Mendes: Is there a 'right way' to score an empty net goal? Ridly Greig sparks leaguewide debate

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Mendes: Is there a 'right way' to score an empty net goal? Ridly Greig sparks leaguewide debate

An empty net goal is usually about the most nondescript event in a hockey game.

It’s a formality that closes out a game in the dying seconds, sending fans from the losing team scurrying for the arena exits.

But every once in a while, an empty net situation elicits raw, heartfelt emotion.

Just consider these strong words from Sportsnet’s Ray Ferraro on Jan. 4, 2007, after one of the most memorable empty net sequences in the salary-cap era.

“You should be embarrassed for what you just did. That does not belong in the National Hockey League. That’s the most embarrassing thing I’ve seen on the National Hockey League ice. I’ve been around the game 25 years at the pro level. That is unbelievable.”

Ferraro was describing the lackadaisical effort put forth by Dallas Stars forward Patrik Stefan late in a game against the Edmonton Oilers. He was far too cavalier as he approached an empty Edmonton net, allowing the puck to jump over his stick. Seconds later, the Oilers miraculously tied the game.

Stefan serves as the cautionary tale in the hockey world. Even in empty net situations, you should always finish hard.

But no, Ridly Greig, not that hard.

On Saturday evening, Greig delivered a full wind-up, Boom Boom Geoffrion-style slap shot from a few feet in front of an empty Toronto Maple Leafs net to seal a 5-3 Ottawa victory. It was — to put it mildly — the antithesis of Stefan’s approach.

Greig’s actions were deemed to be unnecessary taunting by Toronto’s Morgan Rielly, who immediately delivered a high cross-check to the head of an unsuspecting Greig as he celebrated the goal along the boards.

Rielly was assessed a five-minute major for cross-checking Greig in the head and a game misconduct for his actions. On Sunday, the NHL department of player safety offered him an in-person hearing before it hands out supplemental discipline.

As a result of all this, the Senators rookie forward is at the center of hockey’s freshest debate.

From the people who brought you “Did Linus Omark disrespect the sanctity of the shootout?” and “Is Trevor Zegras ruining the game?” we bring you the latest controversy cloaked in layers of unwritten rules and decades of hockey’s “code”: Is there a “right way” to score an empty net goal?

To be fair, similar debates rage in other sports when athletes score in the dying moments of a game. Last month, the New Orleans Saints scored a touchdown from their victory formation in garbage time. We’ve seen it in the NBA, when Zion Williamson was a little too showy on a windmill dunk as time expired during a win. And of course, one of baseball’s fiercest debates started over the merits of Jose Bautista’s bat flip.

So the “unwritten code” isn’t something unique to the NHL.

 

The Greig-Rielly sequence ignited a debate on the broadcast, on social media and in every bar and living room with a television tuned into the game.

Unsurprisingly, the quotes from both head coaches Saturday were supportive of the actions of their respective players.

Toronto’s Sheldon Keefe said, “I thought it was appropriate” when asked about Rielly’s actions.

When pressed a moment later about why he felt it was appropriate, Keefe flatly responded, “It’s pretty apparent.”

Senators head coach Jacques Martin deferred to the department of player safety about the consequences of Rielly’s hit, but he did say, “It’s not a hockey play. It’s not part of the game.”

Martin was asked if he had an issue with Greig’s emphatic finish to the goal.

“Put the puck in the net,” Martin said. “Whether he pushes it or shoots it, that shouldn’t matter.”

Stripping aside any emotions or bias you may have with this situation, we have now set the parameters for the two extremes in handling empty net situations.

On one end, we have Stefan’s nonchalant effort.

On the other end of the spectrum is Greig’s overly demonstrative and emphatic finish.

To be sure, there is plenty of middle ground. Greig could have put that puck in the net with some mustard but without looking like a hot dog.

But put yourself in Greig’s skates for a moment.

You’re about to finish off a hated opponent on a night where at least two-thirds of the fans were wearing Maple Leafs jerseys inside Canadian Tire Centre. Greig had a chance to deliver a message to those fans, and his emotions took over his decision-making in the heat of the moment.

Greig’s critics are adamant that he should have found a way to control those emotions and finish the game in a classy manner.

But if we’re expecting Greig to find that middle ground — in an emotional game — why aren’t we demanding the same of Rielly? Why should Greig be the only one asked to control his emotions, while Rielly is given carte blanche to allow his passion and raw energy to guide his actions?

Too many people are acting as if Rielly only had two options at his disposal: do nothing or deliver a vicious cross-check to Greig’s head.

If Greig had more than two options available to him, then so did Rielly.

He could have followed hockey’s “code” and dropped the gloves and invited Greig to fight.

He could have skated by and delivered a hit — certainly not a Dale Hunter-on-Pierre Turgeon type of hit but something to alert Greig and the Senators that he felt it was an unnecessary finish to the game.

He could have even skated by and simply exchanged words with Greig. And then in a media scrum afterward, Rielly could have shared his thoughts about Greig’s actions on a larger platform.

Instead, he chose to deliver a violent blow to the head — an action that, quite frankly, was not commensurate with Greig’s actions.

In a provincial rivalry steeped in hatred, it’s almost impossible to find a middle ground. But Ottawa’s Josh Norris seemed to walk the line better than anybody else on Saturday evening.

“You never know what Greiger’s going to do. I mean, I loved it,” Norris said of the sequence. “But obviously, I’m sure if we’re on the other side of that, I don’t know if we would have liked that, either. I didn’t really like the retaliation. I understand their frustration, but it’s over with. And I guess it was entertaining.”

(Photo of Ridly Greig scoring an empty net goal: Marc DesRosiers / USA Today)