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Habs-Bruins rumble deserves closer scrutiny

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By Stu Hackel

Fans who watched the Canadiens-Bruins game last night (highlights above) in person or on TSN or Versus certainly got their money's worth of old time hockey entertainment. The two Original Six rivals combined for 14 goals, 67 shots on net, 182 penalty minutes, 12 fighting majors, including a line brawl and the NHL's second goalie fight in a week (video) -- this one far less eventful than the one in which the Penguins' Brent Johnson broke Islander Rick DiPietro's face. Tim Thomas and Carey Price were no better at fighting than they were at stopping the puck.

It was a fun game in many ways, which is what you want when the Habs and B's hook up, although it got pretty stupid at the end, especially when Boston's Adam McQuaid jumped Montreal's Max Pacioretty with 25 seconds left in a contest that had already been decided. McQuaid got a double minor, Pacioretty got nothing and stayed on the ice to score an essentially meaningless goal with 14 seconds to go that made the final score 8-6.

There's  always lots of hand-wringing caused by games like this and the one last week in which Boston and Dallas players fought three separate times before the game was four seconds old. Some find it a disgrace to the sport, and the reason it is not more accepted by mainstream culture in the U.S. (a dubious claim). Others revel in the mayhem and say that's just the way hockey is, it's part of the package and what makes the sport unique and appealing. For a few fans, it's why they watch hockey, but that's their problem. This debate has gone on for decades and is not going to vanish or be settled here.

However, as long as fighting remains part of the NHL, there needs to be a balance in the game (not just when it comes to fisticuffs, but in all aspects of play, which is why the post-lockout rules were so important after a decade of defensive imbalance). The framework for that balance is the game's rules. Because rules changed, fighting is not the scourge it was during the 1970s, when the Flyers perverted the sport by doing what no NHL team had previously done. The Broad Street Bullies took the physical element that was part, but not all, of the identity of the Bobby Orr-era Big Bad Bruins and turned that one part of the game — intimidation, especially through fighting — into their primary tactic. It threw the game out of whack (so to speak) and resulted in the Flyers' two Stanley Cup championships.

Flyers fans of that era, and long afterward, shared the players’ fetish for fisticuffs and loved their team for it. That became the hook of the HBO special on the Flyers last season, a well-made documentary that missed the main point of how badly the Flyers damaged the sport and how the lasting impression of those brawls still stains the NHL's image.

The rules adopted by NHL starting in the mid-70s curtailed that kind of activity and restored the game's balance. They paved the way for the great era that followed with three dynasties -- Canadiens, Islanders and Oilers -- some truly historic seasons and a new level of popularity for the NHL, despite those who called for a ban on all fights.

For many who became fans in that earlier time, however, fighting was what hockey was all about. So it's a bit dismaying to see the well-regarded Bruins fan blog Stanley Cup of Chowder begin its account of Wednesday night's game with the sentence, "Let it be known that the Big Bad Bruins are back! Do not expect to skate away from TD Garden without leaving a pint or two of blood on the ice!"

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Boston has among the most knowledgeable and passionate fans in the NHL and since the days of Eddie Shore they have always loved good physical hockey. No problem there at all as long as the point of the game remains scoring goals and not bloodletting.

And there was blood last night, most notably when the Bruins' Gregory Campbell pummeled the Canadiens' Tom Pyatt during the third-period rumble, slicing his face open by using his elbow pad like a blackjack (starting about a minute into this video) after the pad slid down his arm while he was throwing punches.

TSN's Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire didn't catch it (or at least I didn't hear them) although TSN's Sports Centre did (video). That burlesque maneuver looked like something more out of professional wrestling than professional hockey. The image in my mind was from the '60s, when a wrestler would grab his opponent in a headlock, produce a silver dollar from his trunks and "gouge" his foe's eye while the ref ineffectively watched it all from behind. Someone else might see what Campbell did and think of an insulted gentleman from the 19th Century slapping another with his glove before a duel at 10 paces, but never mind.

It's possible that the officials didn't see Campbell use his elbow pad, but had they, it seems something like that should carry an additional penalty. Campbell only got five for fighting, so a quick trip to the rule book was in order.

Turns out that there is something in the rules that sort of applies to this situation. It's a match penalty for "any player wearing tape or any other material on his hands (below the wrist) who cuts or injures an opponent during an altercation." But you'd have to apply the spirit of that rule because a literal interpretation would negate anything that wasn't worn by the offending player, and Campbell wasn't wearing the elbow pad when he slapped Pyatt with it. I could find nothing in the book that explicitly provides for an extra penalty to a player who hits an opponent during a fight with any part of his equipment other than his stick. So a player, theoretically, could legally smash another with his helmet without any additional penalty, although it's hard to imagine that one wouldn't be assessed. In fact, in 2007, the Maple Leafs Darcy Tucker was fined by the league for pulling off the helmet of the DevilsCam Janssen and clubbing Janssen in the head with it during a fight.

However, if I worked for Hockey Operations -- and I'm glad I don't -- I'd suspend Campbell for a game or two for using his elbow pad like a blackjack. I don't expect that to happen -- not because he's Colin Campbell's son; I don't subscribe to the favoritism charge leveled at Colin Campbell and Hockey Ops, although a suspension certainly would silence those who think there's a conflict of interest -- because there's no rule that specifically applies to this farcical situation.

Too bad. There should be.