The Eastern Division race is as hot as it gets right now. With the trading deadline coming next week, both playoff spots are up for grabs, and four of the division’s six teams have a real shot at the postseason. With such a fierce and wide-open competition, the stakes of each game are heightened – especially when two contenders face off.
Sunday’s game between the Hershey Bliss and New York Night was a case in point. Neither team is particularly known for playing rough; they generally focus on scoring rather than fighting. But this time, they produced a notably chippy, nasty game in a 5-2 Hershey win. If this is a preview of coming attractions down the stretch, the East could be in for a wild ride.
“There was a lot of hate out there on the ice today,” said Night D Dominic Sanchez. “It was fun and scary at the same time.”
This was the back end of a home-and-home between the Night and Bliss, who entered the game tied for first place in the East. Hershey came into the game hungry for revenge: New York had won Saturday’s game 3-2 at the Chocolate Center, handing the Bliss there fourth straight loss.
And per his usual, Night coach Nick Foster rubbed salt in the wound during his postgame press conference. Foster, who has ridiculed the Bliss as soft all season, came to the podium holding a roll of Charmin. “I brought this because it reminds me of Hershey,” said Foster. “It’s really soft, easy to squish, and I love wiping my [butt] with it.”
Foster’s jibe riled up the Bliss clubhouse, which made it clear that they were going to respond physically. “We’ll show Foster who’s really soft,” one Hershey player said.
Sure enough, less than two and a half minutes into the game, Bliss D Steve Cargill dropped the gloves with New York blueliner Donald Duckworth. The two traded blows until Cargill wrestled Duckworth to the ice – no small task given Duckworth’s rugged physique. Both sides smacked their sticks on the boards in appreciation. The Bliss had made their point; outside observers might have assumed that was the end of hostilities. In fact, though, said hostilities were just beginning.
A couple minutes after the Cargill-Duckworth scrap, Bliss LW Russell Nahorniak hit Night star Brock Manning with a high stick, opening a gash next to Manning’s left eye. Nahorniak claimed the high stick was accidental; the Night insisted it was intentional, and called for the Hershey winger to be ejected. Nahorniak received a double minor instead.
Manning dashed into the locker room to be patched up, then returned and scored a game-tying power-play goal, then pointed at Nahorniak. (Manning finished out the first period, but did not return to the ice after that; he also missed the following two games.)
Not to be outdone, Hershey proceeded to score a pair of goals a little more than two minutes apart. Each time, their celebration “coincidentally” wound up in front of the Night bench.
A couple minutes after that, New York C Tom Hoffman avenged Manning by ramming the butt end of his stick into Nahorniak’s stomach in the middle of a scrum in front of the Hershey net. That earned Hoffman a double minor penalty of his own. The Night committed a couple more penalties before the period ended, but the score remained the same.
Tensions didn’t ease in the second period. After only 46 seconds, Night D Andy Ruger challenged Cargill to another fight. Cargill gladly accepted the challenge; this time, Ruger got the better end, bloodiyng Cargill rather badly. Both players received majors for their trouble.
Less than a minute after that bout, Bliss C Vance Ketterman scored to make it 4-1. With the competitive portion of the game essentially over, both teams turned the physicality up even further.
Night D Rocky Winkle enraged Hershey by spearing Bliss C Spencer Kirkpatrick in the groin. This time, it was Hershey calling for Winkle to be ejected; instead, he received a double minor. Bliss RW Remi Montrechere upset New York with a high stick that nearly caught Night C Rod Remington in the teeth.
Early in the third period, Hershey LW Lance Sweet dumped New York LW Chase Winchester into the boards with a hard cross-check. The Night were angered that Sweet received only a two-minute penalty, instead of a major or an ejection. On the ensuing power play, Duckworth and Winkle combined on a score; they celebration by flashing their middle fingers at the Hershey bench. They weren’t penalized, but Bliss D Reese Milton earned an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty a little bit later for squirting his water bottle at the New York bench.
The rest of the game unfolded with a slew of hard checks and minor penalties, but no major conflagrations. After the game ended, both teams dissolved into a fit of pushing and shoving that didn’t quite turn into a line brawl.
After the team, both teams pointed fingers at their opponents. Bliss coach Chip Barber focused on the two Night spearing penalties. “Butt-ending is one of the dirtiest plays in hockey, and everyone knows it,” said Barber. “Normally, you might get two of those [penalties] in a year. But two in one game? That’s just ugly hockey.”
Foster, meanwhile, noted the attack against some of his top players. “I know [the Bliss are] desperate to show me how tough they are,” the New York coach quipped, “but this is ridiculous. They tried to take Brock’s head off, then they tried to put Chase in a wheelchair. Okay, we get it, you’re big tough boys. Now put your [genitals] away and play some hockey next time.”
The league declined to hand out any supplemental discipline, but Commissioner Perry Mitchell warned that they wouldn’t be so lenient next time. “We know that emotions run high in games like this,” Mitchell said in a statement. “But there’s a line between good hard hockey and dirty hockey, and both teams came too close to that line. If it happens again, the league will act appropriately.”