Puncher’s chance: Fighting is up during unique NHL playoffs

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ season was hanging by a thread from one of Jason Spezza’s gloves when he dropped them to the ice to fight Dean Kukan.

“I just tried to spark the guys, just trying to show some desperation and have some push-back,” Spezza said after Toronto’s emotional comeback victory against Columbus he played a substantial role in. “Without the crowd you don’t have that, so just trying to create some emotion.”

Spezza versus Kukan was fight No. 8 in the first week of the NHL playoffs, almost triple the total from the entire 2019 post-season combined.

Fighting has decreased drastically in recent years, especially in the playoffs when every shift matters, but the unique circumstances of hockey’s restart — several months off, empty arenas and more intense best-of-five series — have ratcheted up the fisticuffs in the battle for the Stanley Cup.

“Guys are full of energy, and there’s guys walking the line a little bit more,” New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. “In a short series, I think guys are looking to change momentum. … When a guy’s coming at you and intense, you’re being intense back, and when those two sparks collide, sometimes there’s fire. We’ve seen a couple of scraps and some have been game-changing.”

Spezza’s bout changed Game 4 of Toronto-Columbus, much like Justin Williams fighting Ryan Strome less than three minutes into the first NHL game since March set a tone for Carolina’s sweep of the New York Rangers.

Sometimes it hasn’t worked out so well, such as Winnipeg defenceman Nathan Beaulieu challenging 6-foot-3, 231-pound Calgary forward Milan Lucic 2 seconds into the game that wound up being the Jets’ last of the season.

“You understand what Nate’s trying to do: He’s trying to show that they’re ready to play and they’re not going to go down without a fight,” Lucic said. “For me, you just want to show that you’re ready to play and you’re not going to back down from their push, no matter if it’s a fight or whatever.”

Four months of built-up testosterone might explain some of this, though the reasons behind each fight have varied. Jets captain Blake Wheeler fought Matthew Tkachuk after the hard-nosed Flames winger injured Mark Scheifele on a hit that was either a terrible accident or a “filthy, dirty kick,” depending on who’s being asked.

Wheeler conceded he didn’t even see the play but felt the need to defend a teammate. Five-foot-nine Boston defenceman Torey Krug did the same after Tampa Bay forward Blake Coleman hit Brandon Carlo in open ice when those division rivals met in a seeding game.

Fight first, ask questions later.

“You see a lot of fights right after good hits, clean hits, hard hits, and you see a lot of them after questionable hits and you see a lot of them after obviously head shots,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. “That’s become the norm a bit in hockey now where players kind of react to a hit that they don’t see 100 per cent of it.”

In other cases, emotions just boil over. It happened twice in four games between Minnesota and Vancouver, including the opening minutes of Game 4 when Ryan Hartman and Jake Virtanen squared off. Hartman did his best to get under opponents’ skin from the series opener when he grabbed Canucks forward Micheal Ferland’s stick while sitting on the bench.

There weren’t a whole lot of friendships forged as the Canucks eliminated the Wild in four games, or almost anywhere in the qualifying round. Old friends Tampa Bay and Washington renewed pleasantries when Yanni Gourde fought T.J. Oshie, and that bad blood won’t be forgotten if they meet later in the playoffs.

Rivalries will continue to emerge, so don’t expect the gloves to stay on as the stakes get higher.

“Guys are playing the game purely and for the love of the game and you see how much they love it and how much they want to win,” Calgary coach Geoff Ward said. “Saying that, there could be a potential for more. But I think that’s just an indication of how much guys are willing to do whatever it takes to shift momentum in a hockey game and you try to help get a win.”

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