NEW YORK — Brandon Prust, once a hugely popular member of the New York Rangers, says he still loves this town. But the Canadiens winger understands the feeling isn’t exactly mutual these days.
Or probably ever will be again.
Prust served the first match of his two-game ban Sunday, suspended by the NHL on Friday for his Game 3 first-period check of Rangers centre Derek Stepan.
The league ruled after a Friday telephone hearing that Prust interfered with Stepan with “a late, violent hit causing injury,” it said in its explanation video.
“What elevates this hit to merit supplemental discipline,” the video continues, “is its extreme lateness and a significant head contact that results from the way it is delivered.”
No penalty was called at the time, and Stepan returned to action midway through the period, ultimately playing 17:46 in the Canadiens 3-2 overtime victory.
Prust, who from 2010-12 played 214 games for the Rangers, more than half of his current total of 409, was a beloved athlete in this city; he was revered for the hard-driving, body-crushing style.
All of that has changed, of course, Prust now being vilified by Rangers fans. This city is dripping with poison for a former Blueshirt who might never have been king of New York, but was a member of its rugged royal family.
“During the playoffs, I’ve been kind of staying off the Twitter (but) I know, obviously, that New York fans aren’t happy, and rightfully so,” Prust said Saturday, speaking to a large media gathering at Madison Square Garden.
“They’re passionate fans and protect their players just like the organization does. Just like Montreal fans would do for me.
“So it’s a good thing. I’m not too worried. They’re not my fans anymore. I’m in Montreal now and those are my fans. That’s kind of who I care about.
“I remember my time here and I still love this city and appreciate this organization, but I’m focused on getting ready and coming back for Game 6. I’m not worried about all that other stuff.”
Prust didn’t put a foot out of place during his media session, expressing remorse for injuring Stepan and taking responsibility for his actions.
He explained the hearing he had with the NHL, which he said wasn’t about the hit itself but its timing, which he said came two-10ths of a second later than the league would allow.
“It’s my first shift of the game,” Prust recalled. “I’m trying to create some energy. I want to get out there and get some bodychecks in. I see Step with the puck, and I’m kind of backtracking, and I do a good job of getting in front of him, other than coming from the side.”
Stepan had chipped the puck up the boards and cut out toward the middle of the neutral zone when he was met high in the chest by Prust’s squared shoulder, the Ranger’s jaw clipped in the sequence.
“I try to skate in front of him and stop, and come back into him,” Prust said. “I kept my skate on the ice, my shoulder into his chest. I didn’t leave my feet. It’s all about the timing. It’s a fraction of a second.
“The NHL deems a hit late around .6 seconds, and I’m at .8 seconds, so you know, that’s on me. It’s late, but for me my focus was on trying to make a good, clean bodycheck and not leave my feet, my elbows tucked. Everything about the actual contact is clean, it’s just late.”
An in-game X-ray Thursday showed no fracture, but a CT scan the following morning revealed it. Stepan underwent surgery in a New York hospital Friday night, having a plate inserted in his jaw to stabilize it.
He did not play Sunday’s Game 4, having been released from hospital Saturday night. And Stepan didn’t participate in the Rangers’ game-day morning skate. It’s yet to be seen when he might return to the New York lineup.
“I’m not out there trying to injure anybody and Step’s a friend of mine,” Prust said. “My main focus of my hit was keeping my elbow tucked and trying to make sure I got him in the chest. By no means, whether they’re friends or not, you don’t want to injure anybody. It’s very unfortunate.”
In accepting responsibility for the incident, one which has stirred the passions and poison of both sides and their fan bases, Prust said he had no problem with the suspension, once he learned of Stepan’s fractured jaw. He figured he’d have got nothing had his friend been unharmed.
“Once I heard that he had a broken jaw, I was thinking one, maybe two games,” Prust said.
“I want to come out and create energy for my team. We’re coming in and we just lost two games at home (in Games 1 and 2) and we have to turn the series around.
“You know, I’m not looking to turn (it) around by an injury. I’m looking to turn it around by being physical and making sure we’re on the forecheck and making sure I’m playing my style of hockey. By no means was I looking to injure anybody. I just wanted to create some body contact out there.”
Prust text messaged Stepan upon learning about the latter’s fracture.
“I told him I feel awful,” he said. “I didn’t want to injure anybody, especially a friend of mine. I told him exactly what I told you (media) guys. … I hope he recovers well.”
Stepan returned the message in a “short” reply, Prust added, saying: “I think he understands where I’m coming from. It’s a tough situation right now.”
If the Rangers weren’t talking of revenge in any way, against Prust should this series go long enough or any Canadien more immediately, they weren’t overjoyed with the damaging hit, speaking Saturday before the Canadien had said his piece.
“Prust was a teammate and put a lot of good work in for our team and we appreciate what he did,” said New York’s Brad Richards, going on to speak of the NHL’s need to rid the game of head shots.
Said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist: “Especially during the playoffs, you don’t see your opponent as friends, even though you’ve played with them. Right now, I don’t have any friends in Montreal. They’re just enemies and you play them that way.”
Head coach Alain Vigneault, meanwhile, was not as pleased with Prust’s two-game ban as he was upset with the 10 games given Rangers’ Dan Carcillo in a subsequent settling-of-accounts.
Carcillo, who is appealing his sentence, got physical with linesman Scott Driscoll, thus earning a game misconduct and automatic 10-game ban. None of that would have happened, Vigneault said, had Driscoll not grabbed hold of Carcillo.
“At the end of the day, if the right call is made on the ice, that whole situation doesn’t happen,” the coach said. “I still don’t understand why Scott grabbed (Carcillo) in that fashion. All Scott had to do was tell him he had a penalty (for taking Prust into the boards from behind). Dan didn’t know he had a penalty.”
What Vigneault might have wanted to consider about Carcillo, who later told his coach: “I know I should have been in better control,” was this:
Probably well aware of the player’s career police blotter and of his powder-keg intentions toward Prust at that point in the game, was it possible Driscoll had latched onto Carcillo in a bid to simply keep him from getting himself into trouble?
But both Carcillo’s rumble and Prust’s suspension were water under Manhattan’s many bridges Sunday night.
No need to worry about players not skating with the complexion of this series changing as quickly as the New York cabbie leaning on his horn when the red hasn’t yet faded from the traffic light for green.
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