In the National Hockey League, the frigid month of February has provided a classic example of playing with fire.
After Friday’s 300-plus penalty-minute disgrace, disguised as a game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Islanders on Long Island, the league and the sport have sustained some third-degree burns.
Interestingly enough, this recent spate of on-ice violence was bookended by a pair of matches featuring the two aforementioned Atlantic Division rivals and, of all people, Penguins backup goalie Brent Johnson.
When Johnson felled Islanders netminder Rick DiPietro with one punch at the end of a game Feb. 2 in Pittsburgh, the scene was widely lauded as a charming example of “old time hockey,” whatever that means. However, once word arrived that DiPietro had suffered broken bones in his face due to the TKO, suddenly much of the moment’s luster seemed hollow and silly.
Of course, the NHL’s fight-hype machine was back churning out nonsense the next night in Boston, when the Bruins and the Dallas Stars engaged in three separate glove-dropping altercations before the contest was five seconds old. Judging by the reaction of bloodsport shill Jack Edwards on the New England Sports Network, one would’ve thought the Bruins had just ended their four-decade Stanley Cup drought.
Coincidentally, the Bruins were involved in another punch-fest Wednesday night, as they and division rival Montreal staged a 14-goal extravaganza sadly trumped by line brawls in the second and third periods amid all the offense.
According to postgame analysis from multiple media sources, the night was a shining example of hockey’s best qualities – even if the supposed main event, a confrontation between goaltenders Tim Thomas and Carey Price, turned into a complete farce.
But, hey, it’s all in good fun, right? And the Islanders calling up the penalty-minute king from their American Hockey League affiliate in Bridgeport, Michael Haley, prior to Friday’s tilt with Pittsburgh? Just an innocent roster move to add some toughness to the New York lineup.
To the Islanders’ credit, they burst out of the starting gate at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, sprinting out to a remarkable 6-0 lead early in the second period capped by a pretty goal by none other than Haley, who also leads Bridgeport in goals, by the way.
But the dexterity of Haley’s hands would soon be put to use for other purposes, as the Islanders took the opportunity of a blowout score to deliver their brand of vengeance upon the Penguins, against whom they harbored a grudge from the Feb. 2 meeting.
You see, the Islanders were upset about a legal Max Talbot check, which sidelined their own Blake Comeau with a concussion, something Pittsburgh knows much about with their captain Sidney Crosby afflicted by the same malady.
And so the foolishness began when New York’s Matt Martin ambushed Talbot from behind, luckily for everyone, refraining from throwing a punch until his prey had turned around and dropped in panicked self-defense. The resulting fracas led to a handful of ejections, but the problem with vigilante justice is that there is no standard of enforcement.
Therein lies the major issue with allowing the players to police themselves: what if the self-appointed “cops” are corrupt? Meanwhile, the referees, men trained to be arbiters, are reduced to toothless facilitators while the players they’re responsible for mete out punishment as they see fit.
Sound crazy? In the world of hockey, this bizarre state of affairs passes for normal. Then, when a maniac like New York’s Trevor Gillies throws a leaping elbow at an unsuspecting Eric Tangradi, everyone can act surprised at the escalation of brutality, as if letting the prisoners run the penitentiary was a completely sane thing to do.
Suddenly, we see new Islanders’ folk hero Haley bearing down on the Penguins’ Johnson to “even the score” on behalf of DiPietro, despite the goalie-on-goalie action on Feb. 2 being undoubtedly consensual.
As Pittsburgh goon Eric Godard bolted off the bench to defend his netminder, earning himself an automatic 10-game suspension and a hefty fine for his coach Dan Bylsma, many in the hockey community wondered once more what the sport’s concession to bloodlust has wrought.
Something tells this writer that any deserved ridicule from outside hockey pales when compared to the guilt inspired when this perverted system claims yet another victim.
To think, last February the planet marveled at the spectacle of world-class hockey sans fighting in the Winter Olympics. When will the sport realize it’s good enough without the foolishness?
Matt Gajtka is the Penguins beat reporter and Featured Writer for Sports Haze Pittsburgh. He also hosts “The Gospel of Hockey,” an NHL talk show on 1570 WHTX in Warren, Ohio (www.1570theblizzard.com).
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