Mehno: Pens wrong for handling of fight game

PITTSBURGH — It wasn’t a proud day for the Penguins when they brought Tom Sestito up from the minor leagues to serve as hired muscle in a potentially contentious game in Winnipeg last week.

Sestito got into a fight with Chris Thorburn, then earned a four-game suspension from the NHL for viciously ramming Toby Enstrom face-first into the glass.

The Jets were gunning for Evgeni Malkin for an unpenalized hit against Blake Wheeler when the teams met in Pittsburgh. The Jets thought it was a cheap shot.

So as soon as Malkin and Wheeler were on the ice, Malkin accepted Wheeler’s invitation to drop the gloves. (“Wanna go?” is apparently an international language).

Wheeler won the brief fight, the players went to the penalty box, and Wheeler later expressed his respect for Malkin’s willingness to answer his challenge.

It should have ended there.

But then Sestito hit the ice, and was immediately matched against Thorburn, a former Penguin who now fights for Winnipeg.

They dropped their gloves as soon as the puck was dropped and fought to a lengthy draw.

It really should have ended there.

But Mike Sullivan, who routinely uses all four of his lines, put Sestito on the ice for another shift. Sestito took several strides before driving Enstrom into the boards from behind.

The officials gave Sestito a major penalty and a game misconduct. The NHL followed up with a suspension the next day. Enstrom sustained a concussion and is out indefinitely.

Sestito’s stats tell the story of his career: 150 NHL games, 10 goals, 20 points and 495 penalty minutes. In 62 seconds of ice time against Winnipeg, he managed to get 20 penalty minutes and a four-game suspension.

Sestito spent most of this season in the minor leagues, where he belongs. He was called up only because the Penguins anticipated trouble in Winnipeg.

Fighting has greatly diminished in the NHL. Before Malkin and Sestito picked up fighting majors, the Penguins had only had nine fighting penalties in their 64 games. They had gone 16 games without one, and had just two fights in the 29 games before Winnipeg. Two of the team’s previous fighting majors were collected by Sestito in October.

In 2011, the Penguins played a farce of a game against the Islanders, a fight-filled revenge game that resulted in an NHL-record 346 combined penalty minutes. It was so embarrassing that Mario Lemieux issued a rare public statement, decrying the mindless violence.

Yet faced with a potentially volatile situation in Winnipeg, the Penguins followed the spirit of the Islanders’ template and specifically summoned a player whose career has been defined by his willingness to fight.

In the overall picture, Sestito’s game against the Jets is a mere blip (except for Enstrom). But it wasn’t a very good moment for the Penguins.

Mehno can be reached at: johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com

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