It should have been the best of the NHL – the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Boston Bruins on Saturday night, a rematch of the Eastern Conference final, skill and speed and defense and toughness and all that good stuff.
Instead, it was the worst of the NHL – a seek-and-destroy hit, a concussion, a sneaky-dirty knee to the head, a vicious attack, another concussion and a stretcher, then finger-pointing and lies and apologies.
In the aftermath, it's like sorting garbage at the dump. This stinks. This stinks more. This stinks most. You have to draw distinctions, but the overwhelming overall stench leaves you holding your nose.
And it's going to get worse.
The Penguins' James Neal has only a phone hearing with the NHL's department of player safety for kneeing the head of the Bruins' Brad Marchand, which means he will receive a five-game suspension or less – which means the league is going to blow it at least in this instance.
The Bruins' Shawn Thornton has been offered an in-person hearing for slew footing and punching the Penguins' Brooks Orpik, which means he could receive six games or more – which he should. But will he get enough? What is enough for pummeling an unsuspecting opponent and sending him to the hospital?
Will Bruins coach Claude Julien be held accountable for putting Thornton on the ice against Orpik repeatedly to retaliate for a hit Orpik threw on Loui Eriksson? He should be. But will it matter either way?
And what about Zac Rinaldo sending his gloves flying, swinging at the head of Antoine Roussel and jumping him out of nowhere? Oh, wait. That was a different game Saturday – the Philadelphia Flyers versus the Dallas Stars.
Sorry. Hard to keep it all straight. This league sometimes …
Look. Let's stick to what happened in Penguins-Bruins. There was plenty. Seconds after the opening faceoff, the puck came around the boards in the Boston zone. Eriksson went to play the puck, and it took a funny bounce off the boards and skipped behind him.
By that time, Orpik had already stepped up to smoke Eriksson. He stayed low. He kept his skates on the ice and his elbows in. He drove his right shoulder into Eriksson's chest, not Eriksson's head. It could have been a minor penalty for interference because the puck wasn't there, but it wasn't worthy of supplemental discipline.
It wasn't dirty by the standards of today's game. Still, it was a seek-and-destroy hit, the kind of hit you use to punish and intimidate your opponent, not just to separate him from the puck. Eriksson, who already had missed five games with a concussion this season, clearly had suffered another concussion and left the game.
The Bruins did not have an HD, slow-mo replay on the bench and calm, clear eyes to analyze the hit. They saw a blur. They saw their guy down. They were pissed. "I think that's where it all started, obviously," Julien said, "and then it kind of escalated to the point where I don't think anybody is proud of what's happened."
Julien sent out Thornton, a tough guy, against Orpik, a guy known for playing on the edge and not "answering the bell." Orpik was not obligated to answer the bell here, even in the narrow context of the so-called "code." But Thornton tried to do his job by goading Orpik into a fight, drawing a roughing penalty, and Julien put Thornton out against Orpik again.
"Clearly they took exception to [Orpik's hit on Eriksson]," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "They put people on the ice to take exception to it, and the events that ensued, you saw Thornton."
Later in the first period, Marchand clipped skates with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby while playing the puck. He fell and lay on his side. Neal glided at Marchand as the play went up ice, altered his angle slightly, put his left knee straight into Marchand's head – and never looked back.
"I haven't, like, seen the replay or anything, so I mean I hit him in the head with my leg or my foot or my knee or shin area," Neal said. "I don't know. But I mean, he's already going down, and I guess I need to try to avoid him, but I have to look at it again."
Asked about his intent, Neal said: "I mean, what do you want me to say? That I was trying to hit him? No, I'm going by him. I don't get out of the way, like I said. I need to be more careful and I guess get my knee out of the way, but I'm not trying to hit him in the head or injure him or anything like that."
Wait. Neal guesses he needs to get his knee out of the way? Didn't he need to look at it again?
He did it on purpose and tried to make it look like an accident, and now he's lying about it. Even Bylsma said: "He didn't really make an attempt to get out of the way." It will help him that Marchand wasn't injured, because like it or not, injuries are factored into the length of suspensions. But it should hurt him that he clearly intended to injure Marchand and that he has a history of this type of thing. Five games wouldn't be enough.
Seconds after Neal's knee to Marchand's head, Thornton got his chance to get Orpik. As Orpik stood in a group of officials and players, Thornton snuck up from behind and the side. He slew footed him, dropping him backward onto the ice. Then he shoved his head to the ice and landed two hard gloved punches – one to the face, one to the side of the head.
Orpik was unconscious on the ice. He went off on a stretcher and went to the hospital with a concussion. It was sickening, even for Thornton.
Just three days before, Thornton had been quoted about the code in an ESPN.com fighting package. "People could probably criticize that I'm a little too honorable, I suppose, in some instances," Thornton told ESPN.com. "I've been a firm believer my whole life that what goes around comes around. 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 to bite you at some point, too."
After the game, Thornton was near tears. "Obviously I made a mistake," Thornton said. "I'm aware of it. I've been told that I'll be having a hearing, and it's hard for me to say much more than it was not my intention. I feel awful. I felt sick all game, too. … That's always my job, I guess, to defend my teammates, but I've prided myself for a long time to stay within the lines and it's hard for me to talk about it right now. I can't say I'm sorry enough."
Give Thornton credit for being a stand-up guy, but only so much. That was not his intention? What did he think would happen if he punched Orpik twice in the head? He might not have pictured Orpik going off on a stretcher as he was throwing his punches, trying to do what he was expected to do in his role, but he should have – and hopefully he will in the future.
The NHL did not suspend the Flyers' Ray Emery earlier this season for forcing the Washington Capitals' Braden Holtby to fight, then punching Holtby in the head over and over. The league felt nothing in the rule book supported supplemental discipline. Holtby didn't want to fight, but he did engage at the beginning and then ended up getting his butt kicked. If you tolerate fighting, you tolerate lopsided fights.
What Emery did was deplorable. What Thornton did was worse. Orpik didn't see Thornton coming. He didn't have a chance to be a reluctant combatant, and you can't call him an unwilling combatant because this wasn't a fight. This was assault.
The rules need to change to give the league the power to – and no excuse not to – suspend the next Emery; there is plenty in the rule book to suspend Thornton. It will help Thornton that he has not been suspended before, but it will hurt him that Orpik was injured. Six games appears to be the minimum here, but it should be more than that. Much more.
This is garbage. Clean it up.