Posted: Thursday March 24, 2011 7:55AM ; Updated: Thursday March 24, 2011 7:55AM
Michael Farber
Michael Farber>ON THE FLY

Cooler heads may prevail in Boston

Story Highlights

There's been noticeably less chest-puffing before tonight's Canadiens-Bruins game

The NHL, on the offensive against headshots, will be watching this one closely

There are profound indications that hockey fans actually want less violence

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The fight-filled Canadiens-Bruins game in February was part of a chain reaction that began in early January.
Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

The quiet is more refreshing than eerie.

In the typical buildup to a "grudge" game, or a game between teams whose previous match was especially nasty, threats are implied, the heat is dialed up, and the anticipation in two cities builds for something rollicking and even untoward.

As the Montreal Canadiens lurched into Boston on Thursday for what in less contemplative times might by called Armageddon, The Musical!, there has been noticeably less chest-puffing, posturing and posing than in the old days, which are, in this context, defined as anything that happened three weeks ago.

Now, maybe the sight of Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty being wheeled off on a stretcher was enough to knock the hot air out of anyone who happened to be in the Bell Centre on March 8 and witnessed a genuinely harrowing sight. Or maybe Bruins rookie Brad Marchand, coming off a recent two-game suspension for elbowing R.J. Umberger of the Blue Jackets in the head, had little left in his lexicon after labeling Montreal players as divers on the morning of the last game between hockey's Hatfields and McCoys.

In any case, the NHL landscape has shifted in the weeks since the last Bruins-Canadiens game.

How?

* For one thing, the maintenance people in Montreal have added additional padding to the stanchion, although blaming "the turnbuckle" rather than Pacioretty's path toward it for the grim incident is to ignore Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara's push with his left arm and all the previous acrimony between the players. (You probably have seen the hit as often as the Zapruder film. You decide.)

* Pittsburgh's suspended Matt Cooke is more than $200,000 poorer although, really, his elbow to the head of the Rangers' Ryan McDonagh was a lob pitch softball that NHL dean of discipline Colin Campbell knocked out of the park. Campbell bunted on the two-game bans he gave to Marchand and the Sharks' Dany Heatley. Anyway, the tricky part is coming. We'll see if the NHL has a Cooke standard and An Everybody Else standard.

HACKEL blog: NHL must explain its decisions

The truly fascinating part of the equation is that the Penguins let Cooke dangle. General manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma, both of whom favor taking headshots out of the game, did not blanch at the suspension that covers 10 games and the first playoff round. Their stance drew almost none of the righteous stand-up-for-your-own ire directed at Bruins defenseman Andrew Ference when he mildly rebuked teammate Daniel Paillé for a malicious blindside hit to the head of a Dallas player last month.

HACKEL blog: Ference remarks a rarity

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Zdeno Chara's hit on Max Pacioretty was a turning point in what has been a brutal NHL season thus far.
Jean-Yves Ahern/Icon SMI

* NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman took the offensive and announced a five-part concussion protocol, which, no matter how you parse it, at least represents some kind of progress.

HACKEL blog: Embattled NHL deserves credit

* Some GMs at the Florida meeting pushed for a ban on head-checking.

There seems to be something profound at work here, something that strikes me as counterintuitive given the uproarious success of UFC. At a time when a newly popular sport that looks like a human video game is capturing unprecedented attention and dollars precisely because of its unapologetic violence, there is every indication that fans of hockey, the knock-knock joke of major sports to the uninformed, actually might want less violence.

Although the NHL has tiptoed down this path in the past year with Rule 48 and its ongoing concussion study, the league seems to have been a stride behind the play -- if you believe the public outcry. A poll of more than 1,000 Canadians taken in mid-March revealed that 66 percent of respondents said the league was not doing enough to curb violence.

Canadians, to borrow a phrase from Bettman, do "get it." They are not a queasy people. Maybe the fresh memories of Pacioretty's head whipsawing or Sidney Crosby's concussion problem have skewed their view, but it seemed like stomachs, if not corners, have been turned in the debate over the acceptable level of violence.

GALLERY: NHL's Season of Mayhem

Air Canada, a corporate sponsor, spoke out, eliciting a shrill response from Bettman, who intimated that the league could take its charter business elsewhere. So did Via Rail, another Montreal-based company that invests in the league. (If Kia, which presented Phil Kessel with those nice wheels for hanging around so long at the All-Star Game draft, also decides to chide the league, you would have planes, trains and automobiles.) Some politicians in Canada also chimed in on the issue, making the notion of "finishing your check" as much as a motherhood issue as finishing your vegetables.

Not everyone was on board, of course. On the morning of a Montreal protest rally called because Chara escaped suspension, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said that if fans didn't like the game as is, they shouldn't come. This was not Cubs manager Lee Elia profanely blasting Wrigley Field fans for booing, but it certainly was not a high point of Boudreau's meandering career.

So in the shifting sands of the modern NHL, Montreal and Boston meet for the sixth time this season and 711th in history, which is not counting another 163 games in 32 playoff series. The fervor has been ramping exponentially since Montreal's overtime win in early January was marked by Pacioretty's sophomoric shove of Chara after scoring the winner. That was followed by the Beatdown in Beantown in February when the penalty boxes were stuffed like clown cars, which begot the sickening Pacioretty injury at the end of the second period more than two weeks ago, a moment that took the air out of the game like a punch to the gut.

Maybe Boston and Montreal, in a third place/sixth place struggle in the Eastern Conference, can summon some of the meanness that has marked their recent games, but the suspicion is that Pacioretty's near miss -- his neck fracture was non-displaced -- even more than the looming presence of NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson in the TD Garden on Thursday might have ruined the appetites for raw meat.

"We're not going to go in there and try to do something stupid," Habs fourth-liner Ryan White told Montreal reporters after practice Wednesday. "Any payback is going to come in beating them."

Has the gong really sounded on this Gong Show?

 
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