It took less than a minute for Saturday’s game between the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins to get physical, and unfortunately for hockey fans, it didn’t stop with clean hits or fighting. Instead, the contest showcased the ugliest side of the NHL game, which everybody with interest in the sport should support abolishing.
And once again, it was an enforcer in the starring role.
It started with a hard check from Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik on Bruins winger Loui Eriksson. Eriksson was reaching behind his body for a puck coming off the boards and consequently was hunched over. Orpik caught him squarely with a hit.
Orpik closed on Eriksson as the puck approached him; the referee could have called him for interference given that the puck seemed to miss Eriksson's stick just as Orpik lands the hit. But given that it was a last-second bounce that kept this from being a 100 percent legal check, it would be unfair to criticize Orpik too harshly for making the hit (and after all, it was too late for him to abort after the puck slipped past).
Boston retaliated immediately, as an obviously agitated Zdeno Chara took a run at Pittsburgh’s Pascal Dupuis (which the forward barely avoided) and then engaged Chris Kunitz, taking a penalty on the play.
The concern for Eriksson was understandable. As the commentators note in the video above, he missed five games with a concussion earlier this season, courtesy of a John Scott cheap shot. Eriksson left the game and did not return. It was later determined that he suffered a concussion.
UPDATE: Loui Eriksson will not return to tonight's game ^BB— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) December 8, 2013
Loui Eriksson has a concussion and will not be traveling. Chris Kelly suffered an injury on a slash and won't be traveling either ^CS— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) December 8, 2013
No fan wants to see a player get injured, but if everything had ended there, this would simply have been an unfortunate result of a hard but acceptable check. Instead, things got worse.
In their first shift against each other, enforcer Shawn Thornton took a long run at Orpik (who took the hit and moved the puck) and then engaged him repeatedly. Orpik declined to fight him, so Thornton went to the box. Pittsburgh scored on the ensuing power play.
The hitting continued, escalating to a fight between Milan Lucic and Deryk Engelland that solved nothing.
Eventually, the heated emotions led to a pair of brutal incidents on the same shift.
The first play saw James Neal knee Brad Marchand in the head while the Bruins forward was down on the ice. It’s impossible to know exactly what went through Neal’s mind on the play, but the two players do have some history with each other, and there’s no arguing the fact that Neal nailed a defenseless opponent in the worst possible spot.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety investigated the incident, and handed down a five-game suspension for Neal.
James Neal gets five games for his knee to Marchand's head.— Joe McDonald (@ESPNJoeyMac) December 9, 2013
In the next play seconds later, there’s absolutely no doubt as to intent. Shawn Thornton, the Bruins forward who averages 10 minutes in penalties for every point he’s collected over his NHL career, grabs an unsuspecting Orpik, throws him to the ice and then punches him in the face repeatedly with his gloves still on.
The good news is that Marchand was able to return to the game. Orpik wasn’t so lucky; he was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital, where the only positive is that he was described by the Penguins as “alert and conscious.”
Brad Marchand was kneed in the head by James Neal. 63 went to the room but came back to the bench ^CS— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) December 8, 2013
ORPIK UPDATE: Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was taken to Massachusetts General Hospital where he is alert and conscious.— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 8, 2013
Bylsma says Orpik was unconscious on ice, assumes he has concussion. No prognosis.— Dave Molinari (@MolinariPG) December 8, 2013
It is a game that shows, yet again, why NHL enforcers are not functional as policemen.
Thornton did his best to exact what NHL Network commentator (and famous Bruins homer) Jack Edwards called “pioneer justice” on Orpik, but the Pens defenseman wasn’t willing to oblige. That cost the Bruins. Then, stymied, Thornton decided that next time around he wasn’t going to give Orpik the option and did something indistinguishable from assault.
Some will, and have, criticized Orpik for not fighting Thornton here. But Orpik, who has all of one fight in five years, was under no obligation to ritually drop the gloves with a player who wouldn’t be in the league if not for the fact that he can go toe-to-toe with heavyweights.
And nothing Orpik did justifies Thornton’s actions. The Boston enforcer recognized that his attack on the Pens defenseman was reprehensible.
It's hard for me to talk about right now. I can't say I'm sorry enough. I'm sure I'll be criticized, but it's true. I felt awful. It wasn't my intention. I know Brooksie. I've gotten to know him the last seven years here. I skated with him during the lockout. I texted him a couple of times. It's not what I wanted to see or anyone to see.
There simply isn’t an excuse for grabbing an unsuspecting opponent, throwing him to the ice and punching him (with hockey gloves, no less) as he lies there. The fact that Thornton is going to get a brief suspension and then return to the NHL should be a source of profound shame for the league.
Thornton’s the headliner here, but toss in a filthy play by Neal against a vulnerable opponent and a game that should have showcased the best of two of the NHL’s strongest teams instead shows the very worst of a league that seems utterly incapable of removing mindless and reprehensible violence from the game.