The great beauty of the NHL regular season is that you never can know when a great game will break out.
The same applies to utter absurdity.
Take the case of the New York Rangers coming into Canada's capital Wednesday night for the second meeting of the year between the two clubs.
In the previous match of Oct. 29, a great game from Ottawa's point of view given they came from a 4-1 deficit to take a 5-4 victory, the elbow of Rangers forward Wojtek Wolski smashed into the face of Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson, giving Ottawa's most valuable player a concussion that has since kept him out of action.
While the referees in that game deemed the hit deliberate enough to penalize Wojtek, NHL head office didn't even bother with a hearing, let alone the usual multi-game suspension that had followed previous such hits this year. The decision by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan to do nothing was, to Ottawa general manager Bryan Murray, simply mystifying – a sense shared by a great many who had come to believe the NHL was finally acting on shots to the head.
Fast forward two weeks to Game 2 and neither Alfredsson nor Wojtek are even in their team's lineup – Wolski out with a groin injury, Alfredsson barely back on skates. There is, however, still a frisson of revenge in the air: Ottawa tough guy Zenon Konopka predicting the temperature will rise in Scotiabank Place and Rangers coach John Tortorella saying "I don't give a crap what Zenon Whatzisname says."
Coaches love to pretend they pay no attention to the other team, invariably falling back on that hoary hockey cliché that "we can only control what we can control", etc., etc. And yet they enter each game with the other team's lineup prominent on the dressing room wall and the opposition's propensities broken down in video with all the precision of a covert CIA operation.
Barely 2:50 into a game that shows no flow, all comes to a dead halt: NHL penalty leader Konopka on the ice for Ottawa, New York answering with Sean Avery, the league bad boy Tortorella seems not able to stand but who has been retrieved from the minors Gulag to replace damaged bodies. Avery came into the game with 0 goals, 0 assists, 0 points and 0 penalty minutes – an empty slate that he instantly rewrote by engaging in hockey's most embarrassing feature: a staged fight with Konopka.
The fight – really more of a standoff with a few swats, a couple of jersey pulls and a neck twists – completely stops play, whistles shriek, officials' hands go up and both penalty boxes open. And yet, of course, there is no penalty at all: each team resuming play with five skaters and Konopka and Avery sitting in the penalty box calculating how much this five-minute major "score" will be worth to their next contract.
Perhaps it was good to get the absurdity out of the way early, as all games require a decision. Ottawa scored first when centre Jason Spezza deftly stickhandled through an official, fed a back pass to Milan Michalek and Michalek rifled a hard shot past the blocker of New York goaltender Henrik Lindqvist for his 10th goal of the young season.
Ottawa, however, could not hold the lead, coughing up two goals on mind-boggling defensive errors – one by veteran Sergei Gonchar, one by rookie David Rundblad – that allowed the Rangers to move ahead on goals by Marian Gaborik and Derek Stepan. Gaborik scored again in the third with Ottawa's Nick Foligno closing out the scoring in this 3-2 Rangers victory.
For New York, it marked the fifth straight win; for Ottawa, a fourth straight loss.
For fans of great regular seasons games, it marked only a night of fair-to-very-good goaltending, Ottawa defensive breakdowns, Marion Gaborik's wrist shot – and the utter stupidity of the meaningless staged fight.