I think the general assumption of fans watching the third period of a lopsided victory spiral into violent thuggery is “frustration.” The players are frustrated, and they’re taking our their frustrations.
The players on the losing team are frustrated – quite, in fact – but it’s more than that. There’s a few reasons teams don’t choose to quietly run the clock out, tuck their tails between their legs and retire to the dressing room. This is not a defense of what they do as much as it is an explanation of what you’re seeing.
So, your team is down five goals with half a period to play. Here’s what the guys on the bench are dealing with.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs were getting wholly routed by the Boston Bruins in Game 1 (not so much on the scoreboard as overall), you’ll note that Colton Orr ended up playing over eight minutes, roughly two minutes more than he’d normally average. You’d expect him to get less time in a playoff game, but with the game out of reach, coaches start looking for players who aren’t rolling over, for those who “want it.”
What they deem “wanting it” is visual confirmation of actual effort, and not guys coasting around for fifty seconds and changing. That means finishing checks hard, hustling on the forecheck and backcheck, and yes, fighting. If your team is going to go down, your coach wants you to at least go down guns-a-blazing, because you’re a man dammit, and you’re supposed to have some self-respect.
Coaches use the final ten minutes to help decide their lines for next game, who’s scratched and who isn’t, and all the rest. So a surefire way not to get singled out as a gutless sissy is to go do something, go fight someone. See, coach, I still care.
It’s a long series
As much as players are smart enough to say things like “you never want to see anyone get hurt out there” to reporters, they’re lying. Hell, I think they have to lie to avoid jail. Sure, they don’t want to induce permanent suffering or anything, but if a guy gets his thumbed busted and can’t play in the next game you think there’s gonna be some guilt on behalf of the slasher? F*** and no.
So there’s no chance your team is going to win this game, but those suckers still have to get on the ice with your loser team. With their mission accomplished, all they want to do is get out of the game with any injuries, and bring the exact same lineup – healthy – into the next contest. And that’s the last thing your team wants.
If your opponent doesn’t want to give your team a bunch of free goals, you have to make them get dirty. Who gives a damn if you take a slashing penalty, the game is already over. So the goal becomes to hithithit killkillkill because that makes perfect sense. Hand out as many bumps and bruises (and hey, if it’s more, so be it) and force them through the gauntlet before you limp back to the dressing room.
In blowouts you tend to notice every little infraction, because every little infraction gets responded to, because again, the game is over so there’s no need to take any abuse. But there’s also a retribution factor that starts to play out, because in hockey you’re constantly told “take his number.” As in, “remember who the jerk was who did that to you, don’t take a dumb penalty and hurt our team right now, there will be a time to settle the score later.”
You’re constantly putting the team before yourself throughout the year because hockey is a tough sport where players get speared, elbowed, hacked, held and a number of other things that don’t always get called. So when a game is out of reach, now’s the time to find that guy and remind him “Hi, my name is BLANK, I have a long memory, and I’d like to have a discussion about that time you speared me in the balls last November.”
Nobody plans on losing their fight
Sometimes a team doesn’t like the way things are going, so they decide to fight a bunch of people, promptly get beat up, and everyone laughs and says something like “getting beat up will sure teach them.” I’m not sure how many of these people have ever been in a fight, so for those that haven’t, here’s a good rule of thumb: you’re planning on punching his face. Not that you’re unaware of the possibility that you could be on wrong end of any given tilt, but the plan is to punch his face, punch his face, punch his face, then make some crazy motion to the crowd, get your boys all fired up and drink some water in the penalty box. Nobody’s psychic and most players think they’re tough.
And then of course, there is that frustration.
Nothing is working and it’s never because your team is just getting outplayed, it’s because of the bad ref and your stupid group of cheaters and our dumb coach and my stupid linemates. And because frankly, most guys would be happy to get kicked out of a blowout and sent to the room to shower and drink Gatorade. And because you do get more respect for slashing a guy in the knee than you do for taking short shifts, hiding on the bench and wishing the game over.
So **** this. /WHACK
These are strong, confident dudes who can take care of themselves, and generally their preference is to do so. They might all hate blowouts as I did, but a lot of fans love watching games unfold the way last night’s did, and those that don’t can probably survive without their fainting couches. Hockey is a tough game, and toughness is a defining characteristic of the sport. And so it goes.
Montreal and Ottawa had a bit of a melee last game, but I think it’s behind them. Michel Therrien will have his boys regroup and focus on the way they normally play. Ottawa will try to do away with them. And the game will be played between the whistles.
Late game gong shows in playoffs don’t come with carryovers. Game 3 is done, and Game 4 is anyone’s to be won.