Haggerty: NHL linesmen are going to get someone hurt by stepping into fights early

Haggerty: NHL linesmen are going to get someone hurt by stepping into fights early

Everybody knows that fighting is down across the NHL and that’s the way the league really wants it to be. 

With greater scrutiny on the NHL because of concussions and their connection to the contact sport, the NHL is trying to show they’re doing everything within their power to lessen blows to the head. One of the easiest ways to do that is to A) create rules that make it more difficult for orchestrated fights to happen and B) to foster an environment where there isn’t a need for the classic enforcers around the league.

The penalties for players instigating fights with visors or for taking their helmets off have been effective tools for the league in helping to weed out some of the orchestrated fights at center ice that nobody really seemed to enjoy.

Last season, the NHL saw 344 total fighting majors in the regular season, which was actually three fewer fighting infractions than in the shortened, 48-game lockout schedule in 2012-13.

MORE: NHL Power Rankings

Clearly, the league accomplished both its goals to drive fighting down without out-and-out banning fights. Time will ultimately be the judge as to whether this was a good thing for hockey or ultimately a tipping point that drove away diehard fans who no longer recognized the beautiful, violent game they once loved.

The sense from this humble hockey writer is that the NHL is watering down their product, neutering it beyond recognition to their diehard fans and in serious danger of losing what’s always made the league unique. The speed-and-skill game is certainly a beautiful part of hockey, but the NHL won’t be able to protect the players bringing those qualities if fighting and retribution for dirty hits no longer exist.

In the league’s zeal to stamp fighting out without outlawing it, they’ve gone too far with the actions of linesmen in games this season. It’s been obvious to the casual observer that linesmen are stepping in far too quickly to break up fights that are organically happening on the ice. We’ve now seen this in two consecutive Bruins games. The first was notable, if harmless, with Adam McQuaid and Josh Anderson getting separated in the Bruins/Blue Jackets game on Tuesday night when it was clear both players were willing combatants during a heavy, physical game.

That was bad enough given how the on-ice officials were interfering with the natural flow of the game.

But the actions of linesmen Mark Shewchyk and Greg Devorski Thursday night in a 4-2 win for the Bruins over the Buffalo Sabres were ineffective, ill-conceived, poorly executed and worst of all dangerous to everybody involved on the ice. William Carrier had knocked David Backes out of the game in the first period with a blindside hit that had some head contact, so he knew something was coming from the Bruins on a subsequent shift once officials stepped in and didn’t allow Kevan Miller to respond immediately.

So, McQuaid stepped in on an ensuing shift and did what he always does: stood up for his teammate.

McQuaid and Carrier both dropped the gloves and were about to willingly handle things in the honest, time-honored hockey tradition of “answering the bell” when Shewchyk and Devorski forced their way into the middle of it. They bumbled their way through breaking up the fracas and it all ended with McQuaid bloodied after taking several shots to the face as Devorski locked down his arms and took away any chance the B’s defenseman had to defend himself. 

Shewchyk was simply overpowered by Carrier and couldn’t stop the Buffalo forward from wildly swinging and connecting on McQuaid multiple times. McQuaid was incensed at the actions of the two linesmen after things settled down and nobody could blame him after they went way over the line trying to extinguish a hockey fight that absolutely should have happened.

To add insult to injury, McQuaid was called for an instigator penalty in a “fight” that the linesmen never actually allowed to organically happen in the first place. Instead, McQuaid was slapped with a penalty after he was fed right-handed punches that busted his face open as officials held him back.

McQuaid needed stitches to his face and Carrier suffered some kind of injury to his hand in the embarrassing, dangerous sequence that should serve as a learning moment for the on-ice officials. 

On-ice officials need to take a step back when two willing combatants are engaged for legitimate reasons, and show they have an actual feel for the game that they’re officiating.  A failure to do so could lead to avoidable injuries to the players they’re trying to protect, or to the linesmen while players are wildly throwing punches at each other in those situations.

“It can be dangerous, but hopefully somebody will deal with it and make it better for next time,” said Claude Julien after the game. “I respect the job they do. Certainly, those linesmen are never rewarded enough. … I’m sure they’ll approach that situation and talk about it and fix it so it doesn’t create a dangerous situation like it did.”

One can argue whether the outlawing of  fights from the NHL is a good thing or a bad thing, but this trend of linesmen stepping in far too early to break things up needs to end.

Fighting is down and the league has what it wants with the staged fighting just a relic of the recent NHL past at this point. But somebody is going to get seriously hurt with the way on-ice officials are haphazardly stepping in between NHL heavyweights about to collide with their fists. It needs to stop for the sake of safety for both the officials and the willing combatants involved. 

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

USA TODAY Sports Photo

Backes escapes skate blade situation with deep cut that "wasn't too dangerous"

TAMPA – David Backes certainly didn’t escape the scary situation with an errant skate blade unscathed, of course. 

The 33-year-old limped his way to the Bruins team bus out of Amalie Arena after Boston’s 3-0 shutout win over the Tampa Bay Lightning, and needed approximately 18 stitches to close up the gash on his right thigh. But Backes was still able to joke about it as he exited the dressing room while knowing that it could have been much, much worse with that kind of freak accident on the ice. 

"I'll play a second period one of these days,” said a smiling Backes, who was forced out of Saturday night’s loss with the skate blade cut in the last minute of the first period and exited the Florida loss as well after catching a match penalty in the first period as well. Luckily for him, there was no structural damage to Backes’ right leg after Yanni Gourde caught him in the thigh area as both players were down on the ice around the Tampa net.

MORE - Haggerty: B's make a statement to Lightning, rest of NHL

There was a lot of blood, however, as he quickly exited the ice, sped past the bench and headed right to the Bruins dressing room with Bruins trainer Donnie DelNegro trailing right behind. 

“I went in and saw him between periods. He’s okay. There’s no structural damage. There will be concern going forward about swelling or infection, but it looks like he’ll be okay. We’ll classify him as day-to-day, but I don’t know if he’ll be ready to play on Monday,” said Bruce Cassidy of Backes, who actually scored the second goal of the game for the Bruins as a power play strike. “You see a guy coming off like that and you see the blood pooling up, and you’re always worried they could hit an artery somewhere. He was able to get up. That was the first good sign and he was able to be tended to quickly. 

“It is scary. But we were told it would be a deep cut that would require some stitches, and it wasn’t too dangerous.”

For now it just becomes an eventful month for Backes where he’s been suspended, tossed out of a game with a match penalty and now forced out of a game after a freak skate blade incident, but there’s no doubt he’ll return better and stronger than ever in rapid fashion as he’s done through the last two seasons with the Bruins.


B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

AP Photo

B's make a big statement to Tampa, rest of the NHL with gutsy win

TAMPA – One has to wonder what the Tampa Bay Lightning are thinking after Saturday night’s game. 

It’s probably something along the lines of “Oh crap” after the Bruins completely shut them down while missing their top defensemen pairing, their best all-around player and top line center, their most impactful rookie forward and also losing their best power forward, who was filling in as top line center, in the first period. The undermanned Bruins made a big, fat statement with their 3-0 win over the well-rested, healthy Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena at the end of a long, four-game road trip, and now sit just two points behind the Bolts with 12 games to play in the regular season. 

MORE - Scary incident involving Backes

It was impressive enough that the Black and Gold won at all against the NHL’s best team while missing so many of their top shelf players, but to do it while also totally shutting down Tampa’s offense was something worth remarking about. The Bruins defense and goaltending had been playing a bit fast and loose for the better part of a month, and had been bailed out time and again by an offense that’s been dropping big numbers lately. 

But the Bruins went into Saturday night determined to leave an impression with the Lightning about what awaits them next month once the playoffs start, and they did it with physical, gritty defense that left Tampa with little space to operate. Even better the Bruins defensemen moved the puck pretty much perfectly and swiftly all night, blocked shots with hard-nosed determination and proved they could do more than survive without Zdeno Chara and Charlie McAvoy. 

That’s damned impressive when you consider the opponents from Tampa Bay lining up against them with a chance to clinch their playoff spot, and what’s on the line for both teams headed into the final three weeks of the regular season. 

“We were looking at it as more of a bounce-back against a really good team, and let’s see where we are. I thought we answered the bell,” said Bruins head coach Bruce Cassidy. “Probably the biggest win in a long time. We've had some nice comebacks and some high-scoring affairs, but it was nice to get a zero [goals allowed] in the column. It’s been a while. 

“It was just good, solid team defense…winning pucks. It was probably not the prettiest hockey, but I thought the goals we scored were pretty nice ones going to the net. It was playoff hockey. I thought we were better at it than they were tonight. Who knows how the next one is going to go, but we’re going to enjoy this.”

It was clear early on that the Bruins wanted to set the tone both physically and style of play-wise, and they did just that. The pounding physicality clearly bothered the Lightning as Steven Stamkos made an uncharacteristic choice to retaliate against Tim Schaller after he threw a heavy hit on the Tampa Bay star player. That landed Stamkos in the box and set the Bruins up for their first of two power play goals on the evening. 

Those two power play goals were proof enough that the Bruins had their special teams in good order, but it took just a combined 23 seconds of power play time to strike for those two scores against the Lightning penalty kill. That’s the kind of thing that’s going to keep Jon Cooper and the Tampa Bay coaching staff up at night before the final two meetings between these two teams. The suffocating defense, the stout physicality and the quick strike offense just completely overwhelmed the Lightning, and things went exactly according to the game plan that Bruce Cassidy had set out for them prior to the game. 

“We’re a confident group back there, and when we play the way we’re supposed to we can compete with anybody,” said Kevan Miller, who played a punishing, physical 21:41 of ice time in the win. “It’s that time of year where we’re pushing for the playoffs, we’re grinding away and we knew as a group after [the Florida loss] we needed to tighten things up. We did that. That’s a tough team over there, so you need to take time and space away from them. As a group we did a great job of that.”

About the only thing that didn’t go right for the Bruins early was David Backes exiting quickly at the end of the first after his right thigh got sliced by an errant skate blade. But even the 33-year-old Backes managed to avoid serious injury despite approximately 18 stitches to close the wound, and was cracking jokes about it as he limped to the Bruins bus postgame.

Clearly things can and will change with two games remaining between the two teams in the final three weeks of the regular season. The Bruins should theoretically be even better and more difficult to beat once they got all of their key players healthy, and that’s got to be a frightening prospect for the Lightning. 

MORE - Talking Points: B's start strong and don't look back vs Tampa

Then again perhaps the Bolts were a little rusty after three days off leading into Saturday night, and they needed to be kicked in the teeth by the Bruins to start getting that hunger back. Either way the Bruins are within a single win of pulling into a tie for the President’s Trophy and home ice throughout the entire Eastern Conference playoff bracket. Nobody should be surprised the Bruins did it once again while fighting through injuries and a brutal late season schedule, and that’s a testament to how stubbornly they’ve successfully plowed through adversity this season. 

The dominant win over Tampa on Saturday night just serves as another piece of compelling hockey evidence that something special is building with the Black and Gold. It’s become impossible to deny or ignore as the Bruins continue bucking the odds in a way that should have everybody else’s full attention around the NHL at this point.