Why is fighting rare in the NHL playoffs?

Fighting may technically be illegal in the NHL, but let’s face it, while the league may not actively promote the behaviour it definitely tolerates it. While those who engage in fisticuffs in other leagues and sports are thrown out of the game and often suspended, NHL players simply sit for five minutes in the sin bin. There are many hockey fans who believe fighting should be banned totally from the world’s best hockey league while others still believe it’s a part of the game. However, it’s hard to understand how staged fights between two fourth-line players can affect the outcome of a contest.

We often see WWE-type fights between a pair of players who may see the ice a total of five minutes between them per night. Some of these premeditated bouts take place before the puck has even been dropped while they’re playing on their first shifts of the game. Those who want to see fighting banned don’t understand how there can be any animosity built up between the two combatants at this stage. However, they do understand spur-of-the-moment rage when somebody is speared or slashed and they settle their differences by dropping the gloves.

The fact is, hockey fights rarely affect a the outcome because the majority of them take place late in a game when one team has a considerable lead and the game has more or less already been decided. At this point, players who may have a grudge against an opponent feel they can even the score by trying to pound the daylights out of them. They believe it’s the perfect time to let their fists fly since the game is out of hand and they won’t be placing their team in jeopardy. When you see two players from non-playoff bound teams going at it in a mid-December match with the score 7-1, there doesn’t seem much point to the exercise.

If we fast forward to the playoffs though, things are certainly different. There’s definitely something on the line here, namely the Stanley Cup. If there was ever a time for fighting in the NHL this is definitely it. For those who believe a fight can spark a team and wake them out of their doldrums, there’s no better time to start swinging than in the postseason. If you’re facing a do-or-die, elimination game and find yourself trailing 3-0 on the scoreboard this could be the perfect time. If nothing else seems to be working and you’re going home if you don’t win, then why not try to jumpstart your team at this point with an energizing fight?

But for some reason, that isn’t how things work in the NHL. Pro-fighting fans have forever stated that a fight can lift a team and bring it together, but we rarely see one take place when it means the most. There is an occasional fight during the playoffs, but fans are mostly “entertained” by players face-washing each other in scrums after each and every whistle. It’s no wonder an average 60-minute playoff contest takes about three hours to play. But if these players are willing to risk putting their team a man short for two or four minutes in scrums, why aren’t they willing to drop their gloves ?   

The logical answer here is because there’s no need for fighting at all in the league since it doesn’t help decide the outcome of a game. If the NHL banned fighting altogether and two players were riled up enough with to ignore the consequences, then perhaps fans would see a legitimate fight between two angry players, not the staged versions they’re treated to today. As long as fighting is tolerated by the NHL, players are wasting their energy on regular-season bouts when the playoffs mean so much more.

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