Chris Neil: zero or hero?

Driving home tonight, I listened to a bit of local sports talk radio on The Team 1200 and to my surprise, the hot topic wasn’t the Sens big win last night to take a 2-1 series lead but instead what Chris Neil did in the game.

For those of you who missed it, I’ll try and recap as best I can.

First, Neil went after Ruslan Fedotenko when the Lightning forward was digging at a puck in the pads of Ray Emery after the play had been whistled dead. Neil threw some punches and, frankly, was lucky he didn’t get a major. As he was being escorted off the ice (there was less than two minutes remaining in the period so they temporarily sent him to the dressing room), Neil mouthed “me and you” to Sean Burke who had replaced John Grahame in net. Some interpreted this as him saying he wanted to fight Burke (on the TV broadcast it was mentioned that Burke and Neil might have history since both were a part of the big brawl between the Sens and Flyers last year that set a new NHL penalty minute record, but Burke stayed out of it and only appeared in the game when Robert Esche was tossed for fighting with Patrick Lalime, so that theory doesn’t seem accurate to me), but I took as it Neil saying that if the Bolts were going to run his goalie, he would do the same. It was open to interpretation.

Highlights were shown of Neil and Burke jawing back and fourth in between plays when both were at the bench. There seemed to be something going on between them.

After all this, Neil resumed playing a physical game, finishing his checks (clean ones) and playing the role that gets him in the line-up. I suppose this, coupled with Neil’s attack on Fedotenko, his “challenge” of Burke, and the lopsided score, enraged the Lightning. Their toughguy, Chris Dingman was lined up with Neil at the faceoff and before Neil could drop his gloves Dingman began pounding him. Neil turtled and didn’t fight back. Dingman was given a misconduct and put Ottawa on the powerplay for seven minutes.

There seems to be a dispute, even amongst Sens fans, about whether or not this was the right thing for Neil to do, and frankly, I can’t understand it for a second.

Chris Neil absolutely did the correct thing, and instead of being called a coward by fans on local radio (given how many fights he’s been in I find it hard to believe anyone can think that of him), Neil should be commended for excellent gamesmanship.

Let’s remember where this game was at the time of the Dingman incident. Ottawa was up three goals, 5-2, but Tampa, early in that third period, was pressing. Because of the score they were forced to pinch even more and were getting quite a bit of scoring chances. The Senators had stopped skating and the tight coverage in their own zone that was a big part of why they were able to build such a lead had disappeared. Even up three goals the Sens looked to be in some trouble, and having seen two teams come back from three goal holes the night before, I was worried Tampa would come back. Such a thing could and likely would be a series turning point.

Chris Dingman’s penalty ended all that. He squashed his team’s momentum. Ottawa went back on the powerplay, scored another goal, and from that point on, the game was over, even with two more goals scored by each team afterwards. That Dany Heatley PP goal was the backbreaker.

Ottawa has historically been labeled a soft team, often in reference their playoff loses to Toronto. I’ve never bought this. The Sens may not be the Flyers of the 70’s but they’re not a delicate club either. They have some team toughness and more than a few guys who can and will hold their own physically. If we were to rank the toughest teams in the NHL, I’d say they were a middle of the pack club.

Nonetheless, so many Sens fans have bought into this “the Sens are weak!” bullshit that they’ve let it cloud their otherwise good judgment. That’s the only explanation I have for why they would take Chris Neil to task for what he did.

It seems as if they’re more interested in Ottawa proving they’re tough than they are seeing Ottawa win. Let me ask you this, and this goes for fans of any team: would you rather your team be a perennial loser but have the reputation of being a hard, tough group or be a winner and have some people question their toughness?

For me, it’s a no brainer. Call them pussies all day long if you want, as long as they win, I don’t give a shit.

Sometimes Canadian hockey fans are so wrapped up in toughness they forget there are other things involved in the game. You know, like scoring goals? A big hit frequently gets a bigger reaction than a goal. And if a player on the home team pummels someone in a brawl? Forget it. The ovation is massive. Last time I checked winning fights doesn’t mean shit on the scoreboard or in the standings.

What Chris Neil did was shift the energy of the game back in Ottawa’s favor. It was obvious after Dingman was thrown out that many Lightning players were more interested in running around trying to get even with Neil than they were with scoring a goal and making the final score less insulting to them. Neil didn’t mind this one bit, and when a few of them took a run at him and got the worst of it, he yelled a cheer right in front of their bench.

He took them off their game, and I don’t expect it to end with that contest. I imagine a few of them will try and take some runs at him again tomorrow night, and if he can lure them into a penalty in the process, Neil will probably be all for it, because Ottawa can and will bury the Tampa Bay Lightning if given those opportunities.

Is this all poor hockey etiquette? Who can say. But as Tim Taylor said when he picked up the game one puck and threw it in the garbage before the Sens could retrieve it for Ray Emery to commemorate his first playoff win, this is the playoffs. All that stuff is out the window. It’s Ws that matter now.