Following his overtime game-winning goal in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals series against the Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes forward Scott Walker couldn't hide the emotions of the moment. Not only had Walker — a 13-year NHL veteran with just 11 playoff games on his resume heading into this postseason — just scored his first playoff goal of his career, but he became the 31st player in league history to notch a Game 7 overtime winner.
But it wasn't just about Walker scoring the big goal in the big moment. It was about redemption.
In waning moments of Game 5, Walker opened up a can of criticism on himself when he punched an unsuspecting Aaron Ward. The Bruins and their fans were irate — and ever more so when Walker was spared a suspension despite picking up an instigator penalty in the final five minutes of the game.
Walker does have a little bit of a history — he was suspended last season for headbutting Ottawa's Mike Fisher — but for the most part he has been considered a hard-working, standup guy among his teammates and peers.
None of that mattered — as it shouldn't — to the Boston faithful. With their ticket comes the right to boo, and the people of Boston were ready to do so. After the Bruins dispatched the Canes in Game 6 in Raleigh, the stage was set for Walker to return to the scene of the ugly event. The catcalls for No. 24 were heard early and often at the TD Banknorth Garden, especially with Walker inserted into the starting lineup on Carolina's top line with star center Eric Staal and winger Ray Whitney.
As the game wore on, it became less about the venom toward Walker and more about the intensity of a deciding game. The Bruins jumped out to an early lead, with the Hurricanes rallying for the next two. Then the hometown team tied it in the third, setting the stage for the most dramatic of scenarios: Game 7, overtime.
At the 18:46 mark of the first overtime, Whitney unleashed a shot on Bruins' goalie Tim Thomas. Thomas failed to control the rebound, and Walker outhustled Boston defender Dennis Wideman to the loose puck. With one swat, Walker batted the bouncing puck out of the air and into the net.
For the fourth straight playoff series, the Hurricanes had won a dramatic Game 7. And Walker, the villain to all of New England, sprinted across the ice, looking more like the hug-seeking Jim Valvano following NC State's remarkable 1983 NCAA Basketball Tournament championship than some mustache-twirling evildoer.
For the Bruins and their fans, it was the worst-case scenario: an upset at the hands of the player they most despised.
For Walker, it was overwhelming. He had handled the post-incident media scrums the best he could, regretting what happened but stating his defense. It was clear in his postgame interview with Hurricanes broadcaster Tripp Tracy that the negative attention had gotten to him. The combined emotions of having coming through in the clutch and redeeming himself after days of criticism had Walker choked up — he even wiping away a tear that had snuck out of his normally intense face.
The booing probably hadn't gotten to him too much — every athlete has gone through that at one time or another. But the media criticism, I think, was another story. Terms like "sucker-punch," "dirty" and "cheapshot" were words a normally honest, but gritty, player like Walker never wanted to be associated with. And they were everywhere, pinned to his name.
Boston fans won't soon forget Walker's punch — or his antiheroic goal — and chances are he will go down as a scoundrel in Beantown lore. But for a few moments after Game 7, Walker had something to be proud of, something to make him, his family and his fans proud.
Which brings us to the end result of Walker's goal: a Eastern Conference Finals matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
While the reporters and sports talk hosts will spend their time analyzing if Carolina will stop Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, beating to death the brother-against-brother matchup between Eric and Jordan Staal, and comparing young goaltending aces Cam Ward and Marc-Andre Fleury, Carolina fans will set their sights on one player.
Orpik, if you recall, is the player responsible for the terrifying neck injury to Hurricanes winger Erik Cole. Carolina, in the midst of a magical season that would culminate in a Stanley Cup title, lost Cole on a hit from behind by Orpik on March 4, 2006. Cole would make a dramatic return for Game 6 and 7 of the Cup Finals against Edmonton, but some would argue he hasn't regained the form he had prior to that March night.
Cole, like Ward after the Walker punch, was short with his words on his tormenter. Orpik, who received a three-game suspension, joined the ranks of Devils great and Hall-of-Famer Scott Stevens on the list most-hated visitors to the RBC Center.
Like Walker, Orpik has made his living in the NHL as a tough customer, someone whose skills don't compare to some of his contemporaries but who brings a physicality and toughness that every successful team needs. Walker's one-game suspension from the Fisher incident shows that his intensity has boiled over in the past. Orpik also had a one-game suspension (for kneeing then-King Tim Gleason in 2003) on his rap sheet prior to the bigger incident with Cole.
But overall, both Walker and Orpik have made hockey a career by playing the game hard, tough — and clean.
I don't know if Ward will ever forgive Walker for "the punch" back in Game 5, and that's his right. Based on his postgame reaction, Walker is probably still wrestling with forgiving himself for an incident he wishes he could have back. And when Cole lines up across from Orpik starting Monday in Pittsburgh, you can bet he remembers the guy who not only altered his career but his life.
Bruins fans will be mad at Walker for a long time, just like people of the Triangle have been at Orpik since 2006. And while Walker has already shown more remorse than Orpik ever did, I think it might be time for the Caniacs to step back and realize Orpik, like Walker, was probably as troubled by his hit on Cole.
We've seen how even someone like Walker — a guy ex-coach Peter Laviolette called the toughest guy, pound-for-pound, in the NHL, and that Paul Maurice said fears no one — can be affected by attacks on his character. It's time for the fans to let bygones be bygones and forgive — or at least forget — Orpik for his three-year-old misdeed.
Hopefully the people of Boston — in time — can do the same for Walker.