LAS VEGAS – It’s a success people will be talking about 30 years from now.
Matthew Tkachuk’s bone-chilling take on Jack Eichel would remain in blockbuster shows for decades. Two superstars earning a combined annual salary of $19.5 million come together like a truck colliding on the highway, and Eichel’s helmet popping on his head upon impact.
Take your breath away.
And tonight, the best news of all was Eichel’s season three comeback from a 7-2 win for the Golden Knights over the Panthers in Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final, giving Las Vegas a 2-0 series lead. With Game 3 on Thursday in South Florida.
The concern was evident for Eichel as he swayed and gingerly skated into the dressing room – specifically his surgically repaired neck.
Once again, seeing him get back in the game was a relief to every hockey fan.
It was also one hell of a hit from Tkachuk. The hockey world was buzzing right away.
I reached out via text Monday night to current and former players and a few coaches in the aftermath of the strike, to get their perspective on whether it came clean.
Lightning star and captain Stephen Stamkos:
“It was a clean hit. Eichel was in a tight spot at the point of contact, but it was a good hockey shot in my eyes. Glad to see Jack back in the game. I was surprised no one was going after Tkachuk, especially given the outcome of the match. But all is well. As for Vegas tonight, so I guess it’s not a problem.”
Former Ducks star and captain Ryan Getzlaff:
“Good, hard hit!!! I don’t have a problem with that. I think it’s the right time for a big hit to try and strengthen his team. He didn’t go out of his way at all, just got him to a bad place.”
Current NHL Eastern Conference player, who asked not to be identified:
“Said Eshel is fine. For me, it was a great hit. It was clean. Eshel saw it at the last second and was a little surprised and leaned over to him instead of sucking it in. The reason he had to lower his head for a split second to find the puck was because he went with one hand on his back So he had to take an extra second to look down at the coral and he was surprised. On Tkachuk’s part, that’s a skill to be able to hit like that in open ice. There’s a lot that goes into it, like timing, keeping your elbow down and hitting with the shoulder and also with your legs Keeping your feet on the ground. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Glad nobody got hurt and that was as good as you can achieve in my opinion.”
Former Rangers coach Gerard Gallant:
“From what I saw on TV, Eshel didn’t see it until it was too late. He seemed to stumble a little bit, which made the hit look worse. However, my point is that it was a clean hit, a bad result.”
Former Canucks coach Bruce Boudreau:
“I thought it was tough but not sloppy. Eshel was falling. Tkachuk was folded in his arms, and Jack saw him coming and tripped. I didn’t think it was a penalty.”
Current Western Conference NHL player, who asked not to be identified:
“I thought the hit was clean. Elbow tucked, shoulder level… He wasn’t predatory. It was such a shame that Eshel picked the toe when he did that.”
Blues coach Craig Berube:
“I thought it was a clean hit, shoulder to shoulder. It was as if Eshel hadn’t seen him until right before making contact.”
Former All-Star and Captain Mike Modano:
It didn’t help that he (Ishel) snapped his toe before he got hit. But it was a clean hit. Open ice strikes don’t exist anymore, so when it happens, everyone assumes it was a cheap shot. This hit has happened 40 times in the ’99 qualifiers.
Well, there is a consensus here. As it should be there. He hit clean all the way, which Eichel himself admirably admitted after the game on Monday.
“It’s kind of a little bit on me,” he said. “I didn’t see him, and I kind of stumbled and kind of fell into it. But it’s a physical game. He’s trying to finish the checks in there. You should be aware of that, you know? You have to keep your head up. I’ll be fine.”
Modano’s comment, about that kind of hitting the open ice 40 times happening in the 1999 qualifiers, hit me. Very true. The game has changed a lot. It is for the best, of course, when it comes to the number of fewer head injuries we see today. But man, a good, clean hit in the open ice is really something you don’t see very often anymore. It’s beautiful. But there is a whole generation of gamers who aren’t looking for it or even looking forward to offering it. It’s just not a normal part of an NHL game today, especially not in the regular season.
So Monday night, Stanley Cup Finals hit, again given players in particular, this one for the ages.
It’s similar in scope to what fellow superstars Vincent Lecavalier and Jarome Iginla took down in an emotional matchup in the 2004 Stanley Cup Final.
Tkachuk and Eshel will laugh about it sometime this summer, no doubt.
For now, though, there’s this: A ruthless Panthers team that used its blistering physical style to outrun its opponents in the previous three innings was on the losing end of that physical battle over two games of this Cup final. Well, aside from Tkachuk’s injury, that is.
The Golden Knights are bigger and stronger than the Bruins, Leafs, and Hurricanes, and the Panthers don’t have an answer for that yet. Just ask Radko Judas after he was injured Monday night when he tried to hit Ivan Barbashev. Ouch.
And maybe that’s why Tkachuk felt the need at that moment in the second period to sound the physical alarm.
It didn’t work. But it certainly left us with a blow that we will never forget.
(Photo by Jack Eichel and Matthew Tkachuk: Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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