BOSTON – We should be talking about hockey.
About the unlikely overtime heroics of defensive defenceman Dan Girardi, who not only planted himself at the top of the crease on Friday night but tipped home a pass with one hand on his stick. About the end of a scoring slump for Steven Stamkos, who tied this game late with his biggest goal in years. About the Tampa Bay Lightning and Boston Bruins, who put on an incredible display of fast, tough, competitive hockey befitting two of our sport’s best teams.
Instead we’re talking about Brad Marchand doing something that has nothing to do with hockey. We’re talking about one of the most talented players on the ice licking an opponent for the second time in these playoffs.
“I don’t know what the difference between that is and spitting in somebody’s face,” said Lightning veteran Ryan Callahan, who had his mouth licked by Marchand while they were engaged in a post-whistle scrum. “If I’m not mistaken, spitting is a game misconduct, if not a gross. I don’t know what the difference is there, if it’s not worse. …
“I’m just surprised that something isn’t done. I don’t know what the difference is between spitting in someone’s face and licking it.”
We’re at the point where the NHL needs to do something. A formal warning, a fine, whatever. There needs to be a clear line drawn in the sand stating that this is unacceptable behaviour because that’s exactly what it is. It’s deplorable and unsportsmanlike and reflects poorly on the league.
There was mixed messaging on whether Marchand had his knuckles rapped behind the scenes after licking Leo Komarov’s neck in Game 1 of Boston’s first-round series with Toronto. There should be no confusion on the matter this time around.
First the league must determine who is responsible for handling the discipline in this sort of case – be it the commissioner or the department of player safety or the hockey operations group.
“Never had licking before,” said one NHL executive. “New area.”
The reason Callahan got in Marchand’s face during the second-period scrum is because he’d been toppled by a low-bridge hit from the Bruins winger. He felt it was a reckless play – the kind Marchand has been suspended for in the past. He threw some gloved punches while voicing his displeasure.
“I just got lucky that my lead foot wasn’t planted,” said Callahan. “I think if my lead foot is planted there I’m not finishing that game.”
Marchand justified his lick by noting that the Lightning winger had stepped up and engaged him.
“Well he punched me four times in the face, so you know, he just kept getting close,” said Marchand. “Nothing big.”
When told that Callahan likened his actions to being spit on, he responded: “That’s cute. Good for him.”
The emotions were running high after the most competitive game of this series by far – a game where Tampa squandered a 2-0 lead and then forced overtime on a late goal from Stamkos immediately after Bruins defenceman Charlie McAvoy was hauled down by Nikita Kucherov.
There was no penalty called on the play by referees Kevin Pollock and Francois St. Laurent. Boston was justified in thinking there should have been.
“Seem to be going down this road a lot lately in these things, about the non-calls. It looked like he reached around, pulled him down,” said coach Bruce Cassidy. “Charlie’s a strong guy, but it wasn’t called, and it’s in our net, and that’s that. There was nothing you can do about it after. You’ve got to keep playing, and we did, but they made the first play in overtime.”
The Bruins have dug themselves quite a hole in this series and will be facing elimination on Sunday afternoon at Amalie Arena. They’ll almost certainly be playing Game 5 without defenceman Torey Krug, who crashed feet first into the end boards on Friday and left the arena using crutches and wearing a walking boot.
After the tremendous season they’ve had, it must be a touch surreal to be down 3-1. At least they raised their game by a significant enough margin on Friday night that it shouldn’t be hard to convince themselves they can stretch this best-of-seven out.
Keeping it between the whistles will be paramount, especially given the manner in which they’ve controlled the special-teams battle. David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron scored power-play goals in Game 4 to raise their conversion rate to 4-for-9 in the series.
They will also need Marchand to be channelling his energy in the right direction.
By this point we know what kind of player he is. Marchand is a determined puck hound with offensive skill to spare – witness the tremendous play he made to set up Bergeron’s short-handed goal in the third period. But he’s also prone to crossing the line by any means necessary.
On some level, you can even understand his indignance at the backlash to his licking given how it’s been handled to date. He first kissed Komarov on the cheek during a game here on Nov. 11 and wasn’t reprimanded. Then he licked the Leafs winger in Round 1, evidently without punishment.
This is his third strike and it’s time for the NHL to step in and put an end to it. Enough is enough.
“All I’m going to say is there’s absolutely no place in our game for that,” said Lightning coach Jon Cooper. “I don’t get it. I don’t understand it. I don’t. How would you feel if I walked over to you right now and just gave you one big lick right from the chin all the way up?”
Point taken. It’s just unfortunate it was a point worth making after a game this good.