Shawn Thornton (red) fights Adam McQuaid (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Fighting may be on the wain in the NHL, but several incidents last night demonstrated what a difference a scrap can make for a team. Florida picked up Shawn Thornton two summers ago for a reason and the veteran earned his keep against the Bruins. Meanwhile, Toronto and Buffalo showed two contrasting reactions.
Fighting has been on the decline in the NHL recently, much to the delight of many of my peers in the media. But take a look at some of the action from last night and you'll see why the players almost universally have a different opinion.
First, let's head to Florida, where the surprising Panthers were down 4-1 to the traditionally bruising Bruins. Boston defenseman Adam McQuaid roughs up youngster Quinton Howden, prompting this reaction from Florida enforcer Shawn Thornton:
From that point on, the Cats came back. Florida would lose to Boston 5-4 in overtime, but for a team that had been owned by the Bruins, the Panthers at least made a statement that they would not roll over (and they got a point, denying the B's second place in the division outright).
Now, I'm sure the Vocal Minority (see what I did there?) will argue that turning the other cheek would have been better for Florida – after all, McQuaid was getting a penalty anyway; Thornton's two-minute instigator just nullified an offensive opportunity – but that didn't happen. The comeback did, starting less than two minutes later. As the Boston Herald's Steve Conroy noted, "the fight put a buzz in the building," and Florida out-shot Boston 18-5 in the period.
Now let's jump down the ladder of the Atlantic Division to Buffalo and Toronto. The two rivals met last night at the Air Canada Centre and although the stakes were much lower in terms of playoff standings, the vitriol was still there. In different degrees…
Early in the game, Maple Leafs rookie goalie Garret Sparks was run over by Evander Kane (and almost Brian Gionta at the same time). You can debate whether Kane was pushed by Toronto's Matt Hunwick, but as the old referee metaphor goes, if the crease was a pit of snakes, Kane likely wouldn't have crashed into the netminder.
Anyway, there was zero reaction from the Maple Leafs. They just kinda stared at the scene. Oh, and Kane got a two-minute penalty. What a momentum shifter for Toronto! As it turns out, Kane was out of the box when the Buds scored on another power play from an innocuous trip Gionta laid on William Nylander.
Fast-forward to late in the game: Jack Eichel gets tagged by Nazem Kadri when the rookie juked the Leafs center, causing him to catch only part of the Sabres freshman. In the heat of the moment at ice level, it probably looked dodgy. Actually, I don't have to speculate, because I asked Buffalo defenseman Zach Bogosian why, with murder in his eyes, he went after Kadri just a little bit later – in overtime, no less – when the two were back on the ice together.
"I didn't like the hit," Bogosian said. "Obviously we have to stick together in this room. That's the way it has to be, whether it's one of their top guys or not. It doesn't matter. We have to have that mindset that we're sticking up for each other. It doesn't mean everyone has to fight, but let everyone on the team know we've got each other's backs."
Here's the thing: sometimes teams need these moments to come together. The Sabres are young and Eichel is new to the fold. He knows his veterans will go to war for him. Does Garret Sparks know that right now?
Will certain media types scoff at the idea that violence can motivate and comfort professional athletes? Perhaps. But I'm sure "Sideways" is on Netflix and that's probably just as comforting to them.
Maybe one day you can convince players that statistically speaking, fighting has little to no positive impact on momentum, but that's a long road to go down. Players put themselves in a foxhole mentality during the gruelling, grinding season. They don't want to hear that Purple Hearts are meaningless medals.