When Joe Vitale laid out Danny Briere with a (clean) open-ice hit with just over a minute to go in the game, a lot of emotion spilled out. Perhaps best encapsulated by the Hulk Hogan fan behind the Flyers bench.
Perhaps the question asked most frequently was: Why would the Penguins send their fourth line out at that point in the game?
The Penguins were down 6-3 in the game, having just given up an empty-net goal. There was 1:15 left in the third period and they sent out their bottom-of-the-roster guys Joe Vitale, Craig Adams, Arron Asham, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland.
Engelland is their enforcer (21 fights in the past two years combined) while Asham is well-known among Flyers fans as a heavyweight, if not an actual enforcer.
It could easily be argued that the Penguins sent out their fourth line to send a message. It could also easily be argued that the Penguins sent out their fourth line because that’s what you do in a blowout game where the outcome is already decided. Both explanations are reasonable.
None of that has any bearing on the fact that Joe Vitale’s hit on Danny Briere was clean, however. Vitale did not leave his feet, he did not hit Briere’s head, he did not charge or lead with his elbow.
But the question likely to get lost in the shuffle is one that was briefly touched on by Sidney Crosby:
"I’m sure (Lavi) doesn’t like to see one of their top players getting hit… Maybe he shouldn’t have put him out there."
If one can ignore the bias against Crosby, they should be able to see the interesting point Crosby makes.
The Flyers had just gone up by three goals with at most two shifts left in the game. Peter Laviolette sends out: Brayden Schenn, who earlier in the game cross-checked Sidney Crosby away from the play; Wayne Simmonds, who has a badly mangled face due to deflecting the puck in the net off of his eye the day before; and Danny Briere, the diminutive, offense-only forward who has both a history of dirty stick work and of getting caught with his head down.
In a game the Flyers have locked up, Laviolette sent out his least defensively-responsible line that contained a player known for questionable play, another with a target on his back and a third player with a busted face.
None of this is to say that Peter Laviolette knowingly put vulnerable players in a dangerous situation, but he did choose to put vulnerable players in a lose-lose situation.
There is no reason Schenn should see the ice again that game, since he was likely to be targeted. There is also no reason Briere should see the ice again that game, since the team does not need any more offense. Simmonds would be reasonable were it not for the fact that he was on the ice with Schenn, since it is possible – if not likely – that Simmonds would need to protect Schenn.
Peter Laviolette isn’t naive. Maybe he didn’t think anything would happen when he put that line out on the ice, but he surely knew there was a possibility that Schenn would be targeted – and will be on Saturday. Laviolette consciously chose to put an offense-only forward on the ice up by three, which could easily be taken as a sign of disrespect.
In a game that has playoff implications, against a team they will be seeing a lot of in the next few weeks, Dan Bylsma, Joe Vitale and the Penguins sent a message.
But the Flyers played right into it. Was it on purpose?