A look back at the Vitale hit on Briere and the conceptions behind finishing games

Image Courtesy of Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I originally wrote this article back in April, at another time and place under the title “Orange-Colored Glasses”, and I wanted to bring it here to Flyers Faithful for some actual hockey talk amidst all of this lockout excitement. I’ve edited it slightly so it makes a bit more sense being that it’s referencing a game nine months ago.

I write this knowing full well it probably won’t be very popular, and most people will probably disagree with me. However, I feel compelled to say it because well…I’m just way too rational of a human being, and seeing a lack of objectivity irks me. I’m guilty of it so frequently that it’s often questioned if I’m really even a fan of the Flyers; because as some friends of mine put it “it’s sports, it’s supposed to be emotional”.

At the end of the 2011-12 season, the Flyers and Penguins were battling for the fourth and fifth seeds in the Eastern Conference. It was already decided that they would be playing each other in the first round of the playoffs. The question was, who would get the home ice advantage? As it turned out, the Flyers would play the Penguins two times in their last four games of the regular season.

If you recall, that first game ended with a hard, clean hit by Joe Vitale on Danny Briere, followed by 53 minutes of penalties all occurring at the 18:57 mark of the third period. After the game, there were a lot of angry people. The Flyers were pissed, Peter Laviolette was pissed, Dan Bylsma was pissed, and the fans were pissed. Maybe the only guy that wasn’t pissed was Scott Hartnell, because you know he was waiting for the right moment to pull out his Hulkamania moves.

Then the war of words started, and pretty much everybody was pissed. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why, and I’d like to ask you to take off your orange-colored glasses for just a few minutes and analyze the situation.

It was relatively late in the third period when Sidney Crosby threw a fairly late hit on Brayden Schenn. It was nothing earth-shattering; just the kind of thing you do to a guy if he’s been running his mouth at you all night. Shortly after that, Schenn tracked Crosby down and gave him a good, quick cross-check to the lower back.

With 4:42 remaining in the game, Steve Sullivan scored to make it 5-3, and the Penguins had a chance. However, with 1:15 remaining, Jakub Voracek answered to make it 6-3 and seal the game.

The Penguins then put out their fourth line for, presumably, the last shift of the game. The Flyers’ fourth line (truthfully, it was Couturier, Talbot, and Voracek) had just finished a shift, so Laviolette had to resort to choosing another line to close out the game. As we all know, it then resulted in Vitale throwing a clean, hard hit on Briere which ended up hurting him.

My question at the time was, what was wrong with any of this and why were so many people upset about it? Crosby was being physical and loose with his stick all night — on draws, especially. He had a noticeable slash on Giroux, as well as a bull rush of sorts on Matt Read after a faceoff. That’s all OK in my book; you’ve just got to be sure to give it back to him, which is what Schenn did.

Mike Milbury didn’t think it was a big deal:

“Little goody two shoes (Crosby) goes into the corner and gives a shot to Schenn. Schenn was late to the party, he should have turned around and drilled him right away, but I guess better late than never,” Milbury said.“So you know, Crosby gets cross-checked, big whoop.” – ESPN

Neither did Crosby:

“The crosscheck that Schenn had, that’s really not something that’s out of the blue,” Crosby said. “That happens pretty much every game to be honest with you and as far as me slashing someone, that’s hockey. I guess I’m not a gentleman out there on the ice, I will say that. There are times where it’s a contact sport and I do get involved myself sometimes. But I don’t think I’ve gotten one penalty in a scrum since I’ve been back, so I just want to clarify that because I know that was something that was up for debate.” – ESPN

I’m glad we’re in agreement, then.

In the post game, Laviolette called Bylsma “gutless” for putting out his grinders who hadn’t played in 12 minutes. I didn’t understand it. I’m not sure what else you’re supposed to do there.

The Penguins’ fate had just been sealed by Voracek’s goal. Obviously, Bylsma didn’t want anybody to get hurt, so he put out his 4th line just to see the game through. The fourth line then went and did exactly what they are supposed to do, regardless of what period it is or how much time is on the clock.

Bylsma was sending a message, and that message was that they’d be seeing the Flyers in the first round and they’re closing the game out hard.

As a coach, you don’t send them out there and say “go plaster someone”, but you do send them out knowing they will play hard. It sends the critical message that you will finish out the game aggressively and that other team isn’t just going to roll over you.

I’d expect the same thing from the Flyers if the roles were reversed. Especially under the circumstances that you’re going to see this team in the first round of the playoffs and are battling each other for home ice advantage. You don’t just glide around waiting for the game to end, you keep playing, and you keep playing hard. It’s hockey, after all.

Which brings me to my commentary about the general sentiment of how to properly close out a game. I can’t stand the reaction coaches get for putting out their fourth line at the end of a game. It’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Your options are, put out your good players in a game you’ve already lost, and risk they get hurt, or put out your role players and be perceived (key word is perceived) as “gooning it up”. I take the latter 100 percent of the time.

This isn’t Greg Williams and the New Orleans Saints, there aren’t bounties; this is Sparta…I mean, hockey. Maybe it’s just me, but I refuse to equate the presence of a tough guy, or a fourth line, on the ice as purposely going after opposing players. SOMEBODY has to be on the ice, and there’s no reason for it to be star players in a game you already lost.

I can’t even imagine the insults that would be flying around if Sidney Crosby had said the following:

“Look, everybody knows that (they) put the line that was on the ice, on the ice with a minute left in a game that was out of hand, everybody knows the intent, what the intent was. Was it a bad hit? No. It was a clean hit.”

“But obviously, you knew what he was doing. He was obviously trying to hurt me. We all know that.” – Philly.com

In case you weren’t aware…that’s Briere talking. If Crosby is a whiner, what does that make Briere? The answer is…a whiner.

Nobody…nobody…did a single thing wrong at the end of that game. Not Crosby, not Schenn, not Bylsma, not Laviolette (because he had already used his 4th line), not Vitale, and not the Flyers for responding in the manner that they did.

Everyone knew the circumstances and everyone knew it was clean, but with the impending series, the Flyers had to respond. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if Laviolette had made so much noise not because he thought it was wrong, but because he needed to have his team’s back, just like the guys on the ice needed to have Briere’s.

Simply put, it was two teams who both refused to roll over; and that’s why this is the best game on earth.