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NHL

The Relationship between Fighting and Momentum

Can a fight really create momentum and swing a game? It depends who you ask.

by Dave Lozo
Mar 17 2016, 6:20pm

Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Shawn Thornton landed two thunderous punches; the second one crumpled Matt Cooke to the ice at TD Garden in Boston. Thornton continued wailing on a prone Cooke to the delight of 17,565 bloodthirsty fans that reveled in the revenge beating less than two minutes into the contest.

Eleven days prior, Cooke essentially ended the career of Boston's Marc Savard with a malicious elbow to the head back in 2010. The Bruins were unable to exact a pound of flesh from Cooke that night in Pittsburgh so they made the most of their next opportunity less than two weeks later.

READ MORE: The NHL Is Losing Part of Its Uniqueness without Fighting

Less than seven minutes later, Tyler Kennedy gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead.

The Bruins would not be swayed in their quest for momentum. Down a goal in the second period, Zdeno Chara beat the holy hell out of Mike Rupp, a professional hockey fighter if there ever was one. Again, the Bruins bench was on its feet, proud and excited that their captain would go to this length to fire up the boys.

Eight minutes later, Alexei Ponikarovsky gave the Penguins a 2-0 lead. When the dust settled, the Penguins had themselves a dominant 3-0 victory.

"We certainly defended our teammate well," Bruins coach Claude Julien said, "but the other part of the game wasn't there."

The other part of the game was, you know, the game.

While the Bruins stuck up for Savard multiple times, it didn't swing the momentum of the game. —Screengrab via YouTube.

If there were ever a game that launched the narrative of fighting's usefulness in the realm of swinging momentum, this would have been it. The Bruins had righteousness, a raucous crowd and a belief they had exacted justice on their side yet they were thoroughly dominated from puck drop to the final horn.

Consider the logic behind the idea that a fight can win a game; there are two combatants, one from each team, fighting. If Thornton/Cooke and Chara/Rupp prove anything, it's that a victorious outcome or "stepping up for a teammate" doesn't factor into the winning of a game.

Once a fight is concluded, someone from one of those two teams will score a goal, thus justifying the idea of fights creating momentum. There have been about 290 fights this season; those that occurred in tie games are almost guaranteed to be given a small degree of credit and sometimes all of the credit for a win.

Yet you never hear the losing team say after the game, "That fight really made us sad, really sapped our energy. If only Bob would've stayed on his skates for a few more seconds, maybe Kevin would've hit that wide-open net a few seconds later. You could tell Kevin just wasn't as fired up as he could've been from that fight. Bob really let us down tonight."

Consider these two examples from earlier this season: On Nov. 28, the Flyers' Luke Schenn dropped the gloves with the Rangers' Dylan McIlrath 11 minutes into their game. The fight was sparked by McIlrath's vicious but legal hit on Nick Schultz, who left the game for good as a result of the collision. The game was 0-0.

About 20 minutes of game time and 45 minutes of real time later, Wayne Simmonds scored a beauty of a breakaway goal to give the Flyers a 1-0 lead. The Flyers scored twice more in the third period and won 3-0.

Afterward, do you think the Flyers credited Schenn coming to a teammate's aid for the win? Or the fact that Steve Mason made 10 saves over the next 12 minutes while the Flyers played with four defencemen?

"Schultzy gets hit there in an unfortunate incident, and Lukey's there and didn't even blink," said Simmonds, who scored 67 percent of his team's goals and was answering questions about a first-period fight. "He's already flying over there. I think that's where it all started. We knew we were going to have each other's back. Luke really set it off for us. He did a great job."

Of course, it was the fight. It showed the Flyers were a united front, they said. It showed the Flyers would not be pushed around. It's not that Mason received zero credit but this was framed as Schenn inspiring his teammates, inspiration that apparently took nearly an hour to take hold.

On Dec. 13, the rested Devils visited the Islanders, who were playing the second half of a back-to-back in Brooklyn. The Islanders had a 2-0 lead early in the second period when Steve Bernier committed a reckless boarding against Andy Greene, the Devils' well-liked captain.

Adam Larsson, he of zero NHL fights before this moment, grabbed Bernier. The two exchanged punches in what was barely a fight by NHL or even bar standards, but Larsson rallied to the aid of his captain in front of both benches no less. The two tussled for nearly a minute.

Just like Schenn, Larsson sent notice that the Devils would not be pushed around.

Less than three minutes later, Matt Martin gave the Islanders a 3-0 lead in a game they would win 4-0.

The fight for momentum. —Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers and Flyers had another momentum showdown Feb. 14. Much like the Penguins and Bruins, there was an incident in a game the teams played a week earlier. Philadelphia's Simmonds concussed Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers with a gloved punch and, of course, New York wanted revenge in the next meeting.

And much like the Penguins and Bruins, the Rangers and Flyers had two first-period fights. It was again McIlrath dropping the gloves, this time with Simmonds at the 39-second mark, then the Rangers' Tanner Glass fought the Flyers' Ryan White 20 seconds later because the quest for momentum is neverending.

And much like the Penguins and Bruins, this game would have also ended 3-0 but the Flyers scored a garbage time goal in the final 10 seconds. But unlike the Penguins and Bruins, the team in search of justice, the Rangers, won the game.

How are we to explain this mysterious momentum announcers and players wax poetically about? How could Thornton, Chara, McIlrath and Larsson have erred so wildly by squaring off with an opponent? But how did McIlrath and Glass cause the momentum that led to the Rangers taking a 1-0 lead four minutes after those fights?

The answer isn't all that complicated: on those given days, the teams that won were obviously the superior team in the facet of playing hockey, which is perhaps the most important facet of playing hockey.

Rangers defenceman Marc Staal, both a victim and benefactor of momentum in two home meetings with the Flyers, explained it this way:

"I think, you're in the building, for both teams, it's a different feeling to start a hockey game. It's kind of like an electricity in the room where everyone is just on the edge of their seat watching. You can feel that. For both teams, you can feel that.

"It's not the be all, end all of a hockey game but when your teammate steps up for another teammate like that, it brings you closer together and fires you up as a team."

A fight is practically an ink blot where you can look at it and see whatever you want or a placebo that doesn't really do anything but can make you think it does something.

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