EDMONTON, Alberta — Pat Maroon shot a puck into the Dallas bench, nailing an opponent in the face. Victor Hedman tripped Corey Perry before a faceoff. Perry put Tampa Bay’s Cedric Paquette into a headlock before getting flipped over.
The dislike is building quickly for the Stars and Lightning in this Stanley Cup Final, which is knotted at 1-1 going into Wednesday night’s game. While nastiness typically develops in a lot of series this deep in the playoffs, it’s happening even earlier in this one because players have grown cranky after eight weeks in the NHL bubble.
They are taking it out on the ice.
”That would probably play a big part of it,” Stars coach Rick Bowness said. ”The things that you normally do to relax between games, whether it’s going out for dinner with your wife or go for a drive or going to the driving range to hit golf balls – anything you can do to relax between games is not there, so everyone’s a little edgy.”
The championship will ultimately be decided by which team can dictate its game to the other in what has become a best three out of five series. Those extra pushes, shoves and facewashes are part of it – and they only ratchet up the intensity, even without fans to cheer or boo it all.
”It seems like in this setting with no fans, it’s even more competitive out there with just you and the other team,” Dallas forward Andrew Cogliano said. ”Both teams are going to fight for every inch. As the series goes on, it’s just going to get more competitive.”
It’s competitive and chippy after the teams split the first two games and combined for 50 penalty minutes. Fourteen of those belong to Maroon, who got a 10-minute misconduct for flipping a puck into the bench and two minutes for roughing it up with Jamie Oleksiak in Game 1, then another two in Game 2 for running Stars goaltender Anton Khudobin.
”You know what happened,” Maroon said when asked about the puck incident. Stars veteran Joe Pavelski wasn’t thrilled the puck hit rookie Joel Kiviranta in the face, but said the referees handled it.
”That’s all you can do,” Pavelski said. ”It doesn’t take us off our game.”
After Maroon ran into Khudobin and incited a skirmish that qualifies as modern hockey’s line brawl, it was clear he has not endeared himself to the Stars.
”Why’s Maroon still out there?” a Dallas player yelled, easily heard in the empty arena. ”Put him in the box already!”
By the time Maroon, Hedman and Paquette got to the box, it was so crowded all three couldn’t sit down. Each team wants to avoid unnecessary penalties like that, but players know what’s at stake and they are not surprised by all the post-whistle extracurriculars.
”You’re not trying to give anyone an inch out there,” Tampa Bay center Anthony Cirelli said. ”You’re trying to finish every check when you can, it’s going to be physical, the emotions are going to be high. I think that’s just what comes with the entire playoffs, and that’s what playoff hockey is all about.”
This is also playoff hockey in the most unnatural of circumstances. As Bowness pointed out, players and coaches usually would be able to clear their minds and blow off steam between games.
That’s not possible right now.
”You’re just finding other ways,” Bowness said. ”The grind, the Groundhog Day, that is tough, and the normal things you would do to help you relax are just not there, so you adapt.”
Most players started this postseason healthy, and of course the injuries built up, but the struggle the Stars and Lightning are enduring right now is as much mental as anything. And it’s different playing playoff games without the usual transition from an 82-game regular season.
”The teams are so good that what separates you sometimes is whoever wants it more,” Cogliano said. ”Physically and mentally, it’s hard, but that’s the point at this time of the year and that’s the point of playing in the playoffs. It’s supposed to be hard and you have to enjoy it and want to be out there.”
Dallas played this style of game throughout the first three rounds, ousting high-scoring Colorado and Vegas along the way. Tampa Bay, after adding Maroon in free agency and Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman in trades, isn’t just a skill team and is more than happy to mix it up.
”I think we have some skill, we have some speed and we also bring that physical aspect to the game,” Cirelli said. ”But we’re not trying to be goons out there. We’re trying to win hockey games.”