By Jim Diamond
Hockey’s anti-fighting crowd may not have liked what Nashville Predators rookie defenseman Anthony Bitetto did at 4:13 of the second period of Tuesday night’s game against the Tampa Bay Lightning, but Bitteto’s hockey-playing teammates loved it.
Inside Nashville’s blue line, Tampa Bay’s Brett Connolly was working over Craig Smith enough to draw a delayed holding penalty. As Connolly continued while lying on top of Smith, Bitetto skated over and engaged Connolly.
Both men dropped their gloves and Bitetto won the bout in a more than decisive fashion.
“It is part of the game, and it’s something that at times, it’s needed,” Bitetto said. “It was a situation where a skilled guy like Smitty was getting hit or whatever you want to call it. Sometimes the gloves come off and that’s how it goes.”
Bitetto was given an extra minor for unsportsmanlike conduct on the play, negating the power play that they were scheduled to have.
The unsportsmanlike penalty was the officials’ way of saying that Bitetto instigated the fight, but they did not want to be overly punitive of the Island Park, NY native since an instigating minor also carries with it an automatic 10-minute misconduct. The referees saw Connolly on top of Smith and understood that Bitetto was sticking up for a teammate, so they just evened things up penalty wise, and good for them.
“I thought his fight was terrific, well timed,” Predators head coach Peter Laviolette said. “He jumped in there for his teammate.”
After his seven minutes of penalty minutes were served, Bitetto retuned to the Nashville bench to his teammates standing and banging their sticks on the boards in approval.
“It’s always cool getting that ‘hoo-ha,’ and whatever,” Bitetto said.
Asked if Bitetto earned some respect in the locker room for doing what he did, fellow defenseman Seth Jones didn’t hesitate.
“Hundred percent, hundred percent,” he said. “Guys obviously want to play with someone that’s willing to put themselves on the line such as a fight. He did a great job, and he played a great game as well.”
Yes, Bitetto cost his team a power play. Yes, he was off the ice for seven minutes, leaving the team with just five defensemen. But Bitetto wasn’t playing first pairing minutes by any stretch of the imagination. He played a grand total of 10:09 in the game. That may be down a little from where he would have been had he not spent those seven minutes in the box, but two of those would have been on the power play and he wouldn’t have seen the ice there anyway. In Bitetto’s NHL debut January 17th in Detroit, he played 11:01, and that was in a game the Predators weren’t in basically from the opening faceoff. In short, the other five defensemen probably didn’t mind picking up the extra shift or two.
Was the fight victory responsible for the two goals Nashville scored later on in the second? No.
Did the Predators win because Bitetto fought? Of course not.
But Bitetto went from being a guy the players saw briefly in training camp and briefly in his one previous game this season to a guy willing to stick up for his teammates. That is a personal victory that won’t show up in any standings other than the hockeyfights.com database.
Bitetto may be on the next plane to Milwaukee as soon as Mattias Ekholm is cleared to return to the lineup, but whenever he does go back, he knows that he has the respect of his teammates the next time he is in the Nashville locker room.