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Blackhawks avoided fighting back against Lightning aggressions at Jeremy Colliton’s request

The Lightning — still upset over Connor Murphy’s hit on Erik Cernak on March 7 — constantly tried to goad the Blackhawks into fights this series. Colliton told the Hawks not to engage. “We don’t want our top guys sitting for five minutes,” Colliton said.

The Lightning were aggressive with the Blackhawks this series, but the Hawks avoided fighting back.
AP Photos

The Blackhawks and Lightning developed an odd rivalry this March.

After Connor Murphy’s match penalty for hitting Erik Cernak on March 7 — the third of five meetings between the teams in a 16-day span — the Lightning were ready for the rivalry to explode during this now-concluded series.

On Thursday and Saturday, the Bolts constantly harassed the Blackhawks — focusing particularly on Murphy — after whistles, hoping to instigate a fight or skirmish. On Saturday, that after-the-whistle aggression spilled into normal play at times, including one moment when Alex Killorn clotheslined Adam Boqvist with a blindside glove to the face.

But at coach Jeremy Colliton’s request, the Hawks refused to engage or fight back.

“We don’t want our top guys sitting for five minutes, unless there’s a specific reason,” Colliton said after the Hawks’ 4-1 loss Saturday.

“When you play the same team multiple times, it’s going to get chippy, and you hope you give as much as you take. Play hard, play between the whistles, be hard to play against — that’s what we’re going to do.”

It initially seemed likely the growing tension between the two teams would erupt.

During his pregame press conference, Colliton detailed why he believed Murphy’s hit on Cernak was legal, then passionately denounced the Lightning’s tactics to try to goad Murphy into fighting Thursday.

“It just doesn’t make any sense to me,” he said. “They’ve got some guys who play a hard game, a physical game. If [Lightning defenseman Victor] 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.”

He said he’d specifically instructed Murphy not to fight.

“Murph has no problem answering the bell,” Colliton said. “He probably would love to. But we’ve asked him not to because he’s too important to our team. We need him on the ice. He’s a hard player, he’s a physical player, and that’s part of what he brings. I don’t think he should have to be warding off challengers for the whole game.”

Yet while the Lightning’s aggressive behavior continued undeterred once the puck dropped, Colliton’s message to his team — avoid unnecessary penalties, even if it means not standing your ground — remained the same, too.

And so the Hawks followed that instruction. Nikita Zadorov didn’t deliver any big hits. Murphy never entertained the Bolts’ solicitations. Not even minor-league scrapper Reese Johnson, inserted into the lineup for just his fifth NHL game, made any noise.

Only Alex DeBrincat went to the penalty box for any sort of retaliation. He and Yanni Gourde were both given cross-checking minors for a relatively tame pre-faceoff duel in the second period.

“The ref thought it was a good idea to put us both in the box,” DeBrincat said. “I didn’t really think they were going to call a penalty, but I guess better sit two minutes than five for fighting.”

True to Colliton’s fears, the Lightning then scored during four-on-four play with DeBrincat sidelined.

The Hawks and Lightning will face each other only once more in the regular season, and not until April 27 in Chicago. By then, the teams’ behaviors this month might well be forgotten.

But Colliton’s strategy to keep his players out of the penalty box could prove relevant against other opponents before then.

Asked what kind of situation would justify in his mind a fighting major, he offered only a brief answer:

“You know it when you see it.”