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Monday, April 16, 2012

Violence of the 1970s Returns to NHL Playoffs

sidney crosby claude giroux fight
The NHL playoffs have turned into a prison riot. As the referees started the post-season with their whistles in their pockets, the players took the opportunity to gain the upper hand by any means necessary. Now the inmates are running the prison and the guards are helpless to do anything about it.

There has already been 11 fights through the first few games of the playoffs. There were only 12 all of last year.

The league is desperately trying to regain some semblance of control over the playoffs by levying a 3-game suspension to Carl Hagelin for his elbow to the head of Daniel Alfredsson, and handing Matt Carkner a 1-game ban for his attack on Brian Boyle. But it may be too late.

The Rangers released a statement accepting the suspension, but questioning the severity: "We are thoroughly perplexed in the ruling's inconsistency with other supplementary discipline decisions that have been made throughout this season and during the playoffs."

The Rangers are referring to the lack of suspension handed down to Shea Weber, who smashed Henrik Zetterberg's head into the glass WWE-style at the end of game 1 of the Detroit-Nashville series. If that wasn't a clear and deliberate targeting of the head when an opponent was in a vulnerable position, I'm not sure what is. But Weber is a star and Zetterberg wasn't hurt, so the league chose not to mettle, instead giving Weber a $2,500 fine. The league decided not to shift the balance in the series.

So despite all the posturing during the regular season that more needed to be done to increase player safety, the response in the playoffs was barely a shrug, as if to say, "that's playoff hockey".

That shrug is the spark that has led to the sudden increase in violence. At that moment, teams around the league realized everything was fair game.

That's why the next night Matt Carkner sought vengeance against Brian Boyle for his crimes against Erik Karlsson. It didn't matter that Boyle had no interest in engaging the thug. Carkner was out for blood, and he got it. It didn't matter that Boyle gave Karlsson a few shots with his glove on, either. Carkner's response was not to meet Boyle's action, but to exceed it.

Carkner was thrown out of the game, which wasn't an issue for the Senators as he accomplished the job he could ably do, while being spared doing the one he could not. He even took Brandon Dubinsky with him, as the Ranger was ejected for being the third man into a fight that was little more than an assault.

Later as Carl Hagelin drove his elbow into Daniel Alfredsson's skull, the league had its second suspendable act of the game, the third major one of the playoffs, but one which wouldn't couldn't be used as a deterrent for the action later in the night.

The Blues and Sharks, with Weber walking free still seared into their minds, followed up with more of the same mayhem. Brent Burns threw an elbow directly at Scott Nichol's head and T.J. Galiardi ran Andy McDonald right through the boards. The two teams accumulated 132 penalty minutes, primarily on the strength of four fights, and the tone was set for the rest of the series.

Meanwhile in Phoenix, Andrew Shaw, who tormented the Coyotes in game 1 and injured Radim Vrbata, made his presence felt in game 2, skating behind the net and driving into Mike Smith's head as the goaltender attempted to play the puck. Although there is no guarantee Shaw will face supplementary discipline from the league, it is guaranteed that he will have to fight in the next game he plays. 

That wasn't even the worst of it. As Brendan Shanahan contemplated how to deal with the madness of Saturday night, the gong show travelled to Philadelphia, which might not be the birthplace of on-ice violence, but is at least where it's at home. And at home it was on Sunday.

As the goals quickly evaded Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Flyers' grasp on the series became tighter, the Penguins became unglued. Sidney Crosby fought Claude Grioux; Kris Letang fought Kimmo  Timonen; and before the first period ended Brayden Schenn took a charging penalty on Paul Martin, and turned around to take a vicious cross-check to the face from Aaron Asham, who added a punch in the head while Schenn was down for good measure.

Cooler heads temporarily prevailed in the second, but the boiling anger exploded in the third as the Flyers put the game, and perhaps the series, out of reach. James Neal went after both Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, in what the Flyers described as "head-hunting", and Crosby mixed it up with Scott Hartnell near the bench, only to have Craig Adams step in and fight his battle. The Wells Fargo Centre was a madhouse and the game descended into the basest form of hockey.

In total, the teams ended with 158 minutes in penalties and undoubtedly await further discipline from the league.

After Sunday, the blood will dry and the anger will simmer, but many blame the league for not sending a strong enough message after the Shea Weber incident. The Shea Weber fine may be the spark that has ignited this cacophony of violence, but after last year's Stanley Cup Final, this outcome was inevitable.

Teams around the league watched last year as the Bruins bullied the Canucks over the entire series, eventually erasing a 2-0 deficit and lifting the Stanley Cup, all because they asserted their physical dominance. The enduring image of the series will forever be Brad Marchand punching a Sedin with nobody doing anything to stop it—not a teammate and certainly not a referee.

Referees have always been loath to determine the outcome in the playoffs, and last year they refused to bury the Bruins who defiantly continued to step over the line. Eventually, the Bruins correctly realized there was no line, and over the edge they lived, the Canucks unwilling and unable to meet them there.

Regardless of the prize on the line the Canucks failed to stand up to the Bruins, they provided no push back, and they ultimately paid for it. Teams took notice and now every single infraction, every hit and every scrum, has been met with increased fury. No one is backing down and the playoffs are spiraling further and further out of control, back to the lawlessness of the 1970s.

The Red Wings were given the first opportunity to make a stand, and Todd Bertuzzi, no stranger to on-ice retribution, fought Weber to show that Detroit would not be pushed around. The Red Wings have always allowed their power play to fight their battles, but after the Canucks showed that method failed last spring, even the usually passive Wings matched violence with violence.

Similarly, the Senators made their own stand and there was nothing to stop them from doing what they did. The benefits far outweighed the cost. The Senators may have lost Carkner, but they won the game, and almost as importantly, they sent a strong message to the Rangers that will reverberate throughout the rest of the series.

The playoffs are always an entirely different beast from the regular season. The intensity is increased and the teams hate each other almost immediately. But this year it seems like the playoffs are morphing into something fans haven't seen in decades. The league is desperately trying to regain control, but it might be too late. The animals have been let out of their cages and the NHL may soon learn there's no getting them back.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

And to think, neither Matt Cooke nor the Boston Bruins have got involved in any of this madness. That's the truly crazy thing.

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