Tensions between the Blackhawks and Lightning, largely stemming from Connor Murphy’s March 7 hit on Erik Cernak, have hit a boiling point this weekend.
Ahead of Saturday’s 3 p.m. game between the two division rivals, Hawks coach Jeremy Colliton emphatically denounced the Lightning’s behavior in Thursday’s game, when they frequently tried to incite Murphy into a fight.
“I don’t think he should have to be warding off challengers for the whole game because he’s finishing his checks,” Colliton said during his pregame press conference. “[Murphy] has no problem answering the bell. He probably would love to [fight]. But we’ve asked him not to, because he’s too important to our team. We need him on the ice. We’ve asked him to suck it up and make a team decision and just play, and he’s done that.”
Murphy received a match penalty and was ejected from that March 7 game — which was extremely chippy throughout — after the hit.
But the NHL did not suspend or fine him afterward, and Colliton said Saturday he believed the hit was actually legal.
“He went through [Cernak’s] chest,” Colliton said. “He hit him hard, but I don’t believe it was a dirty hit... I’m well-acquainted with headshots and obviously against them in any way. But at best it was glancing, incidental contact there. Obviously [Cernak] missed the rest of the game, but it wasn’t a head issue; otherwise he wouldn’t have played 20 minutes the next game against Detroit.”
Thursday’s matchup — a 4-2 Hawks loss — was the two teams’ first meeting since March 7, and the Lightning tried to take enforcement into their own hands.
Barclay Goodrow was given an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in the first minute of the game for trying to instigate a fight with Murphy. Other Lightning players were often seen jostling Murphy during stoppages later in the game.
“Goodrow came up to me and challenged me to fight,” Murphy said postgame Thursday. “I just said no to the fight and he wouldn’t get it go, so he got a penalty. There were times throughout the game guys are going to chirp and have some trash talk because they’re unhappy about the last game...and that’s just the way it went.”
Lightning coach Jon Cooper, after the game Thursday, conversely ripped Murphy for not accepting the “ramifications for what you do.”
“This is a tough game and tough players play it,” Cooper told reporters. “If you’re going to be physical, you’ve got to reap what you sow.”
Leading into Saturday’s rematch, Cooper’s comments and his players’ actions have struck a chord with Colliton and the Hawks.
Growing frustration with other teams was always inevitable given the NHL’s scheduling format this year, and the Hawks and Lightning will be playing their fifth game against each other in a two-week span. (They have just one remaining meeting this season: April 27 in Chicago.)
But this level of outward distrust and anger between two teams, especially before a game even starts, has rarely been seen around the league in 2021.
Colliton declined to disclose the Hawks’ lineup Saturday morning — the third consecutive game day against the Lightning in which he has kept it secret. Then he named Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman in an example pointing out what he perceives as the hypocrisy of goading Murphy.
“They’ve got some guys who play a hard game, a physical game,” he said. “If Hedman finishes a hard check on ‘Murph,’ I don’t think they’re going to love if we’ve got guys chasing him around the ice or expecting that he should take a five-minute [major] or risk breaking his hand on someone’s head.”