TAMPA — On the ice, the game moves fast, and when Lightning forward Mathieu Joseph and Detroit’s Dylan Larkin pursued a loose puck near the side boards earlier this season, Joseph didn’t expect what happened next.
As the puck skipped past Larkin’s stick, the Red Wings captain turned toward the boards to collect it. Coming with speed from a different angle, Joseph was caught in a tough spot and ended up hitting Larkin into the boards head-first.
Larkin, who spent eight weeks in a surgical collar last April after being cross-checked by Dallas’ Jamie Benn, jumped to his skates and sucker-punched Joseph in the face, knocking him to the ice.
A few days later, cooler heads prevailed. Joseph saw on social media that Larkin was visiting a specialist for his neck. He didn’t know about Larkin’s injury history, and after replaying the hit over and over on video and in his mind, Joseph reached out to apologize.
“I thought my hit wasn’t great, but at the same time, it was really hard for me to stop,” Joseph said. “... Someone told me ... about some of the bad injuries that he had last year. ... And knowing that I was the guy after his first game coming back doing this back to him — even if, with a sucker punch, his reaction was probably not the way to do it after — but obviously I just wanted to know that he was all right with the hit.”
The players made amends, which is something that happens often once things slow down in a game known for speed, physicality and emotion. Players respect each other’s careers, knowing how hard it is to get to the NHL, let alone make a lengthy career out of it, and the real dangers that exist.
“He answered me back,” Joseph said. “We talked about it, we washed it off, and he knows that things happen in hockey and it happened fast. It’s very easy to judge after things like that, after seeing the replay and the slo-mo and all this stuff, but during a game it’s not an easy thing to do.”
Still, physicality is part of the game. Teams flex their muscle to send an opponent a message. Young players earn their stripes by standing up for teammates. Fans jump out of their seats when they see their team land a hard hit or when players drop their gloves.
Veteran forward Pat Maroon, who is the Lightning’s resident tough guy (and fought the Islanders’ Zdeno Chara during a game last month), said playing physical and hitting other players comes with the territory.
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“I think we’re all trying to do one job,” Maroon said. “We’re trying to work hard, we’re trying to compete, we’re trying to stick up for our teammates. There are times when you’re going to have to answer the bell, and I think friendship kind of goes out the window.”
The Lightning were a great team with all their skill, but it wasn’t until they developed a physical edge that they became back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
“When you go into a puck battle, are you going to say, ‘OK, let me win that puck battle?’ Obviously not,” Maroon said. “If there’s a big hit that needs to be had, are you going to lay off on them? Probably not.
“You might, but I just think once push comes to shove, I think we’re the Lightning and they’re some other team. And after the game, we can shake hands. I just think people get that, the players get that, they understand that and respect the game by that.”
Sometimes, the apologies come quickly.
Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev’s hit on Toronto’s Mitch Marner in early November resulted in a two-game suspension. But long before he was disciplined, Sergachev made amends with Marner.
Marner had a breakaway after the puck skipped over Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman’s stick at the offensive blue line. As Marner chased the rolling puck into the Tampa Bay zone, Hedman hooked him from behind, slowing Marner. Sergachev tried to cut off Marner’s path, but his right shoulder hit caught Marner in the face, snapping his head back.
Several Toronto players immediately went after Sergachev, who at first didn’t understand their reaction.
“When I hit him, I didn’t feel like I hit him in the face,” Sergachev said. ”That’s why when they jumped me, I was like, ‘I didn’t do anything. Why are you guys going after me?’ But then I saw the replay. Obviously, I felt bad about it if I hit him in the face.”
Sergachev didn’t let the animosity linger, apologizing to Marner the next time they were on the ice together.
“Obviously, it’s very important (to tell him),” Sergachev said. “I’m not a dirty player, and I think he knows that, because we’ve played against each other before.”
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