Puncher’s chance: Fighting is up during unique NHL playoffs

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ season was hanging by a thread from one of Jason Spezza‘s gloves when he dropped them to the ice to fight Dean Kukan.

”I just tried to spark the guys, just trying to show some desperation and have some push-back,” Spezza said after Toronto’s emotional comeback victory against Columbus he played a substantial role in. ”Without the crowd you don’t have that, so just trying to create some emotion.”

Spezza versus Kukan was fight No. 8 in the first week of the NHL playoffs, almost triple the total from the entire 2019 postseason combined.

Fighting has decreased drastically in recent years, especially in the playoffs when every shift matters, but the unique circumstances of hockey’s restart – several months off, empty arenas and more intense best-of-five series – have ratcheted up the fisticuffs in the battle for the Stanley Cup.

”Guys are full of energy, and there’s guys walking the line a little bit more,” New York Islanders coach Barry Trotz said. ”In a short series, I think guys are looking to change momentum. … When a guy’s coming at you and intense, you’re being intense back, and when those two sparks collide, sometimes there’s fire. We’ve seen a couple of scraps and some have been game-changing.”

Spezza’s bout changed Game 4 of Toronto-Columbus, much like Justin Williams fighting Ryan Strome less than three minutes into the first NHL game since March set a tone for Carolina’s sweep of the New York Rangers.

Sometimes it hasn’t worked out so well, such as Winnipeg defenseman Nathan Beaulieu challenging 6-foot-3, 231-pound Calgary forward Milan Lucic 2 seconds into the game that wound up being the Jets’ last of the season.

”You understand what Nate’s trying to do: He’s trying to show that they’re ready to play and they’re not going to go down without a fight,” Lucic said. ”For me, you just want to show that you’re ready to play and you’re not going to back down from their push, no matter if it’s a fight or whatever.”

Four months of built-up testosterone might explain some of this, though the reasons behind each fight have varied. Jets captain Blake Wheeler fought Matthew Tkachuk after the hard-nosed Flames winger injured Mark Scheifele on a hit that was either a terrible accident or a ”filthy, dirty kick,” depending on who’s being asked.

Wheeler conceded he didn’t even see the play but felt the need to defend a teammate. Five-foot-nine Boston defenseman Torey Krug did the same after Tampa Bay forward Blake Coleman hit Brandon Carlo in open ice when those division rivals met in a seeding game.

Fight first, ask questions later.

”You see a lot of fights right after good hits, clean hits, hard hits, and you see a lot of them after questionable hits and you see a lot of them after obviously head shots,” Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy said. ”That’s become the norm a bit in hockey now where players kind of react to a hit that they don’t see 100 percent of it.”

In other cases, emotions just boil over. It happened twice in four games between Minnesota and Vancouver, including the opening minutes of Game 4 when Ryan Hartman and Jake Virtanen squared off. Hartman did his best to get under opponents’ skin from the series opener when he grabbed Canucks forward Micheal Ferland‘s stick while sitting on the bench.

There weren’t a whole lot of friendships forged as the Canucks eliminated the Wild in four games, or almost anywhere in the qualifying round. Old friends Tampa Bay and Washington renewed pleasantries when Yanni Gourde fought T.J. Oshie, and that bad blood won’t be forgotten if they meet later in the playoffs.

Rivalries will continue to emerge, so don’t expect the gloves to stay on as the stakes get higher.

”Guys are playing the game purely and for the love of the game and you see how much they love it and how much they want to win,” Calgary coach Geoff Ward said. ”Saying that, there could be a potential for more. But I think that’s just an indication of how much guys are willing to do whatever it takes to shift momentum in a hockey game and you try to help get a win.”

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    Bruins set NHL record with 12 straight home wins to start season

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    BOSTON — The Boston Bruins set the NHL record for most home victories to start a season with their 12th straight, topping the Carolina Hurricanes 3-2 in overtime with a power-play goal from David Pastrnak.

    The Bruins broke the mark of 11 that was set by the 1963-64 Chicago Blackhawks and equaled by the Florida Panthers last season.

    “That felt awesome,” Bruins first-year coach Jim Montgomery said. “We talked about it after the second (period) going into the third. There’s been a lot of great teams in this league and you’re able to set a precedent, break a record. It’s pretty special and it doesn’t happen if those guys don’t believe in themselves like they do.”

    Boston, which trailed 2-0 late in the second period, tied it with 9:33 left in regulation when David Krejci scored his second of the game on a shot from the right point.

    “It’s never fun being down going into the third, you’re sitting in here (in the locker room) trying to figure it out,” Krejci said. “You want to come out and do the job, something special on the line. It’s hard to win in this league. To get 12 in a row at home is pretty special.”

    In overtime, Carolina was playing shorthanded after being called for too many men on the ice when Pastrnak one-timed a pass from Brad Marchand inside the far post from above the left circle.

    “It was a big win for us, obviously, coming from behind,” Pastrnak said.

    Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Stefan Noesen each scored a power-play goal for Carolina, and Pyotr Kochetkov made 38 saves. The Hurricanes lost their fifth straight.

    In a rematch of last spring’s opening-round playoff series that the Hurricanes won in seven games, Carolina shutout the NHL’s highest scoring team for nearly two periods and jumped ahead a pair of power-play goals in the opening period.

    “We took too many penalties. That’s hurting us right now,” Kotaniemi said. “I think 5-on-5 we’re doing a really good job. We started good tonight and couldn’t keep that up.”

    Boston’s tying goal was originally disallowed because of goaltender interference on Nick Foligno but overturned on a coach’s challenge after it was ruled that he was nudged into the crease by Carolina defenseman Brett Pesce.

    Boston starting goaltender Linus Ullmark made 28 saves but had to leave with 13:03 left in the third period with an undisclosed upper-body injury. Teammate Connor Clifton had jumped on him to block a shot during a scramble. Jeremy Swayman made six stops in relief.

    Carolina’s Noesen scored at 6:34 in to make it 1-0. And with five minutes left in the period, Kotkaniemi collected the puck near the side of the net after Seth Jarvis‘ shot bounced off the back glass and slipped it inside the post at 15:05.

    Krejci scored for Boston with 31 seconds left in the second.

    Boston came in with a league-high 82 goals in 20 games (4.10 per game), but it was held to relatively few chances despite getting a 5-on-3 power-play advantage early on.

    TAKE NOTE

    The Bruins honored captain Patrice Bergeron, who recorded his 1,000th career point when the team was on the road against Tampa Bay, with a message on the Jumbotron. The crowd gave him a standing ovation.

    Bergeron became just the fourth Bruin to reach the mark, joining Hall of Famers Ray Bourque (1,506), Johnny Bucyk (1,339) and Phil Esposito (1,012).

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Host the Calgary Flames.

    Bruins: Host the Tampa Bay Lightning.

    Predators postpone 2 games due to Nashville water main break

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    NASHVILLE, Tenn. —  The Nashville Predators postponed two home games because of a water main break that soaked their downtown arena.

    Hours after the Predators decided they couldn’t play against the Colorado Avalanche, the team announced it also postponed the game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Makeup dates for the two games will be announced later.

    The NHL said the water main break that occurred “significantly impacted the event level” of Bridgestone Arena. Team locker rooms and the ice surface are on the event level.

    Predators President and CEO Sean Henry told reporters that the water in the event level ranged from 3 inches to 3 feet.

    “We’re assessing it right now. We’re remediating it,” Henry said. “The good thing is, the water got shut off, the city responded in a pretty fast manner. I don’t think anyone is ready for things like this the Friday after Thanksgiving.”

    Video posted by a WTVF-TV reporter shows the water puddled up on the main floor’s concourse area and the team store. The team was forced to close the store until further notice, pointing shoppers online for Black Friday specials.

    The Predators’ next home game is now scheduled for Tuesday against the Anaheim Ducks.

    The water issue also resulted in a switch to a different venue for a college hockey game between Northeastern and Western Michigan. They also had been scheduled to play at Bridgestone Arena, a game that was moved to Ford Ice Center Bellevue.

    Rangers trade Ryan Reaves to Wild for 5th-round pick in 2025

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    ST. PAUL, Minn. — The New York Rangers traded enforcer Ryan Reaves to the Minnesota Wild for a 2025 fifth-round pick.

    Reaves had been a healthy scratch for eight of the past 12 games for the Rangers. He gives struggling Minnesota some extra muscle and a veteran presence.

    The 35-year-old is signed through only the rest of this season at a $1.75 million salary cap hit. He has no points and 12 penalty minutes in 12 games of his second season with New York.

    Reaves has played in 869 NHL regular-season and playoff games for the St. Louis Blues, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vegas Golden Knights and Rangers. He was with the Golden Knights during their inaugural season in 2017-18 when the reached the Stanley Cup Final.

    Toronto’s Morgan Rielly placed on long-term injured reserve

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    TORONTO — The Toronto Maple Leafs placed defenseman Morgan Rielly on long-term injured reserve with a knee injury.

    Rielly was hurt in a collision with with New York forward Kyle Palmieri early in the third period of Toronto’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Islanders at home.

    Rielly has no goals and 16 assists in 20 games this season and is averaging 23 minutes of ice time.

    Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe said following practice that the 28-year-old Rielly doesn’t need surgery, adding there’s no firm timeline for his return beyond the minimum 24 days and 10 games required for going on long-term injured reserve.

    Toronto’s defense is also missing Jake Muzzin with a neck injury and T.J. Brodie with an injured oblique.