On Friday night, the Philadelphia Flyers were thoroughly embarrassed by the Washington Capitals by a score of 7-0. It was a loss that has epitomized the path of the Flyers’ season thus far. In the first period, the Flyers stuck with the Caps, out-shooting them 8-4 despite trailing 1-0 after one.
But just four minutes into the second period, everything unraveled for the Flyers. Washington potted three more goals at even strength, and the team literally folded. When faced with the slightest bit of adversity, instead of digging in their heels and preventing the team from being further embarrassed, they withered. They resembled the team that got Peter Laviolette fired. They lost almost every board battle, were routinely beat to loose pucks, and had little continuity in their play, specifically in the breakout.
The Emery Fight
Five minutes and thirty one seconds into the third period, frustrations reached a boiling point, and the Flyers erupted. It began when Tom Wilson took exception a hit from Wayne Simmonds, and they squared off. As that fight was going on, Ray Emery made his way all the way down the ice to the Capitals defensive zone, and engaged Braden Holtby, an unwilling combatant, to a fight. For Emery, the fight was the result of a month full of frustration. He has received little playing time, and when he has played, the team in front of him has played poor defense at best.
A boxer in the offseason, Emery is by far the toughest goalie in the NHL, and to say he beat Holtby up would be an understatement. Emery connected with multiple pointblank punches, to Holtby’s face and the back of his head. After the game, Emery told reporters:
“He didn’t want to fight,” Emery said. “I basically said, ‘Protect yourself.’ He didn’t really have much of a choice.”
For Emery, he was trying to send a message to his team, and give them a wake-up call. On a night where “Fire Holmgren!” chants could be loudly heard throughout the building, something needed to happen to wake the team up. Emery took matters into his own hands, and thought a fight would energize the team. It was clear the team’s play on the ice could not provide the spark, so the fight seemed like the next best thing.
In a very well-articulated article, the Calgary Flames President of Hockey Operations Brian Burke defended the important function fighting has in today’s game. He highlighted the policing factor that fighting brings, holding players accountable for questionable or dirty hits by making them fear the consequences of their actions. The debate of fighting in the game is not something worth debating, because as Burke notes, one side is very unlikely to change the side’s stance.
The Functions of Fighting in Today’s NHL
The fact remains that fighting can have important functions in today’s game, both as a momentum changer, wake-up call, or a response to questionable play from an opponent. Flyers fans will certainly remember when now former Flyer Max Talbot was able to goad Dan Carcillo into a fight in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals in 2008-2009. Up 3-2 in the series, the Penguins were down 3-0 to the Flyers in Philadelphia’s own building, and the Flyers had the Penguins on their heels when Talbot squared off with Carcillo. After that fight, the dynamic of the game changed completely, and the Penguins came roaring back to eliminate the Flyers, winning Game 6.
Emery was attempting to do the same thing that Talbot successfully did, send a message to his team to wake up and improve their play. Since the fight, Emery has been criticized throughout the hockey world. Most are calling what he did to Holtby an assault. The Flyers have also been heavily condemned as being thugs stuck in the past, trying to cling to the golden days of the Broad Street Bullies. Combine the fact that Ed Snider remarked earlier in the season that the Flyers “did not need a fresh perspective”, many fingers have been pointed and angry words directed at the Flyers.
To clarify, I do not think what Emery did was the right course of action, or the right thing to do. I am analyzing this from the perspective of “fighting is part of the game, and this is one of the functions that fighting can have”.
Starting Fights as a Momentum Changer
Ray Emery is far from the first player to engage an unwilling opponent in a fight in an attempt to change momentum. In the Talbot vs. Carcillo case I mentioned earlier, Carcillo was a willing participant. One of the more famous moments of a player jumping another player and engaging in a fight was none other than NHL poster-boy Sidney Crosby in 2009. Losing 4-1 to the Florida Panthers, Crosby was clearly frustrated with the events of the game so far. Near the end of the second period, Crosby took matters into his own hands and jumped Panthers center Brett McLean right off the faceoff, immediately throwing punches before McLean had any idea what was going on.
I would say that what Crosby did there was certainly worse than what Emery did. Unlike Holtby vs. Emery, McLean had no warning or idea of the assault that was to come. Again, I do not think that this was the right thing to do, but like Emery, Crosby was unhappy with his team’s performance, and took matters into his own hands to try and change the direction of the game.
For a more recent example, look no further than the preseason this year when there was a line brawl between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Buffalo Sabres. John Scott of the Sabres was not happy about a fight that occurred previously, where his teammate Corey Tropp was soundly beaten by the Leafs’ Jamie Devane. Scott took matters into his own hands, and on the ensuing faceoff he attempted to fight Phil Kessel before a number of Maple Leafs jumped in to prevent it from happening.
Scott was unhappy about something that had occurred in the game, and took a course of action to send a message that what was going on was not something he was happy about, just like Emery.
Media Reaction and “Low Hanging Fruit”
As you can see above, Emery is far from the first player to use fighting as a way to try to change the momentum of a game. He’s also not the first to go after an unwilling opponent when doing it. If you look at the media’s reaction to Friday’s fight, you would have thought Emery had committed an unprecedented foul. Wheel of Fortunate host Pat Sajak fired off a tweet last night, condemning the Flyers’ actions.
Darren Dreger, one of the most famous and respected hockey journalists out there, fired out a few shots, one directly at Emery and then two that seemed to be directed at the Flyers without directly saying so:
I agree with Dreger that what Emery did was absolutely not okay, but the above tweets from both men represent the low hanging fruit that journalists love to go for when criticizing something. The media loves to glorify the Broad Street Bully mentality of the Flyers despite the fact that the team has been relatively soft and not very aggressive for the majority of this season. Just as ESPN loves to harp on how classless Philadelphia fans are, the hockey media will cry wolf about the Broad Street Bullies as soon as any Flyers player does anything remotely questionable. They neglect to mention or acknowledge that starting a fight to send a message or change the game, even with an unwilling opponent, is something that has occurred many times before, and will happen many times in the future. It does not make it right or okay that it’s been done before, but the fact is that it’s a part of the game.
Whether you agree with it or not, fighting is a part of the game in today’s NHL, and can have a number of strategic uses. Emery was given a number of penalties last night, and it was confirmed he will not receive any supplementary discipline from the NHL, which is the correct call. Rule 46.2 outlines fights with an aggressor(Emery) with an unwilling combatant(Holtby), and going by the protocols, Emery will receive a “strike” against him for the instigator and game misconduct penalties, but there will be no discipline beyond that. Going by the rules, the play was called perfectly on the ice by the referees, as Emery received all of the penalties in the last paragraph of the 46.2 section. It is possible(and likely in my opinion) that Emery will have to answer for his actions from a member of the Capitals in the future, and they are entitled to do just that, whether you agree with it or not.