We owe the Penguins an apology – sort of. Hear me out. After Sunday’s Game 3 loss in Philadelphia, which featured 158 penalty minutes and ended in three suspensions for the Penguins and a $10,000 fine, not to mention terrible defense and worse judgment, the backlash against the beloved boys of winter was harsh. Their honor was dashed. Fans are embarrassed. The city is embarrassed. Horror of horrors, Mario is embarrassed. I too jumped on the shame bandwagon, wagging my finger and shaking my head.
It’s true that the spotlight on violence in the post-season is glaring this year – and the Pens-Flyers series is at the center of it. Of the nine bans doled out by the league so far, three have involved Penguins.
Arron Asham was suspended for four games after his crosscheck and then punch to the head of Brayden Schenn, James Neal received a one-game suspension for his hit on Claude Giroux and Craig Adams was automatically suspended for instigating a fight at the end of Game 3.
As if on cue, Wednesday night, frustration struck again – but this time it was the Flyers who freaked out. Philadelphia took 12 minor penalties, received a game misconduct and three 10-minute misconducts. The Flyers, who after three games prematurely asserted how disciplined they are, lost control. Is it that surprising? They lost a potential elimination game by a touchdown.
Game 4 shows that maybe the awful display Pittsburgh put on last Sunday wasn’t the terrible reflection on their character that so many made it out to be. Competitiveness, high stakes, and, let’s face it, testosterone, play a part in what happens on any field, court or sheet of ice.
Obviously there are limits. Most notably right now are the recent actions of Shea Weber, Raffi Torres, and, yes, Asham. They all crossed a line – to varying degrees. But Sidney Crosby giving out whacks all over the ice, Kris Letang taking a stupid penalty and participating in an ill-timed fight, Craig Adams maybe pulling someone’s ridiculous ginger Jheri curl – those actions don’t require the ire and disdain they have been given. The Pens overall defense, however, deserved all the critique in the world.
James Neal is lucky he didn’t hurt anyone, and probably lucky he didn’t get more than a one-game suspension. But his actions in Game 3 were clearly out of frustration – and out of character. Neal is not a cheap shot artist. He’s not Torres.
I also don’t think anyone should string up Claude Giroux for a foolish high-sticking penalty on Brooks Oprik in Game 4. Flyers Pavel Kubina and Zac Rinaldo are probably already kicking themselves for the silly penalties they took after realizing they’d fumbled a chance to close out a series. Hopefully Rinaldo, who has a history of playing on the edge, crosschecking Pens’ defenseman Zbynek Michalek doesn’t have a lasting effect on the concussed blue-liner.
The fact is, you can’t throw a bunch of men into a gladiator pit for your entertainment, cheer for blood and fights, and then act appalled and sanctimonious when things get out of hand.
That is absolutely not to say that inexcusable things don’t happen in the course of a game. The three incidents I referred to above only scratch the surface of dangerous plays this regular and post-season. The NHL’s Department of Player Safety leaves much to be desired, and the practice of respect amongst players unfortunately isn’t going to happen overnight.
But before hopping on a high horse, fans and media need to remember that two parties take part in the carnage of contact sports: those who play, and those who watch.
On that note, the rating for Sunday’s Flyers-Penguins game drew a 2.3 share, the best number for an NHL playoff game, excluding one in the Finals, in a decade.