As soon as the puck was dropped, it became nothing more than a forgotten piece of rubber, sitting in the faceoff circle as Capitals and Rangers players rushed for something else: each other.
Within the first second of action Wednesday night, three Washington and New York skaters dropped their gloves. That was just the beginning of a hockey game with ample extracurriculars. There were six fights within the first five minutes. A Rangers player earned a major penalty and game misconduct call for an egregious cross check.
And it all came in response to Monday night’s melee, when Capitals winger Tom Wilson punched Rangers forward Pavel Buchnevich in the back of the head while he was face down on the ice. Buchnevich had crashed the crease and hit goaltender Vitek Vanecek with his stick, and Wilson made a point to defend his netminder.
The Rangers took exception to Wilson’s hit on Buchnevich, and center Ryan Strome dragged Wilson off Buchnevich. Then Artemi Panarin jumped on Wilson’s back, and Wilson responded by flinging Panarin to the ice once, then pushing him back down again when he tried to get up. Panarin narrowly missed hitting his head on the ice.
In a statement Tuesday night, the Rangers called what Wilson did a “horrifying act of violence.” The team was incensed that Wilson wasn’t suspended — although Wilson was fined $5,000 for roughing, the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement. What particularly vexed the Rangers was that Panarin will miss the rest of the season through injury as a result of that scuffle.
“Everybody in our organization is very disappointed,” New York coach David Quinn said Tuesday. “We certainly thought it warranted a suspension. … A line was crossed: Guy didn’t have his helmet on, vulnerable, he got hurt. To me it was an awful lot there to suspend him.”
That made Wednesday a powder keg waiting to explode, and it took just one second to set off. That’s when the Capitals’ Nic Down, Garnet Hathaway and Carl Hagelin fought the Rangers’ Phillip Di Giuseppe, Kevin Rooney and Colin Blackwell.
Fifty seconds into the game, New York defenseman Brendan Smith sought out Wilson for a fight, and Smith earned an instigator penalty and 10-minute misconduct. Wilson wouldn’t return for the second period with what Washington called an upper-body injury.
The first period continued with two more fights, this time between Strome and Washington’s Lars Eller. Michael Raffl fought New York’s Anthony Bitetto. The two teams combined for 100 penalty minutes in the opening frame.
But if things hadn’t already been out of hand to that point, a cross check to the face of Capitals forward Anthony Mantha — leaving him bleeding — from Buchnevich draws fresh calls for a suspension. This time, it’s directed toward the player Wilson first punched to set off the whole affair. Buchnevich was handed a five-minute major and ejected.
“You gotta be prepared for anything tonight considering what happened last game,” Eller said before the game. “If they’re going to start something, we’re going to approach it the same way we’ve always done. We’re going to protect ourselves, our teammates, as we would do in any given situation.”
And they did, with six fights in the first five minutes at Madison Square Garden turning a hockey game into something else entirely.