TAMPA — It looked like J.T. Brown was destined to drop his gloves Thursday night.
Brown, 25, was the perfect pest, jawing, jabbing, throwing his body all over the place against the Rangers. With agitators Cedric Paquette and Ryan Callahan out with injuries, Brown, a 5-foot-10, 175-pound wing, believed he needed to step up in scrums. It worked. Coach Jon Cooper said Brown was the most impactful player, other than the two goalies, in the Lightning's desperately needed 2-1 win.
"He got their whole team riled up," associate coach Rick Bowness said. "They were all chirping at him, hacking him."
"He was under their skin," Cooper said.
You got the feeling Brown might end up as part of the Lightning's first fight of the season. That's right, Tampa Bay is one of just three teams (the others are the Hurricanes and Maple Leafs) that do not have a fighting major penalty this season.
There's a chance that could change tonight at Amalie Arena. No team fights more than Tampa Bay's opponent, the Ducks, who led the league with 11. Fighting has dropped dramatically in the league, which is on pace for around 300 fights this season, which would be 500 fewer than in the 2001-02 season (803), hockeyfights.com says.
There are plenty of reasons for the drop, most notably the sport's culture evolving to one based more on speed and skill. But the Lightning believes there's still a place in the game for well-timed bouts, which hold other teams accountable and provide a spark.
"I think our team's toughness is there," said center Brian Boyle, who has a team-high 19 career fights. "Guys are laying out, blocking shots. But that's an interesting thing, too, because early in the year, the compete (level) might not have been where it could have been and teams had leads on us. Maybe we should have (fought) then? Sometimes it does a lot of good."
The Lightning's roster isn't built with brawlers. It was 22nd among the 30 teams last season with 23 fights (four by departed veteran Brenden Morrow), and 20th in 2013-14 with 31.
"I don't think anyone is afraid to fight," Brown said. "If it happens, it happens. I just don't think we're looking for it. With the amount of talent in this room, it's more built for speed, more built for making plays, and that's what we've been doing so far."
That's not to say even the most skilled Lightning players won't fight. Captain Steven Stamkos' fight with Bruins pest Brad Marchand in a March 22 game last season was a galvanizing moment for the Lightning in its run to the Stanley Cup final.
Fans love fighting. When the Ducks' Kevin Bieksa had a tooth knocked out by the Predators' Mike Fisher on Tuesday, a video went viral. It was replayed on SportsCenter and posted on the website Deadspin. Bieksa noted the tooth was fake, having popped out many times.
"People talk about it," Bieksa said. "Too bad they didn't show the rest of the clip when I hit him. I think fighting is fun, personally."
Bieksa is a rare breed. Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, like Cooper, notes the training that starts in youth hockey. A whole generation of players won't become "bona fide" fighters because it's not part of the fabric. Lightning defenseman Luke Witkowski, who had 11 AHL fights in 2013-14 and eight last season, said he hasn't gotten in one this season, knowing "it won't get me to the NHL."
"Fighting is down, but I don't think it'll be extinct any time soon," Bieksa said. "In five years, if a team wins the Cup by bullying, everybody the next year will have tough guys again."
Though the NHL Department of Player Safety provides deterrents with suspensions and fines for illegal hits, players often believe the game still needs to be policed on the ice.
"I've taken my share of beatings from guys bigger than me for things I've done, and I think that's the way the game should be played," Panthers enforcer Shawn Thornton said. "It's a fast, emotional game, and I think things are going to happen, and sometimes when there's a fight, it diffuses the whole situation. I think there's still a place for fighting for that very reason.
"I know people are going to say I'm an idiot. I get it. But I've seen games get out of hand because somebody wouldn't get their gloves off."
Brown got in Thornton's face in Saturday's 5-4 shootout loss in Tampa, the two having to be separated by referees.
"There's been offers both ways (to fight this season)," Brown said. "Some of them I've declined, and some of them they've declined. I've been close a few times."
Contact Joe Smith at [email protected] Follow @TBTimes_JSmith.