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Was David Pastrnak vs. Matthew Tkachuk stupid or great?  Yes

Was David Pastrnak vs. Matthew Tkachuk stupid or great? Yes

Late in the third period of a game in which his team was losing badly, David Pastrnak thought he had had enough.

The Florida Panthers went all out after just scoring their sixth goal of the evening. They would win Game 2 and even the series. They let the Boston Bruins know about it too, with Matthew Tkachuk choosing the moment to show off his formidable trash-talking skills.

At some point, Pastrnak decided he would go about it according to the version of the legendary hockey code that was in effect at the time. And that meant hand-to-hand combat.

According to HockeyFights, it was only the second time Pastrnak has ever fought in the NHL. Tkachuk has much more experience in that area, with multiple fights in each of the past seven seasons. His brother Brady fights even more. His father Keith did the same. That’s what the Tkachuk guys do: they score, they tell you about it, and every now and then they drop the gloves and trade punches with whoever has a problem with it.

Pastrnak was completely out of his element. But apparently he decided someone had to shut Tkachuk up, or at least try. And as the Bruins’ star and highest-paid player, just days removed from scoring the Game 7 overtime winner that put Boston in first place in this series, Pastrnak chose not to let anyone else handle business. He and Tkachuk discussed it during a break in play, a challenge was issued and accepted, and an agreement was reached. The next time the two stars stepped on the ice, they ignored the puck and went straight at each other.

All things considered, Pastrnak did well. He didn’t win the fight — even the most die-hard Bruins fan couldn’t argue that — but The Code says he didn’t have to. He showed up. And he seemed to escape unscathed, skating away from that scrap looking none the worse for wear. He almost didn’t, with Tkachuk throwing a pair of haymakers that just missed. If one of those lands, you have no way of knowing what damage it will cause. It’s not inconceivable that Pastrnak is out for a game, or the series, or the playoffs, or more.

So what was it? An example of a superstar showing the kind of leadership that unites a team behind him? Or a stupid, reckless risk that could have ended in disaster?

Both. It was very clearly both.

See, when Pastrnak gets hurt, the stories write themselves. The best player on a team getting hurt in a fight that absolutely didn’t need to happen? Why, because he was angry that the other team wouldn’t stop scoring? With a game that has already been determined and there is absolutely nothing left to win that evening? Against a man he knew would probably hit him? It would be a ridiculous exercise in frustration, a selfish act, and almost certainly the end of the Bruins’ quest for the Cup.

He wasn’t injured, at least as far as we know. According to him, things seemed fine in the room after the match The Athletics‘s Bruins reporter Fluto Shinzawa. But he could have easily done that. Would you ever want to see your superstar take a risk like that?

Well… yes, you do. You like it.

Panthers coach Paul Maurice did.

“You’ll see that over and over again in the highlights,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. You have two elite attacking players. Chucky is a 100 point guy all day long. Pastrnak is simply a brilliant player. It’s the play-offs. They each have their team. They got their brothers in their room. It’s a little spicy out there. I love it.”

Look, I understand that it might not make as much sense to fans of other sports. It doesn’t make sense to many hockey fans either. And it certainly won’t make sense to a lot of media, commentators and talking heads, many of whom will be shaking their heads and tut-tuting at how silly the whole Code thing can be. And they won’t be wrong.

But also… hell yeah, David Pastrnak, am I right?

I’m sorry if that’s the caveman side of me coming out. I grew up with a different era of hockey, and to this day I struggle with the way I encouraged it. I know the right answer here is the same thing I would tell my kids: there is a better way to solve this problem, so grow a thicker skin and don’t be a dummy. That’s how I wish they would do it on the playground.

But this wasn’t the playground. It was an NHL playoff game and the rules are different, including the unspoken rules. There isn’t nearly as much fighting in the NHL as there once was, and it’s a lot less than fans of other sports seem to think. But there are a few more. We saw one on Wednesday evening.

And I’ll be honest. When it was over and Pastrnak skated off the ice, my first thought wasn’t about how irresponsible he’d been, or what he’d risked, or how foolish the whole scene was.

It was more along the lines of: Damn, I wish that guy was on my team.

I’m pretty sure I wasn’t the only one. I’m absolutely sure Bruins fans loved every second of it. I bet even as the hits were still flying, group chats were lighting up across the league. And I doubt too many of them were tutting anyone.

That’s the paradox in all of this, at least for some of us. This stuff is the best, until we see the worst, which can happen at any time. You never know. David Pastrnak is an adult and he can decide if he wants to take that risk because the NHL is the only major sports league that gives players that choice. Many people believe this should not be the case. But that’s it, at least for now, so we get Pastrnak and Tkachuk.

Maybe when it happened you quickly turned off your TV. Maybe it doesn’t matter whether you did it or not. Or maybe we just saw a legend being made, a Lecavalier versus Iginla for a new generation. If the Bruins win the series or even the Stanley Cup, this might be the moment everyone is pointing to.

Um. Skip that last ‘maybe’. We know one is true.

And maybe tomorrow we will find out that Pastrnak is not at training, and despite looking good, he is there every day. That’s an upper body injury from one of those haymakers, or a blown out knee from the fall, or something else. Will we all change our minds then? Most of us probably do. That’s hockey too.

But until then, Pastrnak made his choice and did what he felt he had to do. You don’t have to like it, and you don’t have to ignore what might happen the next time someone else makes that choice. But that might not matter in a Bruins locker room, where I suspect any of his teammates would be running through a wall for their man right now.

It’s playoff hockey. Not everyone gets it. Not everyone should do that. But Game 3 can’t get here soon enough.

(Photo: Steve Babineau/Getty Images)