BOSTON -- His body crumpled with such sudden, sickening, unnatural force, crashing backward onto the ice with his right arm helplessly suspended upward, as though he was grasping … for … what?
When Nathan Horton was leveled by a blindside hit from Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome, the raucous TD Garden fans instantly morphed into an eerily silent, pensive, anxious fan base. As Horton lay on his back, his eyes vacant, then rolling back, the capacity crowd took a collective breath.
Horton never saw Rome coming. He was looking left after passing the puck, had no time to brace for the blow, no time to protect himself from the violence that is inherent in the sport of hockey.
And, after the man who is second for the Boston Bruins in postseason points was wheeled off the ice on a stretcher, one had to wonder whether Boston's heartbreak in these Stanley Cup finals was about to be permanent.
The Bruins did not score on the ensuing five-minute power play, nor did they tally a goal in the first period.
But after they overcame the shock of every player's worst nightmare -- a debilitating, dirty hit that leaves you laid out on the ice, defenseless -- something happened in the Bruins' dressing room. Reports from Massachusetts General Hospital that Horton was "moving all his extremities'' trickled in.
Coach Claude Julien implored his team to respond in a way that would make Horton proud.
A moment that can draw a team together presented itself, and the Bruins seized it as a rallying point.
"We didn't want to let Horty down,'' Brad Marchand said.
It was time for payback in the most delicious form -- not with fists but with goals and more goals and more goals still. The Bruins scored even-strength goals and shorthanded goals and, yes, even two power-play goals.
They rallied around Horton, their battered teammate. They propped up their embattled coach, then cashed in on their chance at redemption behind their redoubtable goaltender Tim Thomas, who was again, in the words of Daniel Sedin, "beyond unbelievable.''
These Bruins played with a purpose that was infectious. On the night Cam Neely turned 46, on the 25th anniversary of the day he was traded to the Bruins from the Vancouver Canucks, his players responded with the kind of hard-nosed, physical, emotional game that made their boss a Hall of Famer.
So now we have a series again. The irate fans who wanted coach Claude Julien's head for making rookie whippet Tyler Seguin a healthy scratch in Game 3 had no choice but to laud Julien when the men he put on the ice performed at such a high level that this 8-1 blowout was every bit the romp that the score indicated.
Veteran Mark Recchi, who came into this series without a single point on the power play, knocked home his second man-advantage goal in as many games. Brad Marchand scored a masterful unassisted shorthanded goal. Seven Bruins found the back of the net.
Boston didn't even try to disguise what motivated them -- the hit on Horton they felt was unwarranted.
"I think those hits are the ones we have to get out of the game,'' enforcer Shawn Thornton said.
"I think when that happened we realized we needed to wake up and play that [physical] type of game,'' winger Daniel Paille said. "And once one guy started hitting, the rest of us fed off it.''
In each of the first two games of this series, Boston handed out 31 hits. After two periods of Game 3, they had already put a body to the Canucks 33 times.
There was no better moment that typified the Bruins' resolve than when Henrik Sedin, who leads the Canucks with 21 playoff points, attempted to bat down the puck right in front of the Bruins' crease in a flurry of third-period activity. Thomas sized up the gifted young center, then flattened him with a cross check.
The message was clear: Not in my house.
Nine seconds later, Henrik's twin, Daniel, also hit the deck courtesy of an Andrew Ference hit. The two tangled after the whistle and were levied with matching 10-minute misconduct penalties.
From there, the final period disintegrated into chippy play that crowded the penalty box on both sides and delayed the inevitable result -- a resounding Bruins win. The final tally included 125 penalty minutes and enough bad blood to ratchet this series up another notch in time for Game 4.
"No question, the game got out of hand,'' Daniel Sedin said. "Obviously [the Horton play] was kind of a late hit. It's sad to see a guy taken off like that.''
As we all expected after seeing him on the ice, we learned Tuesday morning that Horton will miss the rest of the finals with a severe concussion. The gaping hole left in the Bruins' lineup will be a significant one to fill.
But this is not the same Boston team that took to the ice at 8 p.m. on Monday. A sickening hit left the Bruins stunned, then furious, then hellbent on making things right.
We'll find out soon enough whether the injustice of Game 3 will carry over to Game 4.
"We played with a little bit of an edge tonight,'' Thornton said. "It's a win but it's still just one. I'm not sure how much carryover there will be.''
Daniel Sedin and his coach Alain Vigneault are expecting none. The series stands 2-1 in Vancouver's favor, regardless of the aggregate score. The larger question is what action the NHL will take regarding Rome, who was ejected from Monday's game.
In the meantime, the Bruins can enjoy a respite from the bashing of their power play. It's Vancouver's turn to answer two pressing questions: Why can they suddenly not score with a man advantage? And how is it they gave up two goals on their own power play?
The Bruins will come to Game 4 with a physical brand of hockey in mind. But it must manifest itself within the framework of the game.
"You want to be physical,'' Ference said, "but you can't run around with your head chopped off trying to hit people.''
There was no word late Monday night whether Nathan Horton was resting comfortably. His teammates left the arena worried, and agitated.
They also left confident they represented Nathan Horton the way he would have liked -- with force.
Jackie MacMullan is a columnist for ESPNBoston.com.