April 16, 2008

Settling the Score: New Yorkers Play Dirty, Too

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Finally, I have proof that New Yorkers have no class. Ok, so maybe that’s a bit of a generalization but I have good reason to be bitter. For as long as I can remember, New York and New Jersey hockey fans have taken great joy in accusing the Philadelphia Flyers of playing a “dirty” brand of hockey. Unwarranted and unsolicited, they repeatedly call the Flyers meatheads and no-talent bullies just because they have a (very) physical playing style. Much to my excitement, on Sunday night Rangers forward Sean Avery demonstrated what playing dirty really looks like.
Everyone who follows hockey knows that Avery and the New Jersey Devils’ goalie Martin Brodeur hate each others’ guts. Avery, for one, is not exactly the sweetheart of the NHL, as evidenced by the ugly yellow and purple shiner on his left eye and his reputation for running his mouth constantly. In Game 3 of the Rangers/Devils first-round Stanley Cup playoff series, Avery took that personal rivalry a bit too far.
For those of you who didn’t see the game (shame on you), the Rangers were on the power play with a two-man advantage and had Avery positioned in the slot right in front of Brodeur. Typically, the guy in the slot puts his butt in the goalie’s face in an attempt to simultaneously screen him from seeing any shots from the point while being ready to tip a puck in. Avery decided, instead, to turn his back to the play by facing Brodeur and waving his hands wildly as if he was playing defense in the NBA.
Although it looked like Avery deserved a penalty, he didn’t get one because he never made contact with Brodeur. He simply employed an extremely unconventional and pretty classless method of messing with Brodeur’s focus. Surprisingly, many people justified Avery’s atypical behavior by citing that it was a playoff hockey game and players should do whatever it takes, but I beg to differ.
First let me say that if anyone believes that players have to sacrifice everything in the playoffs, it’s me. Friday night, in Game 1 of the Flyers/“Crapitals” series, I was the one screaming at Flyers’ left wing Patrick Thoresen to get up after being hit by the puck because his fall resulted in a goal for the Crapitals (no, it’s not a typo). It turned out that Thoresen was rushed straight to the hospital when he got off the ice because he took a slap shot to the groin and almost had to have a testicle removed.
I definitely agree that desperation is the name of the game when it comes to the fight for Lord Stanley’s cup but I also think that the honor of the game should be maintained. Two years ago, the Flyers received a lot of criticism for some unsportsmanlike play in their series against the Buffalo Sabres in the first round of playoffs. Even devout Flyers fans were a little embarrassed that our team was taking cheap shots instead of playing quality hockey.
For this same reason, Rangers fans should feel a little sheepish that one of their best players would resort to a move that made him look like a five-year-old playing monkey in the middle. Sure, desperate times call for desperate measures in the playoffs, but at no time is it acceptable to dishonor the game of hockey. What Avery did took no skill or talent and was frankly pretty stupid. With the most exposed part of his body facing the play, he is lucky he didn’t take a puck to his calves or his neck where there isn’t much padding. The only reason he could even pull a move like that off is because the Devils were down two men and couldn’t afford to shift their focus and give him what he really deserved. Also, with his stick waving in the air, Avery was in no position to tip in any shots from the point, which is the whole point of screening the goalie in the first place. It was simply a stroke of luck that Avery stopped acting like an idiot long enough to capitalize on a pass from Rangers forward Scott Gomez and notch a power play goal.
Although there was no rule against this sort of nonsense on Sunday, according to an article on ESPN.com, by Monday morning the NHL had changed the rules so that when an “offensive player positions himself facing the opposition goaltender and engages in actions such as waving his arms or stick in front of the goaltender’s face, for the purpose of improperly interfering with and/or distracting the goaltender as opposed to positioning himself to try to make a play” he will be slapped with a minor penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct. In the article, players and coaches all over the league commented with disgust on Avery’s ridiculous antics.
Winning the Stanley Cup is an honor that should belong to the hockey team with the most skill, the most heart and the most integrity. Avery exhibited none of these qualities on Sunday night when he was more focused on taunting Brodeur than playing like the skilled, if somewhat abrasive, player that I hate to admit he is. Avery made the game about himself instead of his team and thanks to karma (and the Devils’ forward John Madden) the Rangers got just what they deserved when the Devils won Game 3 in overtime by a score of 4-3. Sweet revenge.