There will be nine games on the NHL schedule on Thursday, many of them with playoff implications, but they all figure to be dwarfed in attention by the matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins.
The two clubs face off for the first time since the hit that transcended the hockey world on March 8 — Zdeno Chara's rubout of Max Pacioretty in Montreal.
Pacioretty was taken off on a stretcher and hospitalized after being ridden into the stanchion near the Boston bench by the 6-9 Bruins defenceman. The New Canaan, Ct., native suffered a severe concussion and fractured the fourth vertebra in his neck when his head slammed into the support.
Embellished severity: Recchi
Bruins forward Mark Recchi has suggested the Canadiens "embellished" the severity of Max Pacioretty's injury from Zdeno Chara's check. Recchi said everyone was glad the Habs forward was going to be OK but said Montreal did its bit to get the Bruins captain suspended.
"He does obviously have a fractured vertebrae, but the concussion was obviously really a non-factor, maybe a day or two, maybe a day he felt it then he was fine a couple of days later," Recchi told WBZ on Wednesday, noting Pacioretty was tweeting at the movies in less than a week.
"I believe, yeah, they were trying to get Zdeno suspended and they embellished it a little bit. You have to look at it, I guess, [that] they were trying to do whatever they could to get him suspended. And I think the league sent the message that it was a hockey play and that's the important thing that people have to understand." — Associated Press
There will likely be more back-and-forth between the clubs, with Chara telling the Boston media on Wednesday that he has tried to contact Pacioretty, but has not heard back. The Bruins captain said he's happy to hear that Pacioretty is recovering from the hit.
Pacioretty will be on the minds of the Montreal players, but they said Wednesday they'll be focused on the task at hand.
"If you ask Patch, the biggest thing right now is for us to win," Canadiens forward Ryan White told The Canadian Press after practice in Brossard, Que. "We've given ourselves an opportunity to catch these guys and tomorrow's a big four-point night."
The Habs (40-27-7) could move to within one point of the Bruins with a regulation win at TD Garden.
Boston, meanwhile, can go a long way towards the Northeast Division crown with a regulation win of their own. It would put them five points up on the Canadiens with two games in hand.
The Canadiens and Bruins have met in the playoffs more than any other two franchises, including in 2008 and 2009.
While the odds of another Boston-Montreal playoff matchup are strong, it is not guaranteed. The New York Rangers are surging and the Tampa Bay Lightning have endured some struggles.
The Bruins themselves still have a legitimate chance at finishing second in the Eastern Conference.
White said the result is the most important part, but Montreal will be ready for anything that happens.
"We're going to be jacked up," said White, one of the Canadiens' tougher players. "I know what I have to do to help this team win."
The last time the teams meet in Boston, the Bruins prevailed 8-6 in a fight-filled contest. Even goaltenders Carey Price and Tim Thomas, likely finalists for the Vezina Trophy, wrestled a bit.
That affair was a prelude to the March 8 game, one in which Montreal was controlling in every facet of the game with a 4-0 lead when Pacioretty and Chara made their fateful choices.
Pacioretty elected to try and squeeze between the big defender and the boards to chase the puck, with Chara getting a major interference penalty after using his long arm to guide the 6-2 forward atop the boards and into the stanchion.
The Canadiens found out last week that Pacioretty could be able to resume skating in a couple of weeks and conceivably return for the playoffs, but by that point, a whole firestorm had been loosed.
The hit divided opinions within the hockey world, especially after the NHL elected not to suspend Chara, deeming it a "hockey play" with a terrible consequence.
Many argued that the violent consequence should have led to a suspension, and pointed to the past history between the two players. Some suggested that Chara knew it was Pacioretty coming at him, a player he had shoved after a Montreal goal in a game between the clubs earlier this season.
Supporters of the NHL's decision said suspending Chara would make him a scapegoat for the type of stanchion hit that has occurred several times a year in the league. Those players, it was argued, were never suspended.
Canadiens owner Geoff Molson and a handful of players in the league publicly criticized the decision not to suspend, and Montreal fans held a protest before a subsequent game at Centre Bell.
Some of the NHL's sponsors also urged the league to get serious about headshots and player safety.
Pacioretty was naturally displeased with the NHL's decision but urged Montreal police not to pursue an investigation that they had commenced looking into the hit.
The incident came just days before the league's general managers were scheduled to meet, and in a season when several top players have suffered concussions, it thrust the issue of player safety and headshots front and centre.
On the ice, meanwhile, both teams have struggled of late.
Boston coach Claude Julien ripped into his team after an embarrassing 5-2 loss in Toronto on Saturday, and the Bruins responded with a 4-1 win over New Jersey on Tuesday.
Chara had a goal and two assists, and the team's struggling power play showed signs of life.
Tomas Kaberle, who's helped the Bruins move the puck up ice quicker since being traded from Toronto in mid-February, had his first multi-point game as a Bruin with two assists.
Montreal has alternated wins and losses in the last seven games, and after bursting for eight goals in Minnesota, were stymied by Ryan Miller of Buffalo in a 2-0 home loss on Tuesday.
The good news for the Canadiens is that they are getting healthier, although it was yet to be announced whether any of Tomas Plekanec, Jeff Halpern, Brent Sopel or Mathieu Darche are ready.
Goalie Carey Price, who allowed just one goal against the Sabres before Buffalo sealed it with an empty-net score, took Wednesday off to rest.
While Boston and Montreal are tied with 37 non-shootout wins, the first tiebreaker that will be used in the standings, the Canadiens have already locked up the season series, which is the second tiebreaker.
After the emotional encounter with the Bruins, Montreal returns home for a Hockey Night in Canada date Saturday against Washington.