This weekend’s NHL slate was like a Charles Dickens novel – it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times. One game showcased the preeminent aspects of the sport, while another displayed the nastiest.
Let’s start with the bad: Vancouver at Boston. Sure it was exciting to see the bad blood between the two teams and the intensity of the fans and players. That was great to see in a Saturday game in January. Other than that, there was not much else good from this game.
It started just moments in, when Alex Burrows and Shawn Thornton decided to trade stick jabs. I like both of these players, but Thornton whacking Burrows as he was changing and Burrows retaliating with a stick pointed at the throat of Thornton was uncalled for. If it stopped there, it would be been OK, but at that point, the remaining Canucks on the ice (as well as one from the bench) proceeded to jump Thornton, creating a 6-on-1 for a few seconds.
When did this sort of behavior become acceptable? Burrows has 11 NHL fights, and he is more than capable of dropping the gloves. Thornton is out of his league, but if you want to put your stick in his face, you have to be prepared to defend yourself. It was a 1-on-1 battle, and there is no need for anyone else to jump in to save the day.
The game just went downhill from there, with both teams taking dives, throwing cheap shots, and causing long delays between whistles. The Bruins let their emotions get the better of them on a number of occasions, and hurt themselves with penalties against one of the league’s top power plays. Brad Marchand’s hit was definitely dirty, as he submarined Sami Salo, taking him out around the knees (may have been slightly above – but clearly well below the hip). Marchand was given a five-minute major and the Canucks scored what proved to be the game-winner during the ensuing power play.
Marchand always plays on the edge and has been a major contributor to Boston’s success this year and last. He is clearly talented, but every so often throws out a dirty hit, such as the slew-foot on Pittsburgh’s Matt Niskanen in December. To his credit, he admitted the slew-foot was a dirty play. However, on Saturday, he claimed self-defense. Maybe it was self-defense to avoid a bit from the much larger Salo, but to lower your hip to take out a player around the knees is never acceptable.
Marchand’s situation is similar to Burrows. If he wants to throw hits like that and be a pest, he should have to answer for it. Boston fans love to say he will fight, but he has just three fights in his NHL career, and the list is not exactly a who’s who of the NHL fight club — Niskanen, P.K. Subban, and Andrew Cogliano. Now, Marchand is not really big enough to be fighting, but if he wants to slew-foot and slip players, he must be willing to answer the bell. He is definitely one of the guys Brian Burke was raving about last week – the rats who do not have to answer for their actions.
Of course, Salo’s response was also a disgrace. He threw a mini-tantrum and threw a stick almost over the glass. That too should have been penalized. That’s something you expect to see in a Bantam or Pee Wee game, not the NHL.
Another disgusting point came when Vancouver’s Dale Weise challenged Thornton at a face-off, then backed away when Thornton dropped his gloves. Though I am no huge fan of these staged fights, there is no place for a guy who challenges someone and backs down. If you lay the challenge down, you should back it up, win or lose. At least the officials gave him an unsportsmanlike penalty – one of the few calls they got right in this game,
The game was giant circus, and brought out the worst in both teams (as well as the officials). Neither demonstrated why they are near the top of the standings and are amongst the favorites to win the Stanley Cup in June. I do not believe either team acts this way regularly, as Boston usually plays physical but within the rules, and Vancouver does not usually get into that style. Both teams proved last year they are the best when it comes to walking the line and playing with skill and inteiigence. Sadly, both forgot about that on Saturday, turning what could have been a showcase game into a disgusting sideshow – instead of a great game we got bear-baiting.
Detroit and Chicago, on the other hand, demonstrated what is great about the sport. The teams attacked each other at breakneck
speed, with very few whistles, a bunch of heavy but clean hits, just a handful of penalties, no ridiculous wrestling matches or fingers in each other’s faces, and lots of speed and skill on display.
Before one goes and says neither team plays with the toughness of the Bruins, remember that toughness comes in a lot of forms. Sure the Bruins are physical, intimidating team. They use their size and strength to bowl over teams. The Hawks and Wings may not have as much size as the Bruins, but both have a ton of grit and toughness.
As Ken Dryden said in the Globe & Mail last week, “fight” does not necessarily mean “fighting.” It means so many other things as well. It means physical toughness, mental toughness, it means discipline, it means sacrifice, it means grit. Though there were not fights in the game, there was plenty of fight on display.
It takes grit to fight through a check to get to the net, as Patrick Kane does regularly; it takes physical toughness to take the abuse in front of the net to create a screen that leads to a rebound goal, as Johan Franzen did on Pavel Datsyuk’s game-winning goal in OT; it takes mental toughness to battle back froma two-goal deficit on the road; it takes discipline not to retaliate and take dumb penalties, as both teams demonstrated time and time again.
Many fans love the type of game Vancouver and Boston played on Saturday. But for me, give me the style played by Detroit and Chicago seven days a week and twice on Sunday. It’s more exciting, more pure, and just a better brand of hockey. The Bruins and Canucks needed a reminder of what got them to the Stanley Cup finals last year, and they got it Sunday night in Chicago.