There were fireworks at the Washington-Boston game on Wednesday night and it had nothing to do with the Capitals raising their Stanley Cup banner. With Washington up 7-0 on the Bruins, Caps center Lars Eller took a slapshot on goalie Jaroslav Halak, prompting the star Boston agitator to jump the big Dane.
Eller had previously celebrated scoring the seventh goal of the whitewash a little too vigorously, skating by the Boston bench and then throwing some words their way.
On the same night, Washington winger Devante Smith-Pelly told reporters that the Tom Wilson suspension was “garbage” and that the hit wasn’t that bad.
For me, the two incidents are related and speaks to one of those bizarre wrinkles in hockey culture: players often talk about ‘The Code,’ but it pretty much only applies to the other team.
Starting with Marchand and Eller, you have Marchand clearly believing that Eller violated the unspoken rules of the game - mostly by rubbing in a meaningless goal during a blowout, then taking a hard shot soon after. So Marchand dropped the gloves with his opponent.
But Marchand also threw a couple punches before Eller got his gloves off and Eller didn’t really even look like he wanted to fight - is that OK? If you’re a Bruins fan, you say yes - Eller broke the code by taunting in a blowout. Heck, even Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy defended Marchand after the game. If you’re a Washington fan, you see Marchand breaking the code because he didn’t wait for Eller to drop the gloves - and because Eller has never fought before.
Meanwhile, you have Smith-Pelly defending the indefensible. He claims that Wilson got shoulder on St. Louis Blues rookie Oskar Sundqvist, not head. But c’mon. The Department of Player Safety doesn’t look at a hit once and make judgement; those guys have all sorts of camera angles at their disposal and they take all the time they need to make sure they are comfortable with their decision. I guarantee that if someone made the hit on a Capitals player, Smith-Pelly himself would have rushed to his teammate’s defense (and there’s no question Wilson would have pounded the guy in a fight).
Now, I’m not singling out these guys to make them look bad. What I’m saying is that nobody sees themselves as the villain. Eller was celebrating a goal. Marchand was reacting to his opponent’s poor sportsmanship. Smith-Pelly was standing up for a teammate.
For Marchand and Smith-Pelly, it’s about the foxhole mentality of sports. Both of them (Eller too) have won Stanley Cups; they have forged incredibly strong bonds with their teams and teammates and they will not back down when they believe those brothers-in-arms are being attacked or disrespected in anyway.
I’ve mentioned this before, particularly on the podcast, but I have a theory that sports psychology is all about lying to yourself and others. Not in a malicious way, but these elite athletes need to be in a certain mindset in order to be successful and that includes an “us against them” attitude that almost never breaks. Think about how much dodgy stuff Marchand did before his teammates finally said yeah, he shouldn’t lick opponents anymore.
So don’t be surprised that Smith-Pelly defends Wilson and don’t be surprised if someone from Washington challenges Marchand to a fight the next time these teams meet. ‘The Code’ only applies when the other guy breaks it.