TAMPA, Fla. — Tough, fast, and with pretty good hands, Zack Kassian is the perfect sidekick for Connor McDavid.
But the side kick he delivered to the chest of Tampa defenceman Erik Cernak on Thursday? That wasn’t so perfect, and will quite possibly cost him another suspension.
“He kicked me right in the chest, so luckily that wasn’t higher,” Cernak told reporters after the game, a 3-1 Tampa victory over the Oilers. “I knew right away when he was on the ice he kicked me. I think he was a little bit mad and I asked him what was wrong with him, because that’s not a right play to do on the ice, and he didn’t say nothing.”
Kassian, who drew accolades from many old school hockey observers when he rag-dolled a reluctant Matthew Tkachuk last month in Calgary, for which he earned a two-game suspension, will have few allies on this latest transgression. He defended himself post-game, saying that he pushed off Cernak, who was intentionally delaying him and Josh Archibald from getting off the ice when the Lightning defenceman ended up on top of the two Oilers after a pile-up.
“It felt like we were there a lifetime. We were down there for a while,” Kassian said. “He was holding my leg, it was reactionary. I was just trying to get him off me, kick him off me. I was just trying to get my foot loose.
“If I kicked him hard, I think he would have flew back or the ref would have called a penalty.”
The Department of Player Safety frowns on any type of kicking, due to the obvious severity of the injuries that can ensue. Couple that with the fact that Kassian is a repeat offender — not for kicking, but the Tkachuk incident will count as a prior — and a suspension is probable.
“I was trying to get off and pull my leg off,” explained Kassian. “He was holding me and Archie down, I didn’t even know where the puck was, I was trying to pull my leg up and get up.”
Cernak showed little emotion and did not appear to be physically moved by the kick, that’s how light it was. While it trended on Twitter during the game, on the ice the play was innocuous.
“There was nothing talked about on the bench by either team,” said Oilers head coach Dave Tippett, who is already without injured forwards McDavid, James Neal and Joakim Nygard.
As such, the Oilers depth was tested in Tampa Thursday against a Lightning team that was without several of its top players: Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Anthony Cirelli and Ryan McDonagh all missed the game with upper body injuries.
This was a close-to-the-vest, low-scoring chess match, tied 1-1 when the NHL’s leading scorer Leon Draisaitl tried to carry a puck through two Lightning players while entering the offensive zone on an Oilers power play.
Draisaitl came out the other end, but the puck did not, stolen by Yanni Gourde, who skated 110 feet for a breakaway goal that made the score 2-1. An empty-netter sealed the deal on Tampa’s ninth straight win, in a building that the Oilers haven’t won in since Dec. 9, 2009.
In a game this tight, that one mistake was the difference.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Tippett acknowledged. “We had lots of compete in our game. Smitty [Mike Smith] was really strong. But mistakes ended up being the dictator in the game.”
The Oilers power play is the best in the NHL. It also has given up 10 shorthanded goals — second only to Detroit’s 11. They almost lead the league.
“Almost, but not quite yet. We’re working on it,” joked Tippett. “It’s always an issue — any goals, I don’t like giving up. Crucial ones at a bad time, those are hard to come back against.”
Is it an issue, Alex Chiasson?
“We’re the No. 1 power play in the NHL. I think we’re OK,” he said. “This was nine in a row for them. They know how to play in these games.”
Edmonton chartered to Sunrise after the game, with back-to-back games at Florida and Carolina to close out this road trip on Saturday and Sunday.