 1 and three in Game 2. “It was a little more free-wheeling, but the scoring chances were low again,’’ said Hunter. “Both teams got more pucks to the net, I thought, and that’s how [they] created goals with [Alexander] Semin scoring and [Brian] Rolston scoring and plays like that.’’ . . . Hunter declined to address whether veterans Jeff Halpern and Mike Knuble would be inserted into the lineup for Game 4, calling it a game-time decision.

Solid backing

Hunter fully endorsed the play of his 22-year-old goaltender, Braden Holtby, who faced more challenges from the Bruins in Game 3 than he did in the first two games combined. Holtby made just 25 saves after making 29 and 43 in the first two games. “He was good, both goalies were solid,’’ said Hunter. “There was a lot of traffic on both. I thought Holtby was real good and he stood tall. It’s one thing to get guys in front, but the puck’s got to get through to actually get a tip.’’ On Zdeno Chara’s winning goal, which deflected off the stick of Capitals defenseman Roman Hamrlik, Hunter said, “It’s a 3-3 game. They got lucky. It was just a fluke goal.’’

Nancy Marrapese-Burrell can be reached at marrapese@globe.com.

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