By Kevin Durso, Sports Talk Philly editor
In the midst of a playoff race, tensions can run high, especially for two teams that are making a push for division titles. In March 2004, the Flyers and Ottawa Senators were both in similar positions.
The Flyers were at 86 points with a six-point lead in the Atlantic Division. The Senators had 84 points and were two points out of the Northeast Division lead. It was very possible that this could be a potential playoff preview.
It also helped to stir the pot that just eight days earlier, the teams played to a 1-1 tie that featured a moment that had the Flyers up in arms. Martin Havlat attempted to injure Mark Recchi by swinging his stick at Recchi’s head. Havlat was given a major penalty for attempting to injure and a game misconduct and was later suspended for two games and fined as a repeat offender. Following the game, Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock set the tone for the next meeting to come just days later, saying that “someday, someone’s going to make him eat his lunch. This is something, in my opinion, that the players should take care of.”
The bad blood was still fresh from that, so when the teams met on March 5, 2004, it would become a historic night in a very different way.
For most of the night, this was just a normal game, certainly physical, but not too different from the nature of excellent playoff hockey. Chris Neil opened the scoring at 4:07 of the first on a rebound, but the Flyers answered back with three goals in the period.
At 10:41, Claude Lapointe threw a shot on goal from an angle that was deflected in by an Ottawa defender. Just 30 seconds later, Recchi scored on a rebound to make it 2-1 Flyers. With 3:50 left in the period, Danny Markov scored on a long-range shot after a great scoring chance for Michal Handzus to make it 3-1.
The Flyers continued to pile on in the second, taking advantage of a power play at 5:22 with Kim Johnsson scoring on a wrist shot from the right circle. Zdeno Chara pulled the Senators closer with a power-play goal of his own at 14:32 of the period to make it 4-2.
The Flyers restored the three-goal lead in the third at 6:54 as Alex Zhamnov was able to sneak it through Patrick Lalime to make it 5-2.
With the game starting to get out of hand on the scoreboard, the bad blood started to boil. Zhamnov and Daniel Alfredsson each took roughing penalties at 9:03. Patrick Sharp and Bryan Smolinksi also took roughing penalties at 12:18.
With 1:45 left in the game, the two heavyweights on either side finally went toe-to-toe as Donald Brashear and Rob Ray dropped the gloves. It was a spirited bout between two experienced fighters and Brashear got the better of Ray, cutting him over the left eye. Brashear eventually wrestled Ray to the ice and that appeared to be the end of things as both players were to be escorted to the locker rooms, their nights over with just 105 seconds left on the clock. As Brashear was heading to the bench, Brian Pothier and Todd Simpson jumped him to start another altercation, and that got everyone on the ice involved. Robert Esche exited his crease looking to get involved and Lalime skated the distance of the ice and the goalies dropped the gloves. In the meantime, Branko Radivojevic and Shaun Van Allen fought in the corner and Markov paired up with Simpson after Simpson started throwing punches at a helpless Sharp on the ice. At the 18:15 mark of the third period, a total of 163 penalty minutes were assessed.
After the line brawl, both teams had new goalie in net and three Flyers and two Senators had been given game misconducts on top of fighting majors. Just three seconds later, another line brawl started as Neil and Radovan Somik started jousting off the face-off. They both dropped the gloves and started throwing punches. At the same time, Chara dropped the gloves with the much-smaller Mattias Timander and started hammering away as well. Chara got an extra instigation penalty out of a sequence that added another 42 penalty minutes to the total. To serve the extra penalty to Chara, Havlat ended up in the penalty box for the rest of the game, protected from any sort of retribution that could be coming his way.
Following that sequence of fights, the Flyers were angered that two notably tough players who were very capable in fights would engage with two inexperienced players who were unable to protect themselves. Hitchcock could be seen on the Flyers bench giving out some sort of instruction to Handzus and John LeClair. Sure enough, three seconds later, Handzus and Mike Fisher were engaged in a fight that resulted in another 50 penalty minutes.
Off the next face-off, no fight broke out, drawing boos from the crowd. They didn’t have to wait long. Just 24 seconds from the face-off, Recchi threw a hit at Wade Redden, who became tangled up with LeClair. Recchi then engaged in a fight with Smolinski. With 1:15 left in the game, another 82 penalty minutes were assessed.
Just two seconds after that, Sharp and Jason Spezza dropped the gloves off the face-off and Sharp dropped Spezza with a right to knock him to the ice. Finally, with 1:13 left in the game, the fighting was over.
With so many penalties dished out, the Senators ended up on a 4-on-3 power play in the final 1:13. The Senators had two players left on their bench and the Flyers had three. The Senators eventually scored on that power play with Petr Bondra firing a shot past Sean Burke, who entered in relief after the first line brawl. That capped the scoring at 5-3 with 13 seconds remaining.
Prior to the final 1:45, only 22 penalty minutes had been assessed in the entire game. From the collection of fights at the end of the game, only four players of the 20 penalized received under 10 minutes in penalties. The largest amount of penalty minutes to one player was to Spezza from the last fight. He was given a double game-misconduct, a 10-minute misconduct and a fighting major, totaling 35 penalty minutes. Brashear was assessed 34 penalty minutes, receiving an instigator minor, roughing minor, double-major for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct and a game misconduct. NHL officials Dan Marouelli and Marc Joannette needed an additional 90 minutes after the game to finish sorting out the penalties. When the dust settled, a total of 419 penalty minutes had been assessed in the game, setting a new NHL record. The Flyers had been assessed 213 penalty minutes, also setting a new NHL record. The total of 409 penalty minutes assessed in the third period alone were also a new NHL record.
One of the forgotten parts of this game is that the Flyers were already heavily shorthanded in the game. Defensemen Chris Therien and Joni Pitkanen were lost to injury in the first period, leaving the Flyers with just four defensemen for the rest of the game.
In the moments following the game, GM Bob Clarke reportedly attempted to enter the Ottawa locker room to confront head coach Jacques Martin over the mismatches in fighting partners in the middle of the brawl. The league feared that this would give the game a bad image, and requested that the game not be replayed on television as an “instant classic.” This event, coupled with the Todd Bertuzzi incident involving Steve Moore, put a greater emphasis on monitoring violence in hockey. It has made events like this the last of its kind and no game has come close to seeing this kind of physical play or extra-curricular activity since.
Additionally, when the league returned following the 2004-05 NHL lockout, there was a new rule in place that issued a suspension to any player given an instigator penalty in the final five minutes of a game with the goal of preventing events like this one late in games when scores are often settled in games that are out of hand on the scoreboard.
As for the rest of the season, the two teams met one more time in the regular season with the Senators claiming a 3-1 win in a game that featured just six minor penalties and no fights. Both teams put that behind them to play for crucial standings points in the stretch run of the regular season. The Senators ultimately finished fifth in the Eastern Conference that season and lost in seven games to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs. The Flyers won the Atlantic Division and defeated the New Jersey Devils in the first round and the Maple Leafs in the Eastern Conference semi-finals before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning in the Eastern Conference Final.
We’ll continue to look back at some Flyers Greatest Moments on Friday with a look at an all-time classic, the Red Army Game.