PITTSBURGH– The NHL decided Monday that Washington’s Matt Niskanen would not have a meeting with the folks who mete out punishment to rules-breakers.
This was a matter the league declared closed in the morning hours before the Pittsburgh Penguins announced that Sidney Crosby, the fellow Niskanen broke the rules on, suffered a concussion and will not play in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinal Wednesday.
No surprise, I suppose. No explanation either, because the league doesn’t go into detail about cases it chooses to drop. We are at the risk of becoming inured to two things: dangerous play on the ice and the NHL’s reluctance to drop the hammer on dangerous play and dangerous players. Still, even if you take a fairly relaxed approach and are generous about applying reasonable doubt, this was an egregious assault.
Early in Game 3 the Capitals defenceman delivered a shot in the most precious head in Pittsburgh, the one belonging to Crosby. That same head is one of the most discussed in hockey, given Crosby’s concussion history. Crosby, who was named one of the NHL’s 100 greatest players of all time, might be in the conversation for, oh, the top five in league history if it weren’t for time and opportunities lost due to brain trauma.
Watch the replay. Watch it if only once because further reviewing might leave you queasy.
Crosby took a pass on a 2-on-1 from rookie linemate Jake Guentzel and was crashing the Washington net. It looked like a sure goal but that was before the arrival of Alexander Ovechkin, skating ferociously to gain ground and an angle on the backcheck. Ovechkin made a stab at the puck and Crosby’s skate and maybe his leg. Crosby’s left leg contorted under him, what looked like a sure hyper-extension. He went spilling across the crease and came to rest on the shaft of Niskanen’s waiting stick.
Crosby dropped as if shot.
The refs, employees of the league, gave Niskanen five minutes for cross-checking and tossed him. The folks in the discipline office, executives of the league, said, effectively, that Niskanen did his time.
Capitals’ coach Barry Trotz called it “a hockey play.” In a conventional court this might stand up: It was a play and it happened in a hockey game, therefore it is “a hockey play.” I’m sure a paralegal could get that one through. In the parlance of the game however, “a hockey play” implies that anything and everything that went down, even hard stuff, wasn’t calculated or malicious.
Niskanen tried to get out in front of the Department of Player Safety considering his case.
“Super slo-mo looks really bad. I caught him high. I think he’s coming across, trying to score. As he’s doing that, he’s getting lower and lower. And when it’s happening that fast, my stick and his head [collided],” Niskanen said. “I hope he’s OK. I certainly didn’t mean to injure him. It’s an unfortunate play that happened really quick.”
We’re still awaiting confirmation of Niskanen sending flowers. This wasn’t “a hockey play.” It was a head shot. It was a five-minute major penalty. It’s at once disingenuous for Trotz to call it that and sort of insulting that he’d even throw it out there.
How would the hearing have gone? Depends, I suppose, on whether it was going to be questioned, investigated or prosecuted. And it wasn’t a matter of “looking really bad.” It was. Plain to the eye in real time. Slo-mo doesn’t exaggerate things. Slo-mo reveals what might have been missed.
It’s a non-starter that it could have been any player. Niskanen knew that he was going to be out on the ice if Crosby was out there, as much as Trotz could get his preferred matchup. He knew he had been trusted with an important job, given how Crosby, Guentzel and Patric Hornqvist had torn up the Capitals in Washington.
“Your Honour, it could have been any other player.” Except that it was the centrepiece of what was to that point this spring the best line in hockey.
It’s a non-starter that it was just an innocent collision. Niskanen had his stick way up, dangerously so, and he followed through.
It’s one thing to match up, another one to finish a check and yet another to stalk. There will be some who offer up the what-goes-around line and point to Crosby’s slash on the glove of Marc Methot a few weeks back. The Ottawa defenceman wound up losing part of a finger on the play. No insult to Marc Methot—he’s a useful player on a good team, but he’s not on anybody’s hit list. There was no history with Crosby or the Penguins. And that bit of stickwork was in line with something that happens dozens of times every game, the very definition of a hockey play. Crosby being helped off the ice isn’t a case of a rules-breaker getting his come-uppance.
Some will say that there was no discipline dealt out when, years back, David Steckl knocked Crosby spinning when Pittsburgh hosted the Capitals in a New Year’s outdoor tragiclassic, the one that really set Crosby down the awful neurological road. It doesn’t have anything in common with the events in Game 3 Monday night.
During the regular season there’s no clear line on discipline on hits like Niskanen’s on Crosby. In the playoffs there’s seemingly no line at all. What had been a series of high skill through the first two games, devolved into something uglier in Game 3.
It was a bit rich that Trotz went for the false equivalency syllogism—he said (and I paraphrase here) how can you beef about Niskanen when Chris Kunitz blows up T.J. Oshie?
Niskanen assaulted Crosby and in the wake of it, he and Trotz assaulted our intelligence.