PHILADELPHIA - If the shots exchanged on the ice are as vicious as the verbal ones off it, the Eastern Conference quarterfinal between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins is about to get a lot spicier.
As the teams prepare for Game 4 Thursday at the Verizon Center, the war of words has escalated to the point where the hatred many expected earlier in the series finally has reared its ugly head.
It started Wednesday morning when Nicklas Backstrom -- having been suspended for one game for cross-checking Boston's Rich Peverley in the face Monday at the conclusion of Boston's 4-3 victory -- apologized for his actions, especially since it meant he would miss Game 4.
"(Peverley) was going after (the Caps' Alex Ovechkin) first and then I was just turning around, so that's all I can say," Backstrom told reporters. "I'm sorry about that. It was stupid on my part."
Not according to his team.
About an hour after Backstrom went public with his misgivings, the Capitals released a statement saying they disagreed with the punishment, even though getting a match penalty, as Backstrom did, carries a minimum one-game suspension pending a league review.
"We disagree with the NHL's decision to suspend Nicklas Backstrom," the statement said. "This has been a competitive and physical series, and we do not understand why a suspension was imposed in this case while other incidents in this series have not been reviewed."
That the Caps would feel that way was no surprise. Coach Dale Hunter pretty much said the same thing during his press conference Tuesday, adding that he thought the Bruins had been targeting Backstrom's head -- the 24-year-old centre just returned to the lineup March 31 after missing 40 games with a concussion.
Hunter's accusation got Claude Julien's blood boiling.
"That doesn't make sense," the Bruins coach told reporters. "I don't know any coach that would tell his team to go after somebody's head,
"It's ludicrous. It's ridiculous. OK?"
It didn't end there.
Julien followed by claiming the Backstrom incident was the third cross-check delivered by the Caps during this series.
"But we're not whining about the referees and what's going on here," Julien said. "We need to win a game and we need to win a series and that's where our focus is on."
Asked what he thought of the Backstrom suspension, Ovechkin replied: "Right now I think it's kind of a bad decision. But there is nothing you can do."
Hunter, for the record, singled out Bruins winger Milan Lucic as one who has been going after Backstrom's noggin. When told of those comments, Lucic said Backstrom is fair game just like everyone else on the ice.
"Just because a guy's injured doesn't mean you go out of your way to re-injure him, but you don't go out of your way to be light on him," Lucic said. "You still have to play against him like you would any other player."
On a day full of smack talk, no one did more than Caps forward Jason Chimera, who suggested the Bruins' Brad Marchand uses too many theatrics and added that the Caps are not the 60-pound weaklings some portray them to be.
"No matter how much Marchand's diving and ... embellishing a bit, you can't do stuff like that because it's going to be called," Chimera said of trying to retaliate.
And what of the Caps toughness? Or, in this case, the lack thereof?
"We're not a (wimpy) team, or however you want to call it," Chimera said. "We've got guys who can drop the gloves and are not scared to drop the gloves ... We just don't want to get caught up in that."
Then there is Bruins goalie Tim Thomas' snub of the White House, Karl Alzner's wiping his eye at Lucic as if calling the Bruins tough guy a crybaby ... on and on it goes.
For a series that once lacked storylines, it is now oozing with them.