Rangers-Devils brawl results in eight ejections two seconds into game

When the Rangers’ Matt Rempe and the Devils’ Kurtis MacDermid were listed as starters for New York’s game Wednesday night against visiting New Jersey, it was reasonable to suspect — and expect — that the tough guys would fight right away.

Sure enough, the fisticuffs got going immediately after the puck dropped, but what made it a remarkable scene was that every skater for each side found a dance partner. The ensuing five-on-five donnybrook resulted in eight players getting ejected just two seconds into the game.

Officials determined that the first pair to actually engage consisted of the Rangers’ Jimmy Vesey and the Devils’ Curtis Lazar, meaning that, per NHL rules, everyone who subsequently dropped their gloves got a more severe punishment. In addition to the same five-minute fighting penalties handed to Vesey and Lazar, game misconduct penalties — which come with an automatic ejection — were given to Rempe, New York teammates Barclay Goodrow, K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba, and New Jersey’s MacDermid, Kevin Bahl, John Marino and Chris Tierney.

Just like that, eight players were done for the night before some fans could even figure out the game was being nationally televised on TNT.

“It takes a lot to do something like that,” said New York’s Chris Kreider, who scored the game-winning goal in a 4-3 victory. “They’re putting a lot on the line, so it’s a big-time commitment from a majority of the team. That’s a passionate thing to do, it’s a courageous thing to do, and it’s something that definitely brings the group closer together.”

“We’re not trying to make a mockery out there,” the Rangers’ Adam Fox said of the game-opening fracas. “It’s just guys having each others’ backs.”

The main event at Madison Square Garden — Rempe vs. MacDermid — was several weeks in the making. A 6-foot-7 rookie whose first NHL fight took place before his first shift had officially started, Rempe has wasted no time taking on many of the league’s foremost pugilists. On Feb. 22, he delivered a headshot along the boards that injured the Devils’ Nathan Bastian and earned the rookie an ejection. On March 11, the next time New Jersey played New York, the Devils had traded for the rugged MacDermid, who challenged Rempe, only to be turned down. Later in that game, Rempe hit New Jersey’s Jonas Siegenthaler with a high elbow that injured the Devils defenseman and led to a four-game suspension.

“There’s a bit of a code,” MacDermid, who again challenged Rempe after the hit on Siegenthaler, said after that game. “I thought he would’ve answered that. I don’t know what he was told, but he said no. And after a hit like that [on Bastian], it kind of goes without saying you should answer the bell in some way and be a man about it. … There’s a right way to go about things and the wrong way.”

All that set the stage for Wednesday’s game, the first meeting between the Rangers and Devils since the unhappy encounter last month. By putting Rempe, a healthy scratch for the previous three games, and MacDermid in their starting lineups, New York Coach Peter Laviolette and New Jersey counterpart Travis Green all but announced that they preferred to get the players’ long-awaited showdown over with as soon as possible. Even with the game-opening melee erupting all around them, the fight between Rempe and MacDermid stood out for its length, going on well after their teammates’ tussles were broken up.

The ill will extended to Laviolette and Green, who barked at each other from behind the benches. Once the game resumed, it took less than five minutes for the Rangers’ Will Cuylle and the Devils’ Dawson Mercer to get into it, earning Mercer a misconduct penalty for instigating. All told, 162 penalty minutes were handed out in the first period alone.

Asked after the game if he expected it to start in such a contentious manner, Laviolette replied: “No. Our guys were reacting to what was happening around the ice. I thought they did a fantastic job, all five of them.”

The immediate ejections, particularly of four defensemen, meant that several of the remaining defensemen were given exhausting workloads. Between the two teams, eight defensemen logged over 26 minutes of ice time apiece, including 32:49 for New Jersey’s Luke Hughes, 29:42 for New York’s Erik Gustafsson and 29:39 for Fox.

Green said he had “no idea why Peter was mad” at him in the wake of the brawl.

“Their players were lining up fights before the faceoff,” the Devils coach said, “and none of this would have happened — which we all know why it did happen tonight — none of it would have happened if something happened [between MacDermid and Rempe] the game before.”

Of the two teams, New Jersey could least afford to lose a slew of skaters, given that it came into the evening in dire straits, six points out of playoff position with just seven games to go. However, New York had primacy in the Eastern Conference to protect, not to mention a shot at the Presidents’ Trophy.

“I think everybody got their dollars’ worth,” New Jersey’s Brendan Smith said. “And it’s an expensive building.”

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