Jacob Trouba’s Big Hits Are Changing Games And Making Enemies
9:56 AM EDT on May 31, 2022
The Rangers are on to the Eastern Conference final after a 6-2 win over Carolina in Game 7 that showed off the best of what they've had to offer all season: a killer power play, stout two-way skating, and an all-everything goaltender. So why is it that after a couple of series highlighted by team efforts and relatively balanced scoring, Jacob Trouba's name is on everyone's lips, from admiring teammates to sour opposing coaches to the gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on hockey Twitter? Simple enough: He's been blowing guys up and getting people real mad.
“It seems like he could turn the tide for us when we need it,” Adam Fox said Monday night. “You saw it last series, you see it this series."
Trouba, absent from the scoresheet on Monday as he's been in 11 of New York's 14 playoff games, once again made his presence felt with a huge open-ice hit, this time on Seth Jarvis. And once again, in the 28-year-old defenseman's run of "dirty clean" playoff blockbusters, it was what happened immediately after the hit that's made his menace so pivotal.
The score was 1-0 at the time, and as a clearly hurt Jarvis struggled to make his way back to the bench, an antsy Hurricane hopped the dasher and Carolina was whistled for too many men on the ice. Just 14 seconds into the man-advantage New York converted; Trouba had a key part in the Rangers doubling their lead, removing a first-line player from the game, and quieting a rowdy crowd more or less for good. "Whenever you get the first goal, especially on the road, it helps. This crowd, when they get into it, they feed off that," said Fox. "It was even more important to follow up with a second one pretty soon after that."
Jarvis left the game after the hit, which is sort of a duck-rabbit illusion in that you can see what you want to see, or what you're told to expect. Did Trouba contact Jarvis's head, and/but was it the principal point of contact? Was it targeted, or does Trouba just have five inches on Jarvis and his head up? Did Trouba extend his elbow for the classic chicken-wing hit, or did he brace himself cleanly? Canes fans will tend to answer these one way; Rangers fans another. The only people whose opinion matters, though, said it was clean: it was not whistled and is not expected to garner Trouba a call from the Department of Player Safety.
In that last bit, it's quite alike Trouba's other massive hits in this postseason, all of which have played a role in swinging games, all of which were ruled clean, and all of which have thoroughly infuriated the opposition. Most notably Trouba's collision with Sidney Crosby in the first round:
The Rangers were on the brink at that time, down 2-0 in the game and 3-1 in the series. Crosby would leave with a suspected concussion (he'd return for Game 7, but as a shell of himself), and just a minute later New York would break through for the first of three goals in 2:42. They wouldn't lose to Pittsburgh again.
Trouba's detonation of Max Domi came early in Game 4 of the Hurricanes series, at a time when tensions and emotions were both high. A scrum at the end of the previous game had led to recriminations and veiled threats, and it seemed like each team was waiting for the other to start something. Everyone assumed that for the Rangers this meant Ryan Reaves. Nope. Trouba.
Carolina's Steven Lorentz went after Trouba, dropping the gloves and earning himself an instigator penalty that the Rangers would open the scoring on. They wouldn't look back, taking Game 4 handily and knotting the series. "It was a big hit and obviously it changed the course of the game a little bit," said Andrew Copp. Canes coach Rod Brind'Amour concurred: "Just can't take a penalty there. We gave them the power play there and that got them going right away."
This has been Trouba's role for the Rangers in this postseason: wrecking opponent's plans and riling them up. It's a valuable role, even more so considering he's not, uh, doing a lot else. He's got just one more playoff point than goalie Igor Shesterkin, and if you want to see how the Trouba–K'Andre Miller pairing is driving play (or not) you're going to have to scroll way down. A second-pairing guy is not exactly what the Rangers were expecting or hoping for when they traded for the blueliner as one of their first big moves of a rebuild and gave him a jarringly large contract, but this part was at least assumed: He's a big boy who hits big.
And hitting counts for something. Not just the ones featured above, but any one of Trouba's team-high 54 hits in this postseason. Hits hurt—especially from a guy listed at 6-foot-3, 209, and wrapped in armor and moving at speed—but they also get into your brain. You start to see ghosts; you get rid of the puck a fraction faster. You brace instead of making the play. You think about it. And when you think, bad things happen.
"There were maybe one or two big ones that everyone kind of sees," Fox said, "but there are many more that wear guys down. I don’t think anyone likes to get hit. Especially by someone like him."
But the line between a good hit and a bad one is thin, potentially a matter of inches or milliseconds. Trouba leads the Rangers in penalty minutes in the playoffs, as he did in the regular season, and not by a little. Any of the plays up there could have been whistled (Wes McCauley was a ref for all three, which may or may not mean anything), and it wouldn't have taken much more for any of them to be fine- or suspension-worthy. So far and just barely, Trouba's remained on the right side of the ledger, even as it's made him Enemy No. 1 to those on the wrong side of his hits.