Monday, December 9, 2013

Weekend wrap: Thornton, Neal, Islanders, Jets and more

A look at three of the biggest stories from the NHL weekend and how they’ll play into the coming days.

Another Black Eye

The weekend included plenty of important games and individual highlights. But those won’t be the focus today, because as seems to be the case a few times every season, the hockey world is instead left reflecting on yet another scary incident of needless violence.

This time it came in Saturday's game between the Penguins and Bruins. The teams have a long history with each other, and their recent matchups have featured plenty of bad blood. But Saturday’s game went well beyond that, and it left both teams facing down injuries and suspensions.

The lowlight was Shawn Thornton’s outright assault on Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik midway through the first period. The Bruins tough guy grabbed Orpik from behind, slew-footed him to the ice, then delivered a series of punches to his defenseless opponent. The attack knocked Orpik out cold, and he was eventually stretchered off the ice.

Thornton was targeting Orpik after the Penguins defenseman had KO’d Boston’s Loui Eriksson with an open-ice hit on the game’s first shift. The hit was a shoulder into the chest and wasn’t penalized, though it was hard to tell if Eriksson had actually played the puck prior to contact. Thornton had tried challenging Orpik to fight, and when the invitation was refused he apparently decided he’d just have to jump him.

After the game, an emotional Thornton expressed regret. Earlier in the week, he had told that “People could probably criticize that I’m a little too honorable, I suppose, in some instances … If you’re one of those guys that suckers someone when they’re down or you go after somebody that doesn’t deserve it or isn’t the same category as you, that will come back and bite you at some point, too.” The quote sounds awful now, but he wasn’t necessarily wrong. Thornton has been one of the league’s more respected enforcers, in part due to his ability to actually play a little in between fights. That’s a reputation he was obviously proud of, but he’ll have to rebuild it from scratch.

The Orpik incident wasn’t the only ugly moment from a game so vicious that a slash that resulted in a broken ankle was treated as a virtual afterthought. Seconds before Thornton’s attack, Penguins winger James Neal appeared to intentionally knee Boston’s Brad Marchand in the side of the head while he was down on the ice. Although the result wasn’t as significant — Marchand was able to finish the game — you could argue that the act itself was every bit as bad as Thornton’s, if not worse. The NHL apparently doesn’t see it that way, though, as they’ve suspended Neal for just five games.

Thornton won’t be so lucky. He’s been invited to an in-person hearing, meaning he’s likely getting the book thrown at him. Anything less than a double-digit suspension would be a surprise, and it will be well deserved despite the usual efforts to blame the victim. (If Oprik had just dropped the gloves, the thinking goes, Thornton wouldn’t have had to sucker him.)

In the meantime, prepare for another week’s worth of debate over “The Code” and fighting’s place in the NHL, with the usual suspects on each side trotting out the same arguments they turn to every time something like this happens. For a league that insists the players can police themselves, the NHL sure gives us all plenty of opportunity to practice this tired dance.

The Bruins held on for a 3-2 win, not that anyone noticed.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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