BOSTON — Before we get to the sloppy tongue bath and the grizzly ankle injury and the deafening silence of swallowed whistles, let us first address the absolute oddest spectacle from Friday night’s doozy at TD Garden: A 34-year-old defensive defenseman named Dan Girardi, bought out from his once-bloated contract 11 months ago, tipping a centering pass with only one hand on his stick and the blade turned backwards, celebrating the 4-3 overtime winner as Tampa Bay took a 3-1 series lead in these wackadoo Eastern Conference semifinals.
First question: Huh?
“If you go back and look at video, he’s there quite a bit,” Lightning forward Ryan Callahan said. “We joke with him, that’s his office. I’m telling you, go back and watch the video.”
Very well. To the tape we turn. The sequence starts along the half-wall, where a cluster of white and black jerseys jostles for possession. The puck slides toward the point and remains onside thanks to winger Alex Killorn, who exchanges a give-and-go with linemate Yanni Gourde and then lumbers through the right faceoff circle. Spying open ice, Girardi dashes backdoor and gains inside position on Boston forward Brian Gionta. Parallel to the crease, Killorn shovels the puck into traffic, right as Girardi shoves off Gionta and angles his stick ahead. “Seen that backhand tip before,” defenseman Victor Hedman said. “The one-handed one is new.”
It was a stellar read at the perfect moment, resulting in the first OT playoff goal of Girardi’s career and a collective exhale along the Gulf Coast shores. Somehow it took until Game 4 for a lead to change hands this series, but when Bruins center Patrice Bergeron redirected a shorthanded tally 6:36 into the third period, capping off a comeback that put his team ahead 3-2, it certainly appeared as though the tide was shifting in Boston’s favor. Instead, the crackling crowd inside Amalie Arena will arrive Sunday afternoon looking for a closeout and a third conference finals bid over the past four seasons—far from the dynastic territory staked by two-time defending champion Pittsburgh, but impressive nonetheless.
That is the ultimate takeaway. And now, the other stuff. Let us work from the top down, starting with Brad Marchand. After Callahan took umbrage with a low hit along the boards by shoving Marchand in the face, the world-class pest leaned close and licked Callahan on the nose.
Second question: What?
“Well, he punched me four times in the face, so you know, he just kept getting close,” Marchand said. “Nothing big.”
“I don't know what the difference between that is and spitting in someone’s face,” Callahan said.
“There’s absolutely no place in our game for that,” Lightning coach Jon Cooper said, eyes rolled toward the ceiling. He scratched his head, stammered and sighed. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. How would you feel if I walked over to you right now and gave you one big lick from the chin, all the way up?”
Fair point, though certainly Callahan would’ve been madder in defeat than victory. As it was, the Lightning rebounded from Bergeron’s go-ahead goal six minutes later when captain Steven Stamkos popped into the slot and hammered the tying puck past goalie Tuukka Rask. Which brings us to the third question: Should Nikita Kucherov have been whistled for holding defenseman Charlie McAvoy, moments before linemate J.T. Miller found Stamkos? Judging by the plastic water bottles and yellow towels hailing toward the officiating crew after Girardi’s goal, the Boston faithful answered with an unequivocal affirmative.
“I’m not going to lie,” captain Zdeno Chara said. “Yeah, I thought so.”
“It was a very blatant grab on [McAvoy’s] shoulder,” Marchand said. “It’s unfortunate that they can’t get it right.”
“Seemed to be going down this road a lot lately about the non-calls,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “It looked like he reached around, pulled him down. Charlie’s a strong guy. But it wasn’t called and it’s in our net and that’s that … I thought the non-call impacted the play directly. In overtime, they won a puck battle along the wall and made a play.”
Fourth question: What now for the Bruins? Will they dust themselves off from a disheartening loss and avoid elimination? How will Cassidy handle his bottom-six corps of forwards, which already welcomed rookie Ryan Donato and the 39-year-old Gionta to its ranks Friday in search of secondary scoring? And which defenseman will replace Torey Krug, the offensive dynamo on Boston’s top power-play unit who spilled feet-first into the boards and needed assistance merely getting down the tunnel, before leaving TD Garden with a walking boot and crutches?
All will be answered in short order. For now, enjoy the unlikely vision of Girardi, one among several recent castaways from the rebuilding corpse of the New York Rangers—see: McDonagh, Ryan and Miller, J.T.—chucking both arms into the air as the Lightning swarmed off their bench. “He’s been tremendous. A great fit for us. He’s one that really deserves it,” Hedman said later, fighting through a gravelly voice. Final question: Too much screaming in the celebratory scrum, perhaps?
“Yeah, I probably did.”