Was it worth it?
That’s the question I’d ask Penguins defenseman Deryk Engelland after Wednesday night’s 5-2 home-opening loss to Toronto. In the first period, Engelland decided to shed his gloves and fight Maple Leafs knuckle-dragger Colton Orr.
If you’re a fan of hockey fights, you probably enjoyed the resulting bout. The two men exchanged blows for a full minute, which is a marathon as far as these things go. Much of the CONSOL Energy Center crowd, comatose for most of the evening, showered applause on Engelland and Orr afterward.
Engelland and Orr had battled before, including memorable early-season tilts in 2010 and 2011. I honestly understand the appeal of two guys who seem to dislike each other working out their differences in a serial fashion. (They’ve now fought six times.) But while Orr is only in the NHL for intimidation, Engelland brings actual hockey ability to the rink and has grown into a valuable player for the Penguins.
So when Engelland had to adjourn to the dressing room to get his battered face mended after serving his major penalty, the Penguins were forced to use top-four blueliners Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen almost exclusively, as Engelland’s inexperienced partner Simon Despres continues to be sheltered by the coaching staff.
Engelland noticeably struggled upon his return to the Pittsburgh bench, undoubtedly bothered by the massive swelling under his right eye. He ended up playing 15 shifts for just 7 minutes, 46 seconds of ice time. As a result, Letang (27:31), Martin (24:49), Orpik (23:48) and Niskanen (19:48) had to make up the difference.
Admittedly, the large number of minor penalties in the game – the two sides combined for 13 power-play opportunities – also played a role in limiting Engelland’s action. He’s not typically one of the first players off the bench in penalty-killing situations and he’s not going to see the ice during power plays. However, his compromised post-fight state certainly restricted the Penguins’ options in their first loss of a 48-game season.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am a proponent of enhanced penalties for fighting in hockey. Just like in other sports, fisticuffs should result in immediate game ejection and possible supplementary discipline.
Fighting has a long and glorified history in the sport, but in an era of increased enlightenment when it comes to head injuries, I cannot endorse allowing players to take unrestricted bare-knuckle shots at their peers.
I believe I will be on the right side of history as we discover more and more about the devastating long-term effects of concussive and sub-concussive impacts to the skull. But beyond the science (and conscience) issues, what bothered me about last night is that a personal vendetta took precedence over winning the game.
As much as fights can seem like harmless empty calories, players get hurt during them. Hands get broken, shoulders get thrown out of socket, brains get sloshed around and cheekbones get pummeled. All for some fleeting, ill-guided macho glory, Engelland put himself above the rest of the Penguins. As a result of his actions, the team suffered.
Hockey constantly preaches selflessness and the merits of giving up your body to make a play. What we saw Wednesday night in Pittsburgh was the opposite of that.
Back in the fall of 2011, Engelland and Orr engaged in a brutal fight with HBO’s “24/7″ cameras rolling. As part of the cable network’s inside access, viewers were privy to a postgame meeting between Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero. Bylsma directly told Shero that Engelland’s play went way downhill after the fight.
Obviously, the Penguins have known for a while that Engelland dropping the gloves doesn’t help them win, and in pro sports, that’s what it’s all about. If I’m Bylsma, I’m telling Deryk to put glue in his mitts from now on.