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In Praise of Alexei Emelin, Difference Maker

In a league where sacrifice for the good of the team is considered the height of virtue, Emelin, unlike Chara, proved his worth as a teammate.

What a warrior. He's just like Chris Kelly!
What a warrior. He's just like Chris Kelly!
Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

There was a lot of praise out there on Bruins-centric regions of the internets for Zdeno Chara this morning. When teammate and budding star Tyler Seguin was crosschecked in the ribs last night by Alexei Emelin with force strong enough to shatter a composite stick (which is to say, not much), in rode the Captain on his white steed, dishing out frontier justice and making it known throughout the league what happens when you mess with one of ours. That's the Chicago Boston Way. While fans celebrated his heroism, his actions did not go unnoticed in the room. Tyler Seguin was quick to publicly thank his hulking protector. Claude Julien did not mince words when it came to defending his team's leader, deflecting attention toward alleged opposition embellishment and away from the 17 minutes of penalties that resulted from Chara's fight. 17 minutes during which the hated Montreal Canadiens came back to win the game.

I'm not here to add to this praise chorus. No doubt, there was one exemplary teammate on display last night, but we'd have to look on the other bench to find him. As much as it makes me vomit, my praise goes to the pesky defenseman who turned the tide for Montreal. Who briefly removed one of the most dangerous scorers on the ice. Who kept his gloves on long enough to ensure the instigator call and thus took a beating right in the metal plate to clinch a victory. Alexei Emelin, you sir are a true team player. The guys in your room are fortunate to have you.

For those of you sharpening your pitchforks in my general direction, stop and imagine a hypothetical. You'd be pretty ok with the outcome were this Brad Marchand picking his spots with no enforcers on the ice, evading a call with a crosscheck to Max Pacioretty and - lets really strain to suspend disbelief for a sec - taking a beating from Andrei Markov to ensure a talented D is off the ice for extended periods of time. "Mission accomplished," you'd say. "Good job, Brad." And we'd all celebrate a victory to the strains of Dirty Water. You were all cheering when Horton gave a little slew foot to PK Subban, sending him careening into the net (hell, so was I. That was good times). If PK had retaliated and earned a penalty giving us the man advantage, i don't believe there'd be much in the way of hand wringing over the whole affair. Same goes for the missed boarding by Shawn Thornton minutes later. Emelin played a little over the line, but he played over the line smart, which guys like Marchand and Lucic are often credited if not outright celebrated for. He got in a surreptitious shot, one likely to go undetected were it not for his telltale stick, and one targeted to take a player out of the play. And as a bonus he couldn't have anticipated in his wildest dreams, he drew the biggest prize of them all into a boneheaded quest for vengeance. Rather than turtling he had the sack to stand tall, albeit perhaps not in comparison to his opponent, and took his medicine all the while knowing he'd conveyed the advantage to his team.

Were this straight 5 and 5 to both players, I wouldn't bristle too much about Chara's misdeed. Emelin is the number one minute-eater for the Montreal D, so while the overall skill trade is still pretty egregious, the destabilizing impact on the rest of the D is of a similar nature. But by charging from the opposite end of the ice, Chara was aware these were not the consequences and went in with full knowledge of the repercussions. Under the misapprehension that he was being a good teammate by standing up for his boys, he instead acted poorly as a Captain, handing a significant manpower advantage to the opposition and opening the opportunity for them to take two points out of Boston. His selfish action is being lauded under the banner of team-toughness, but losing hockey games for the sake of some misguided sense of honor isn't a terribly good policy for an individual whose job is to lead a team to win hockey games.

There was no physical retaliation, immediate or otherwise, when Nathan Horton lay prostrate on the ice with his arm hanging unnaturally in the air. There was a retaliation on the scoreboard and a righteous victory fueled by the emotions of that incident, which led to the team's first Stanley Cup in nearly 40 years. Had Zdeno Chara brought his cowboy act to that game we might for a moment tip our caps to his support of his fellow Bruins, but we'd be kvetching to this day about the hit that cost us a championship, because that game would certainly have gone another way. Cooler heads prevailed, hardware was earned.

So there wasn't as much at stake last night. That makes Chara's fight ok, evidently. But nor was Seguin mortally wounded. Tyler had a boo boo (admittedly one that would make a guy like me run for the nearest emergency room, but that's neither here nor there) and didn't miss a shift. Chara's reaction was deeply out of proportion. From the pendulum of the utter non-response to Savard's death at the hands of Matt Cooke, our team has swung to the opposite pole, roid-raging at the slightest infraction missed by the officials. We've collectively gotten pretty sick of situations where we wind up down a man after trying to right a wrong - well, get used to it. Our coaching staff tacitly and now explicitly condones an eye-for-an-eye policy, which was long ago legislated out of the rule book. It sucks when calls are missed, but players can't take matters into their own hands. The blame when we wind up on the PK lies with the offending player, not the official. Playing smart and playing tough aren't mutually exclusive, but we're veering far too far toward the latter.

In case you'd missed it, this is a shortened season. There are 48 games to play, a mere 96 points on the line in the standings. There's a lot hanging in the balance of every game and the standings are tightly packed, as the Northeast exemplifies. We're fairly assured a playoff spot due to a hot start, so perhaps we have enough points banked to sacrifice a game here and there in the name of message sending. But with the instigator rule not about to be stricken from the books, isn't the message now floating around the league that if you injure a Bruin, their Captain will remove himself from the game? Cheapshots are worth double. Kaleta, Carcillo, Torres: you know what to do. Retribution is not deterrent. In fact, it's incentive.

This is a sport, the point is winning. There is never a condition under which a moral victory is greater than a standings victory. And Alexei Emelin just made a four-point difference in a divisional matchup. You decide which is more valuable to the team: proving to your uninjured teammate that you've got his back, or doing what it takes to win.