By Allan Muir
It took all of three seconds from the opening puck drop for Detroit’s Jordin Tootoo to drop the gloves with Jared Boll of the Blue Jackets on Monday night.
Now, tempers can fray quickly in the NHL, but it’s hard for anyone to work up a good froth in that span, especially when the guy you’re baiting is stationed 30 feet away on the opposite side of the face-off circle. But that seemed like a leisurely, deeply considered pace compared to the single tick it took Joe Finley and Matt Martin of the Islanders to call out Pierre-Cedric Labrie and B.J. Crombeen of the Lightning earlier in the day. Or even the two seconds it took for Pittsburgh’s Tanner Glass to summon Rangers forward Arron Asham on Sunday.
Of course, none of those bouts were about blowing off a little steam, were they?
Staged fights — the sort of confrontation that the Ontario Hockey League has all but legislated out of its game this season — are back in vogue in the NHL. And not simply as a way for a pair of hard-working but marginally skilled players to justify their roster spots with a bit of the old ultra-violence. In the aftermath of the lockout, they’ve become a useful coaching strategy.
And it makes a lot of sense. With just five days of camp, there just wasn’t enough prep time for the new season. Legs are a little heavy. Hands are a little less soft. Hockey sense has been dulled by hours of watching Spongebob and Dora with the kids. Judging by the early going, it’ll take at least few games for most guys to shake off the rust and get up to NHL speed.
But there was one attribute unaffected by the lengthy layoff: the willingness to go. A handy back pocket option under normal circumstances, the nuclear response has become a valuable tool for coaches looking to get their team’s blood moving early.
No doubt there’ll be sober thinkers out there decrying the recklessness of it all and how these fights sully the better nature of the game. But a win’s a win, and the condensed schedule leaves no wiggle room for a flat team to ramp up the energy. They need it quickly. And there’s no better way to fire up the boys on the bench — or the aggrieved fans in the stands — than an early knuckleduster.
Back to Tootoo. His role with his new team doesn’t leave a lot of room for interpretation. He’s there to provide a spark. And, sometimes, sparks erupt into flames.
Mike Babcock can say he didn’t send Tootoo out there to fight. As the visiting coach, he is obliged to name his starters first, so he had no idea whether Todd Richards would provide Tootoo with a dance partner. But he was clearly looking for a different kind of energy from his team than what they offered against the Blues in the opener.
He got it. Tootoo was in motion before the puck even dropped, sliding around the back of the circle and dropping his accoutrements to grab Boll’s attention. And even though he got throttled by the much larger Blue Jacket, it worked.
Motivated by Tootoo’s willingness to take one for the team, the Wings found their legs first, getting off eight shots before Columbus managed to land one on Jimmy Howard. And Tootoo continued to play his game, leveling Derek MacKenzie later in the frame to keep the boys pumped.
It seemed to work in the other games as well. After the simultaneous bouts, the Islanders fed off a ramped up crowd at Nassau Coliseum and got off 10 shots in the first period against the Bolts after landing only three in their opening period of their 2-1 loss to the Devils on Saturday. They went on to win the game, 4-3.
But even the losing teams claimed to appreciate the premeditated tilts.
“High marks for [Asham]” Rangers coach John Tortorella told the New York Post in the wake of New York’s 6-3 loss to the Pens. “When a player does something like that, the other guys need to feed off it and do their thing. And that hasn’t happened.”
Not on that night, anyway. But don’t think the approach will change. The Blueshirts led the league with 65 fighting majors last season. It’s part of their identity. And after watching the early slate of games, it’s clear that Tortorella isn’t alone in recognizing the value of a tussle.
Even if it is staged.