In the immortal words of AC/DC, if you wanted blood – you got it.
The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals had it out last night just days after Tom Wilson ended Artemi Panarin's season early with a judo flip during a goal-mouth melee. Panarin had jumped on the Caps power forward after Wilson sucker-punched a prone Pavel Buchnevich and when the NHL chose not to suspend Wilson for his actions (he was fined $5,000 for the Buchnevich shot), you knew there would be fireworks in the rematch.
Right off the opening faceoff there were multiple fights and once Wilson took to the ice for his first shift about 40 seconds later, he answered the bell against New York's Brendan Smith (a distinct underdog in the bout, but somebody had to do it). The bad blood continued later in the game when Buchnevich high-sticked Anthony Mantha in the face. Buchnevich has a hearing with the NHL today on the matter.
As always, mass fisticuffs lead to hand-wringing in the hockey world and watching social media react to the game was almost as entertaining as the sport itself. Fighting has long been a divisive issue in hockey and the debate only gets louder as the stakes get higher.
The NHL is about to embark on a new American TV contract with ESPN and Turner Sports and overall exposure to the sport in the United States rises with every year. More dollars for the NHL is great, but it will be interesting to see if the sport mutates at all in this new media environment.
For casual sports fans who don't know hockey's history of self-policing and that ever-elusive "Code" that players live by, it's jarring to see full-out brawls on the ice when similar incidents in NBA basketball (Kermit Washington's punch on Rudy Tomjanovich, or Ron Artest and the 'Malice at the Palace') led to massive rulebook changes and heavy suspensions.
So the ramifications of Wilson Week are going to be fascinating. The New York Rangers already publicly called out NHL Department of Player Safety head George Parros by name in an unprecedented official statement on Tuesday and had the franchise not fired its president and GM the day after, it would still be the top story in NHL circles.
If Buchnevich gets suspended for his assault on Mantha, there will definitely be major pushback from Rangers fans (and possibly the team itself) who will argue that none of this would have happened if Wilson had been given a heavier punishment in the first place.
But it all happened and now the big question is What Happens Next? For decades there has been a debate over whether fighting in hockey is a selling point, or something that holds the game back from more mass acceptance in the American market (though to be fair, there are certainly Canadians who don't like the brawling either).
In terms of the current culture, the coaches from the Rangers and Capitals didn't seem to have a problem with the rough stuff.
"To me, when something like that happens it speaks volumes to how these guys want to play for each other and care for each other in difficult circumstances," said Rangers bench boss David Quinn. "We all saw what happened the other night; nobody was happy about it. I couldn't be more proud of these guys."
Quinn's peer on the other side of the ice struck the same tone in his post-game comments.
"I thought we stuck up for each other and played for each other the entire night," said Washington coach Peter Laviolette. "It was the game that was kinda dealt to us and I thought the guys did a terrific job."
What's even more interesting is how the Rangers-Caps clash had even more compelling storylines than the fights: New York rooke Morgan Barron scored his first NHL goal, while Washington veteran T.J. Oshie tallied a hat trick in his first game since his father, Tim – a beloved figure not only to Oshie, but the entire Capitals organization and beyond – had passed away.
So the full spectrum of what hockey can be was on display in New York. Some will see the game as a black eye on the sport, while others will bask in the passion and viscerality of a sport where actions have consequences and everyone answers the bell on the ice eventually. Is it good, is it bad? The debate continues – and it definitely has everyone talking.