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Penguins

Even in exhibition games, fighting on the decline for Penguins, NHL

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018, 5:33 a.m.
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) checks Pittsburgh Penguins forward Daniel Sprong (41) during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, in Buffalo N.Y.
Buffalo Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen (55) checks Pittsburgh Penguins forward Daniel Sprong (41) during the first period of an NHL preseason hockey game, Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2018, in Buffalo N.Y.

The Penguins’ preseason opener against the Buffalo Sabres on Tuesday night provided another sterling example – if one is required – of how much the NHL game has changed in the last decade or two with regard to physicality.

In the opening moments of the game, Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen drove up the left wing and with a defender on his back, plowed into Penguins goalie Casey DeSmith.

Later in the first period, Ristolainen threw a hip check that drove Penguins winger Daniel Sprong into the boards, dislodging his helmet.

In the third period, Buffalo defenseman Jake McCabe caught Jake Guentzel – the most accomplished offensive player the Penguins dressed for the game – with a hip check that sent him tumbling down the right-wing boards.

A few years ago, each of these incidents would have led to a fight, especially in an exhibition game where players aren’t so worried that an extra two-minute penalty would put their team at a disadvantage.

There would have been a line of young players trying to get a piece of Ristolainen or McCabe, knowing full well that their reputation as good, tough, team players would have been burnished by engaging in fisticuffs.

On Tuesday, there were no fights. Ristolainen’s hit on Sprong was the only one of the three that drew a response, as Guentzel and defenseman Chris Summers objected in the form a few cross-checks. Summers was penalized for roughing for his trouble.

In the modern game, no such retribution is expected.

Penguins assistant coach Jacques Martin said there were other, more productive ways for the Penguins to handle the situation.

“Depending on the situation, like, I thought the hit in Sprong was a clean hit,” Martin said. “That’s part of the game. A good, hard hit.

“In situations like that, sometimes you want a response, but the response could be to play hard and if you have an opportunity to deliver a clean hit. I thought (6-foot-5 rookie Anthony) Angello delivered a couple of solid hits on our club. I think it’s recognizing what you bring to this team. Some players, if that’s one of the dimensions that they have, they have to bring that forward.”

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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