There were a handful of memorable moments from Boston’s third period comeback in Game 4 where the team scored four goals in less than seven minutes to erase a two-goal deficit.
But the biggest momentum-shifter wasn’t a lamp-lighter at all, but instead a devastating third period hip check thrown by Charlie McAvoy that knocked Jordan Staal out of Boston’s 4-3 win over the Carolina Hurricanes in Game 4 at Scotiabank Arena.
The Bruins had already halved Carolina’s lead to a 2-1 score when McAvoy lined up Staal with his head down at the Canes offensive blue line, but the check energized Boston’s bench with the exact kind of self-powered, momentum-shifting play that hockey players need to get them over the hump in these most unique of playoffs.
It was a massive collision between the 220-pound Staal and the 208-pound McAvoy, but it was also very clear from the start that Staal got the worst of it. There was nothing illegal about the check with a high finish to the head with a raised McAvoy elbow, so it felt much more like an iconic postseason collision than something that’s going to lead to supplemental discipline.
“He’s got a lot of meat over there,” said a smiling Jake DeBrusk of McAvoy’s punishing check as the two were side-by-side at the podium following the game. “The reaction of the bench [was huge]. It’s so weird without fans, to be honest with you. Anytime there’s a big play or a good scoring chance, the only way you know is by the bench reaction. Obviously, it was a big hit and it was a good moment for us. That’s when we were coming hard.”
Connor Clifton scored on the very next shift to tie the game and the Bruins scored two more goals in the four-goal outburst in the third period, but it was McAvoy completely blowing up Staal that really changed things for both hockey clubs.
“[The DeBrusk goal] started it for us. Now we're back in the game right and we’ve got a chance. And then the McAvoy hit. I think we were playing and we were going to push and we were pushing, so obviously it helps us a lot, but I think it really demoralizes the other team,” said Bruins head coach Cassidy. “When one of your veteran players, a leader in your room, or really a respected player in this league, takes a good hard clean hit, like I said, it affects your group.
It affected us positively and probably [the Hurricanes] in a negative manner. They lose a guy that's a shutdown centerman and had been doing a real good job against [Patrice Bergeron’s] line that game, so for us it really helped.
Staal didn’t return to Game 4 after getting knocked to the ice and he appeared upset on his way to the dressing room after the play, as if the veteran center knew that he might be injured in some way by the collision. For his part, McAvoy said he felt like it was a clean hit delivered to separate the player from the puck, and that’s exactly what happened while the B’s defenseman was making a physical statement to the Hurricanes.
“You have to be able to create your own energy on the bench. Going into that third period and obviously you’re down two [goals] and the game hadn’t really been in our favor. We had some chances and stuff, but we were looking to create some energy and that was kind of the message,” said McAvoy. “It was the opportunity to step up and make a hit. I started skating backwards, tried to kind of take a proper angle there. You want to make sure all your stuff is in [check] so you don’t deliver a dirty hit.
"You never hope to injure someone, just [trying] to take the puck from a man. I hope he’s doing OK. All I’m thinking is to try and separate a man from the puck and try get us possession back as quickly as possible so we can play offense and try and tie the game up. That was really my only thought process. The game moves so fast and I just wanted to deliver a clean check and just do my job.”
It’s been a special kind of playoff for McAvoy to this point as he plays big minutes, involves himself in the offense in a more assertive way and is bringing physicality that’s changing the momentum in these playoff games.
McAvoy's Game 4 hit on Staal that helped changed Boston’s fortune for the better will also go down as another massive play by a youngster really coming into his own as a No. 1 defenseman.