Unlike certain striped-shirted, whistle-carrying observers of Sunday’s Maple Leafs-Jets game, give Auston Matthews credit for calling it as he saw it.
"It wasn’t really hockey," is how the Leafs centreman described the third period of Toronto’s 6-3 loss in Winnipeg. "It was just a bit of a gong show."
There are those who would blame the Leafs for turning it into one. And they wouldn’t necessarily be wrong. Toronto’s Jason Spezza is facing an in-person hearing with the NHL’s department of player safety on account of his predatory knee to the head of Winnipeg defenceman Neil Pionk. Even though Pionk was suspended two games on Monday for sticking out a knee to clip Toronto defenceman Rasmus Sandin — even though Pionk used what the league described as "forceful, dangerous and direct knee-on-knee contact" in felling Sandin — there is no justifying Spezza’s clear intent in targeting Pionk with a dangerous head hit.
You can’t justify it. But you can understand it. Because the whole unfortunate chain of events could have been avoided if the striped-shirted, whistle-carrying observers of the game had been doing their jobs as the game slid down the slippery slope from blowout to gong show.
Don’t get it wrong: Nobody is saying the game was decided by the referees. The Jets were the better team Sunday. The Leafs, playing the second night of back-to-back road games after a shootout loss in Minnesota on Saturday, were a shadow of their recent selves. If you wanted to point to a culprit for Toronto’s second straight loss, it wasn’t the officials. It was the Maple Leafs’ penalty kill, which allowed three power-play goals for the first time in almost two years. Or it was Toronto’s usual commitment to defensive responsibility, which took much of Sunday night off as the Jets turned the second period into a series of odd-man rushes.
But if the referees didn’t decide the outcome, they were responsible for the late-game outlandishness. Start with the wrestling match between Winnipeg’s Pierre-Luc Dubois and Matthews. In the melee in question, Dubois, who found himself on top of the prone Matthews in Toronto’s zone, saw fit to ride Toronto’s best player like a proverbial rented mule as the play went the other way. For the next handful of seconds, Dubois pushed and poked at Matthews while Matthews — the NHL’s hottest goal scorer, with eight goals in a six-game scoring streak — played the intelligent pacifist, no doubt assuming Dubois’s indulgence in roughing would give the Maple Leafs a power play against Winnipeg’s abysmal penalty kill. But while referee Brad Meier stood and watched Dubois’s antics, somehow the resolution wasn’t to call the obvious foul on Dubois, it was coincidental roughing penalties for Dubois and Matthews.
There are those who would prefer Matthews fight back when a player like Dubois takes such liberties, but let’s face it: The Leafs know who Matthews is — a Sun Belt-raised super-athlete who didn’t grow up with fighting as a part of his reality. With that in mind, and considering Matthews has managed the effect of a wrist injury for much of the past year, they’d probably prefer their best player leave the fighting to others. And this version of the Leafs, as they showed on Sunday, isn’t bereft of capable proxies. Wayne Simmonds gamely sought vengeance after the game devolved, and on Monday was fined $2,250 (U.S.) for cross-checking Jansen Harkins. Kyle Clifford, who picked up Toronto’s only fighting major for his exchange with Brenden Dillon, got in on the act. Nick Ritchie, who has yet to score a goal, took a shot at Dubois.
"I’m proud of the way we stuck up for each other," is how Matthews put it.
But the whole thing began when Meier botched the call on the exchange between Dubois and Matthews, which should have left the Jets at a disadvantage. Not surprisingly, the tone of the game escalated from there. The ensuing four-on-four produced Pionk’s dirty hit on Sandin. Pionk’s dirty hit outraged Toronto’s bench, no one more than the clearly incensed Spezza, who was inspired to hop the boards and go after Pionk.
"The game itself just kind of got a bit out of hand," Matthews said. "It’s just kind of a bit of a snowball effect. Things just kind of spiralled out of control a little bit."
It got out of control for a specific reason: Not because the players couldn’t control themselves, but because the officials chose not to control them. It says something that Spezza’s hit on Pionk, which figures to see the 38-year-old veteran rightly suspended for a few games, wasn’t penalized in the run of play. Far be it for the officials to interfere with the doling out of vigilante justice. The NHL has always been the rare sports league where the rule book is a list of polite suggestions, never to be taken literally. And you still get the feeling that the old boys in the league office, many of whom cut their teeth in much hairier eras, when blood-lusting nonsense was a big part of the sport’s identity, don’t mind seeing the occasional hint of hockey’s vestigial wildness occasionally rear its head. Most of the rest of us keep wondering why the refs don’t call the rule book and relegate the gong shows to the annals of history.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk