LAS VEGAS (AP) — Matthew Tkachuk lined up Jack Eichel and leveled him with a thunderous open-ice hit that sent him to the ice.
Eichel quickly skated off and retreated to the locker room, for more than a few moments putting a scare into the Vegas Golden Knights late in the second period of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Instead of his night being over, Eichel returned for the third period and set up the fifth goal of seven in a rout of the Florida Panthers that put Vegas up 2-0 in the best-of-seven series and two wins away from a championship.
The hit debated ’round the hockey world was quickly determined by all involved to be clean, and Eichel’s bounce back to play another important role in this playoff run only further exemplified a team mantra that “it hurts to win.” Players, after checking in with Eichel at intermission to make sure he was OK, repeated that phrase over and over.
“It was definitely a big collision,” Eichel said. “It’s a physical game. You’re going to get hit sometimes. You just kind of move on.”
Eichel refused to complain about the hit and even took responsibility for putting himself in that position. “Got to be aware of it, you know? You’ve got to keep your head up.”
That kind of hit used to be commonplace in the NHL but has faded with the evolution of players toward skill and away from potentially brutal contact. Tkachuk, the Panthers’ leading scorer this postseason and their emotional leader, is not afraid to throw his body around to make a difference and carries with him an old-school mentality about players protecting themselves.
“It doesn’t matter who you are: You shouldn’t be going through the middle with your head down,” Tkachuk said. “You’re going to get hit. I mean, I would get hit, too, if I had my head down in the middle. It’s nothing. It’s not a big deal. He’s a really good player, and really good players can get hit, too.”
The hit itself was made worse by Eichel losing his footing – “toe-picked a bit” – seconds before contact. He landed awkwardly and grimaced while skating off.
Eichel later conceded he got the wind knocked out of him, but it appeared worse in real time.
“You don’t want to see a guy like Jack go down,” teammate William Carrier said. “He looked bad out there, to be honest.”
Eichel didn’t think it was bad enough to writhe on the ice and wait for medical attention when he could skate off and begin the process of collecting himself.
When did he know for sure he was OK? It didn’t take long.
“I just came (into the locker room) and regrouped,” Eichel said. “I got my wits back about me and realized I was fine.”
Vegas led 4-0 at the time after chasing Florida goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, and Eichel sitting out for precautionary reasons would not have been all that unusual. But after coach Bruce Cassidy confirmed everything was all right, Eichel was back on the bench at the start of the third, providing a boost by his mere presence.
“Not only does it give us juice, but sometimes it can take away juice from the other team if they see a guy come back,” Cassidy said. “It was good for the group.”
It got better.
On Eichel’s first shift back, he won a puck battle and fed the puck to Jonathan Marchessault for his second goal of the game and the Golden Knights’ fifth.
“That’s the resiliency we have in that locker room,” Marchessault said. “It starts with your top guys and goes right through the lineup.”
The announcement of Eichel’s assist drew a louder-than-usual cheer from the crowd of 18,561. That meant a lot to Eichel, who also appreciated teammates making sure he was good to go.
“Everyone’s taken a couple hits in their career,” he said. “This is a physical game we play, so it’s all part of it.”
Not letting it derail his and the Knights’ title might make the hit and Eichel’s response part of franchise lore if they can finish off Florida and hoist the Cup for the first time in the franchise’s brief, six-year history.
Already, teammates called Eichel strong and “a warrior.” His coach was most proud of Eichel boasting the toughness of a hockey player willing to take a hit and pop right up and continue contributing.
“That’s hockey,” Cassidy said. “It’s OK to get hit in June. This is part of the journey. It hurts to win, and it’s not supposed to be easy. Good for him.”
Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno
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