New York Islanders' Pugilism a Disgrace To the NHL

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New York Islanders' Pugilism a Disgrace To the NHL
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Many Islanders fans have been clamoring for new ownership and management. If you didn't know better you'd swear they'd gotten their wish and a new owner in Vince McMahon. Like the WWE, It was a parade of cartoon violence played to a crowd of enraged misguided idiots taking pride in a win that doesn't actually matter.

On February 11 the New York Islanders defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 9-3 at the Nassau Coliseum. In almost any case, a 9-3 victory speaks for itself. But in this game the score was little more than a footnote. SlapShot style violence dominated the game, minus the saving humor.

A week prior, the Islanders were embarrassed in a 3-0 shutout at the hands of the Penguins and goalie Brent Johnson. Also embarrassed at the hands of Brent Johnson was Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro, who instigated a fight with Johnson and ended up with multiple facial fractures for his effort from a single left cross.

The Islanders were out for revenge, and in the eyes of the players and the fans they appear to believe they've gotten it. The Islanders TV announcers hailed this game as some sort of important statement and a turning point for the organization. But when you really dissect this entire sideshow it looks even more ridiculous than it does at first glance.

The first order of business is injuries. Not ones caused in the game. I'll get to that in a bit. This Penguin team that the Islanders beat 9-3 bears no resemblance to the one that has challenged for the top spot in the Atlantic Division for most of the season. This Penguin team was composed of a plethora of minor league call-ups—players who either shouldn't see regular time in the NHL or players who just aren't ready for it yet.

Some may argue the Islanders were in exactly the same situation. The Islanders have been decimated by injuries all season long. But when you compare the rosters going into this game, it's clear the Islanders were fielding a far more talented team, despite their respective records.

During the 9-3 victory three Islanders' players scored their 20th goal of the season. The Penguins only had a single player on the active roster with double digit goals in Tyler Kennedy. Their active points leader is defenseman Kris Letang.

One is reminded of the awful Penguin teams of the early 2000s when defenseman Dick Tarnstrom was the linchpin of the offense. Rico Fata and Milan Kraft would be welcome additions to this club as it's currently constructed.

The Penguins are built to be strong down the middle. Great centers, a strong defense, an elite goalie and a supporting cast of average but versatile wingers. Those great centers are the engine that drives the Penguins. But they're all missing.

Sidney Crosby, who was running away with the NHL scoring title, hasn't played since early January due to a concussion. The talented but underachieving Evgeni Malkin is gone for the rest of the season due to torn knee ligaments.

Rookie Mark Letestu, who was having a productive season, is gone due to knee surgery as well. Those players represent the Penguins' first-, second- and third-line centers, as center Jordan Staal had been tagged for a move to wing since training camp. But the woes don't end there.

Rookie Dustin Jeffery had been called up from the AHL in the wake of all the injuries down the middle, and played well scoring points in six of his seven games since his call-up. But as the other Penguin centers had, he had the luck of someone who broke a mirror with an open umbrella indoor whilst crossing the path of a black cat as he walked under an open ladder, spilling some salt in the confusion, and ended up on the IR himself.

The Penguins are left with one true NHL center capable of providing consistent offense in Jordan Staal. Staal's a great player. He was a Selke candidate last season. But Staal is not a first-line NHL center. Staal's never been a huge point producer, even going back to his days with Peterborough of the OHL.

It's not a knock on Staal. His value goes far beyond goals and assists. The point is merely that if Staal is relied upon to be the focal point of a team's offensive strategy, as the Penguins injury woes have dictated, he's not playing in a role he's suited for.

This Penguin team that lost 9-3 isn't even a shadow of what the club is when healthy. It's foolish to treat a lopsided victory against this squad as some sort of impressive statement game. It would be like beating up Muhammad Ali, circa 2011, and then proclaiming how great of a prize fighter you are. But all of this is secondary to the disgraceful headhunting perpetrated by the Islanders.

To anyone who's heralded the Islanders actions in this game, Islanders fan or otherwise, you can never bemoan the antics of Matt Cooke again and be taken seriously. The Islanders personified every criticism of Matt Cooke as a team tonight. And please, spare me the "Matt Cooke won't drop the gloves like they did" retorts. I see it coming from a mile away and it's far too easy, not entirely true and a red herring.

There are too many cheap shots in the game to list, and the Islanders initiated all of it. I'm not saying the Penguins didn't reciprocate at all, but it was the Islanders' idea to turn this into a circus.

Kris Letang was attacked twice, most notably from a vicious slash from John Tavares, who was against the boards and down on the ice after a few clean checks from Letang. He needed help off the ice at the end of the period due to the slash, but did return.

Eric Tangradi was not so lucky. Islanders thug Trevor Gillies skated from beyond the left circle to the left boards and delivered a vicious elbow to the back of Tangradi's head. Tangradi was facing the boards and didn't see Gillies charge, and I do mean charge as in charging penalty. He took many deliberate strides towards Tangradi before making the hit.

If that weren't bad enough, as he essentially did what Matt Cooke did to Fedor Tyutin of the Columbus Blue Jackets, only delivering a hit solely to the head instead of the back. Gillies proceeded to punch a clearly injured Tangradi in the back of the head as he lay on the ice. Gillies had to be forcibly removed from the ice via the Zamboni entrance. Reports are that Tangradi has suffered a concussion due to the gutless blindside attack.

The worst incident of the night somehow didn't result in an injury. The Islanders' Matt Martin punched Penguin center Max Talbot from behind as he skated up the ice. It may sound melodramatic, but the only parallel I can draw is Todd Bertuzzi's infamous attack on Steve Moore. I'm not saying they're equal incidents. Moore ended up with a broken neck and a lost career, Talbot had a small cut on his cheek.

The problem is that Martin made a surprise unprovoked attack on an unaware player. Thankfully, Talbot saw Martin before his blow landed or this could have been much worse than it actually was.

In one of the many brawls Islanders forward Michael Haley, after being separated from a fight from a linesman, proceeded down to then challenge Penguins goalie Brent Johnson. Johnson was prepared to accept Haley's challenge but was interrupted by Penguins enforcer Eric Godard, who left the bench to protect his goaltender. Godard will most definitely face a lengthy suspension as a result.

I could write far more about this game, if we can even call it that. But if I documented every instance of thuggery in this game I'd end up with something so long Leo Tolstoy would envy my endurance. This game was an embarrassment to the NHL and should be one to the Islanders organization and their fans. But early indications are they're not.

Somehow, a total lack of class and sportsmanship is being touted as a badge of honor and pride by the Islanders faithful and their media. Yes, people will watch it. Yes, the people in the stands ate it up. But someone jumping off a building will draw a crowd too. Just because people are enthralled by something doesn't automatically give it merit as legitimate entertainment.

The Islanders sought revenge, but there was really nothing to get revenge for. Honestly.

Max Talbot had injured Islander Blake Comeau in an earlier game, but it was a clean hit. He had the puck, it wasn't to the head. Suck it up, and if you really need to respond, deliver a clean hit of your own in response.

Rick DiPietro was inured in a fight with Penguin Brent Johnson, but DiPietro went into the fight of his own accord and payed for not taking it seriously. Brent Johnson engaged DiPietro because of a cheap shot he took on Penguin Matt Cooke.

Whether you hate Cooke or not, DiPietro got his stick up high on Cooke, and even admitted he did so intentionally after the game. Johnson responded and DiPietro ended up on the IR. If you should be mad at anyone be mad at DiPietro for putting himself in that position. It was a dumb thing to do.

This game was a disgrace. I'd expect several suspensions to come out of it, but I have no faith in the NHL's disciplinary system. I fully expect them to get everything wrong as they usually do.

Being an NHL fan is like being in an abusive relationship. You have this idealist view in your head of what hockey is and what is can be, but the reality is that the NHL is a deeply flawed entity with no real interest in correcting those flaws. But we keep crawling back, and even defend the worst aspects of the relationship away as something they really aren't.

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