It was an eerie scene in Montreal on Tuesday night.
The once-raucous crowd, hyped up by what is currently the most heated rivalry in the NHL, now stood in complete silence.
Fans looked on in shock. Play-by-play announcers fumbled with words, unsure how to describe what just took place. Players simply stood and held their breath.
Max Pacioretty lay motionless on the ice.
It's hard to think of a scarier picture, and when it comes to hits, this one may have been the scariest. It started as a routine race for the puck, as the Canadiens forward battled for space with hulking Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.
As the puck was chipped ahead, and both players tried to gain the advantage, Chara forced Pacioretty towards the boards along the Bruins' bench. It's a play that happens a hundred times during a game, but this time it was different.
It happened so fast, and the sound that accompanied it was sickening.
As Chara's 6'9", 255-pound frame lead Pacioretty towards the boards, he had no way to escape what happened next, as the Habs forward slammed head-first into the stanchion, spun like a rag doll, and landed in a heap in front of his bench.
It's the kind of hit that makes you flinch, and after you've seen it in slow-motion, you wish you hadn't. Immediately it was clear he was injured, and as he lay with his face pressed against the ice surface, eyes closed, and only the faintest of movement, you couldn't help but think the worst.
And that, right there, is when the thought process suddenly shifted. The silence only lasted for a few seconds before everything turned from the player laying on the ice, to the player that laid the hit. The focus from on-lookers was now on Chara, who was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct.
The building filled with boos, the Canadiens players spat fury at the Bruins captain, and angry comments filled the airwaves.
The hatred. The questions. The intent.
Did Chara really mean to do what he did? Therein lies the issue: the intent. Did he really mean to slam Pacioretty's head in to the partition at the end of the bench?
It sure looks that way. It sure looks as if Chara's hands are up by his head on purpose, and that there's an extra shove at the last moment. And it sure looks like Chara knew where he was on the ice and what he was doing.
But that's just what it looks like, and as convinced as we are of an answer, we don't know for sure.
What hurts Chara's case is the history between the two players. On Jan. 8, after Pacioretty scored the overtime winning goal, he shoved Chara in the back, which started a melee on the ice at the end of the game. It wasn't much, but it's something that comes into account in a situation like this.
Chara will be suspended for his actions, there is no doubt about that. And though Pacioretty was conscious and had movement in all his extremities at the hospital after the game, he's not out of the woods. It's likely he has a concussion if nothing else, as we're well aware, concussions are no longer measured in games missed, but months missed.
It was a scary play any way you look at it. Questions that remain may never be answered. All we can hope is that Pacioretty recovers fully from this vicious hit, and furthermore, that the NHL can learn from this and continue to improve player safety on the ice.
But Tuesday night at the Bell Centre proved, yet again, as fun and exciting as the NHL is, it can also provide a stage for scary, life-threatening situations. Whether the intent to injure is there or not, some day the result of one of these plays might end up in the worst way possible.
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