It would have felt good, no? It would have been viscerally rewarding to find Brooks Orpik and go after him, to hand out swift, eye-for-an-eye punishment to anyone and everyone on the Pittsburgh Penguins roster, to seek and destroy.
The Blackhawks had just seen their captain, Jonathan Toews, plowed into the boards by Orpik — a man without a history of suspensions, but a man with a reputation for playing as close to the edge as possible. They had just seen Toews slow to get up, wincing in pain, clutching his left arm and leaving the game. As Patrick Sharp noted, Orpik knew darn well whom he was hitting, and made sure to do it as hard as he could.
“You obviously don’t like your captain getting hit like that,” Sharp said.
The initial reaction, the knee-jerk, is to attack. Attack Orpik. Attack Sidney Crosby. Attack everyone. Retaliation. Retribution. Old-time hockey, right?
It would have been immensely satisfying.
It also would have accomplished nothing.
And so while Mike Milbury and Keith Jones called for blood on NBC Sports Network, the Hawks responded to the Orpik hit by playing better. By playing harder. Yes, Andrew Shaw took a quick run at Orpik later in the period, but he didn’t go out of his way, didn’t take a dumb penalty, didn’t go after a random Penguins star to exact some archaic idea of revenge.
The Hawks played hockey. They still lost, because, well, sometimes you lose. But they handled it the right way, no matter what the talking heads said.
During the intermission, Jones said, “The two points aren’t that important tonight for the Blackhawks,” saying their focus should have been on answering the Orpik hit. It’s exactly that kind of Neanderthalic line of thought that keeps hockey on the fringe of American mainstream sports. The two points were plenty important to the Hawks, who are fighting for home-ice advantage in a series against the Colorado Avalanche, who have won four of five meetings between the two teams and who play at high altitude.
What’s not important is “sending a message” — particularly to an Eastern Conference team you see twice a year.
“If I were coaching that team, I’d say let’s do something about this,” Milbury said.
Mike Milbury went 146-160-45 as an NHL coach, was one of the worst general managers in sports history, and gets paid to say dumb things on TV. Joel Quenneville is the third-winningest coach in history, with two Stanley Cups in the last four seasons. Who do you want to cast your lot with?
It wasn’t even a dirty hit — the NHL won’t have a disciplinary hearing for Orpik. It was a dangerous hit, and a devastating hit, but it wasn’t dirty. Orpik didn’t leave his feet until after contact was made, and the principal point of contact was not Toews’ head. Had a Hawks player picked a fight with Orpik, fine, whatever. But Orpik hasn’t had a single fighting major in the last four seasons, so good luck getting him to drop the gloves.
Retaliation brings nothing but re-retaliation, and a greater risk of another player getting hurt. This notion of “standing up for your teammate” is a relic of hockey’s more barbaric days, and it does nothing to help your team win a hockey game, which is the point of playing hockey games.
The idea that the Hawks aren’t tough enough? That other teams won’t be afraid of the Hawks because they didn’t knock someone into next week in response to the hit? Please. They looked awfully mentally tough coming back from 3-1 down against Detroit last spring. Looked plenty physically tough in dispatching the bruising Kings, then surviving the Bruins with both rosters filled with the walking wounded. A John Scott on the Hawks roster wouldn’t have stopped Orpik from leveling Toews. Wouldn’t stop the next big hit, either.
The goal Sunday night was to beat the Penguins, get two points and keep pace with the Avalanche. That remains the short-term goal. Long-term, however, the focus is on the postseason, and making another Cup run. Patrick Kane will be back for the playoffs. The Hawks should be just as cautious with Toews, regardless of the nature of his injury. Toews is day to day, and the Hawks won’t rush him back with just two weeks left in the regular season.
Because a healthy Toews in the playoffs is the most important thing — certainly more important than some nebulous and antiquated idea of vengeance.