If last night's excellent Canadiens win over the hateful Flyers had a flavour, it would be sweet and sour. While it was great fun to see the Habs spend a good part of the evening in control of the game, and the score going in their favour, it was crushing to watch player after player leave the ice with injuries. Young Brendan Gallagher epitomized both the sweet and the sour tastes of the night. First, he lasered a shot off a gorgeous setup by Max Pacioretty for his fifth goal of the season. Then, he lay stunned on the ice after a late hit by Luke Schenn concussed him and forced him to the quiet room.
The predictable anger of Habs fans in the wake of silence from the league office about the play is turning into equally predictable calls for a heavyweight enforcer. Fans, convinced there's little justice to be had (and after Pacioretty's near paralyzing by Zdeno Chara two years ago didn't even draw a penalty, paranoia perhaps isn't totally unwarranted) from officials or the NHL brass, believe it's time the team bought into a policy of vigilante justice.
While it's great to think some behemoth in the lineup would be delivering vengeance with the swiftness of the Archangel Michael's fiery sword, the reality is one goon isn't going to make a noticeable difference. John Scott, who seems to be the goon-du-jour among those who yearn for a fighter, could have been on the ice last night when Schenn hit Gallagher, and he would have had one option. He'd have had to challenge Schenn. Schenn, not being a pussy, would have accepted. Scott would probably have beaten Schenn's ass, dusted it off and handed it back to him. In the end, the Habs would have had to kill the instigator penalty and Gallagher would still be concussed. If Scott were on the bench when it happened, then what would he have done? Attacked Schenn on the next shift? Same result, except he'd have opened the door to a possible suspension. Perhaps he should have nailed a smaller Flyers player in an eye-for-an-eye move? Again, penalty, suspension and no cure for Gallagher. I won't even mention the Georges Laraque experiment any further.
A heavyweight in the lineup might deter the more cowardly players in the league, but the problem is, we're not seeing a revival of the old Broadstreet Bullies here. We're witnessing a hockey culture that has rewarded these men for the euphemistic "finishing their checks"...translation: plastering the opponent into the boards...since they were little boys. Having to, maybe, fight a big guy on the other team afterwards is hardly going to reverse behaviour ingrained in these guys from childhood.
The Canadiens have a lot of skill in their lineup. If they had a Scott or a Parros, there would be very little opportunity to play the guy. Right now, the fourth line gets around 10-12 minutes of ice time per game. There are very few goons who can contribute actual hockey skill for that much of the game. And if they're not able to keep up, they're on the bench, which throws off the balance between the lines.
The Habs approach is one of team toughness. They have proven this year that they will avenge a teammate when it's needed. We've seen guys like David Desharnais stand up to bigger opponents in defence of P.K.Subban. They know they have each other's backs. If every player in the lineup contributes something, the Canadiens will be fine. They don't have to be a team full of lumberjacks. They just have to stick together.
The bigger problem facing them as a skilled team is the league's continued ambivalence when it comes to policing the reckless hits like the one that felled Gallagher. Bringing in a goon isn't going to make Brendan Shanahan (a terrible disappointment as league cop after his promising first few weeks) sit up and say, "Hey, that fight right after Brendan Gallagher got concussed sure makes me want to suspend Schenn." The league and the game of hockey itself needs to go back to basics and teach young men learning just learning about hitting, when and how to do it properly. The exposure of guys like Gallagher to guys like Schenn isn't something a goon can fix. It's become endemic and it's hockey's biggest problem right now. It's very interesting that Alexei Emelin, who currently stands second in the league in number of hits, can deliver some monster body shots, but rarely, if ever, targets the head or shoulders of his opponents. It's also worth noting that he trained in the Russian system, which does not emphasize the value in removing the other guy's head from his shoulders as a routine tactic.
So today, as we savour the sweet from last night's game, and pucker at the sour, know that hiring somebody to beat up the bullies won't change the fate of the Gallaghers of the world. There are just too many bullies, and the rules of the game definitely don't favour the goons or the teams that hire them.