The biggest problem with Saturday night’s game was that Shawn Thornton went berserk and attacked a guy. Claude Julien is right in saying it wasn’t the only thing that happened, but that doesn’t mean Thornton’s actions weren’t especially deplorable.
Sticking up for teammates is one thing, but Thornton’s first-period stunt came as the ultimate line-crossing and overreaction in a league that has a problem with players demanding responses or retaliation – even when it might not be necessary.
Thornton’s slew-foot and two punches to the head of Brooks Orpik marked his second encounter with Orpik following the defenseman’s big hit on Loui Eriksson that left Eriksson concussed. The first was a play in which Orpik declined Thornton’s challenge and Thornton was penalized for roughing.
Bruins apologists will say that if Orpik had just fought Thornton, none of this would have happened, and they’d be right. Yet it isn’t Thornton or any Bruin’s call as to whether Orpik will fight.
The refs might think a play is OK and other players might think a play is clean, but Thornton -- who, yes, has long lived by "The Code" and has prided himself on being a safe player -- showed Saturday that all it takes is for one person to not like a play enough for things to get messy. Except Thornton didn’t just jump a guy who didn’t want to fight, he attacked a guy who didn’t see it coming.
The bottom line with Orpik’s hit is that it might have been bad -- it was high -- but it wasn’t egregious. It was something Orpik could have answered for, sure, but he chose not to.
The counterpoint there is that even if the hit is debatable, it still left Eriksson concussed, so the Bruins have the right to be fired up over it. But when a guy doesn’t want to fight he usually doesn’t fight.
He could have chosen not to for two reasons: 1. Because he didn’t want to fight, or 2. Because he didn’t think the hit warranted a response that would leave his team without one of its top defensemen for five minutes.
If it’s that he didn’t want to fight, Thornton can either keep asking or he can think up a rotten name to call him that insults Orpik’s manhood.
Thornton took the idea of responding/sticking up for a teammate too far when he did what he did. The result was obviously the worst part about it, but even if Orpik bounced right back up and went to the bench, Thornton’s actions would have still been unquestionably egregious.
“I understand sometimes guys try to stick up for a teammate after a big hit,” Sidney Crosby said after the game. “I think that’s something that has been in hockey for a long time. But it was obvious [Orpik] didn’t want to. He’s our top defenseman. He can’t be in the box for five minutes and fighting. From what I saw, I thought the hit was pretty clean. If they want to make it a point to go after him, and finish their hits and play tough on him because he did that, I think Orps is more than willing to take care of himself. But I don’t think there’s any room for that.
“I think [Milan] Lucic ended up getting in a fight with [Deryk Engelland] shortly before that, so I think they sent the message to their team that they were going to stick up for each other. But that kind of took it a little far.”
The oddest thing about the night was that Neal’s knee to the head of Marchand, though not as damaging, was clearly more despicable than Orpik's hit on Eriksson. That pretty much had to go unanswered given what had happened with Orpik.
Players try to police the game the best they can, and there are going to be problems regardless of how good a job they do. Is a player really policing the game if they do what Thornton did Saturday, or what the Stars did last month when Johnny Boychuk had to fight someone for laying out a big – and clean – hit?
The Bruins made the right call Thursday against the Canadiens. Somebody could have reacted to Max Pacioretty’s hit – a boarding call that wasn’t over the top but saw Johnny Boychuk leave the ice on a stretcher – but the Bruins didn’t feel the hit was bad enough.
“We’re all guilty of that stuff. We're suspending guys for illegal hits and then we're punishing guys for good, clean hits,” Julien said before Saturday’s game. “So where does a guy have the opportunity to go out and play a physical game if there's a good hit, he knows he's going to be punished. So I guess there's that fine line there that becomes important to look at. You want to stick up for your teammate, but at the same time we don't want to take the good physicality out of the game. And every team is guilty of that, including us.
“We’ve made a reputation of that by saying we're going to stick together, and that's great. So you're treading a fine line there when it comes to that. … If we want to clean up the game, we want to be honest with both sides when it happens to us or against us, let's call a spade a spade.”
OK, let’s. Shawn Thornton took it too far.