Wednesday April 1st, 2015

Off The Draw

The Jets wouldn’t be in a playoff race if not for the two-position heroics of Dustin Byfuglien.

If they fall short, their failure may be on him as well.

Players and teams that fooled us, Kings comeback, playoff anticipation

The star defenseman was handed a four-game suspension by the at the worst possible time after he inexplicably cross-checked Rangers forward J.T. Miller in the head on Tuesday night.

A phone hearing with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety was scheduled for 10:30 a.m. ET on Thursday, which meant that Byfuglien could have gotten a maximum of five games—exactly as many games as there are left on Winnipeg’s schedule.

What’s so frustrating about this potentially season-altering incident is the sheer stupidity of it.

Miller was doing his job, looking for loose change in the Jets’ crease. He took a couple of harmless whacks at the pads of goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, then fell on his own. As the puck squirted away, he was essentially out of the play.

It was then that Byfuglien skated up from behind and drilled Miller in the back of the neck with a vicious two-hander that drove his head toward the ice.

It was as ugly, and blatant, as it gets. “It was violent, deliberate, could have broken his neck,” said New York coach Alain Vigneault. “I don't know what’s going to happen, but it was one of the most vicious cross-checks I’ve seen this year.”

Amazingly, no penalty was called on the play. Officials tend to leave a little wiggle room for retaliation after a player takes liberties with an opposing goalie, but as a response to Miller’s benign contact with Pavelec Byfuglien’s actions went way over the line.

And this incident didn’t occur in a vacuum. The league is fighting multiple concussion-related lawsuits, so you’d expect a heightened awareness in instances of flagrant head contact. Still, no call.

But even if the on-ice crew had reacted appropriately, this is a case that cries out for an appropriate response from the Department of Player Safety. Given the circumstances, Byfuglien deserved to sit for multiple games, arguably the rest of the regular season.

That wouldn't be an automatic death sentence for the Jets. They actually went 6-3 while he was sidelined last month but they’re a better team with him than without. And with a chance to earn the team’s first playoff bid since moving to Manitoba, they need him more now than ever.

You’d hate to see Winnipeg’s playoff fate turn on a suspension, but if it does it’s all on Byfuglien. His was as selfish and pointless as any act this season.

• Shortly after the Windsor Spitfires drafted tabbed 5' 7”, 145-pound forward Austin Czarnik with their sixth-round pick in the 2009 OHL draft, GM Warren Rychel downplayed concerns about his size. “He’s small and skilled, but he doesn’t play small and skilled. He’s fearless. He won’t back down from anyone. He’s got an edge to his game that makes you forget how small he is in a hurry.”

NHL teams eyeing cream of college hockey's 2015 free agent class

That exchange came to mind when Czarnik, who spurned the Spitfires for Miami-Ohio University, signed as a free agent with the Bruins on Tuesday. Although he’s grown some (he’s now listed, perhaps generously, at 5' 9”, 167), he’s still painfully small by NHL standards, a fact that certainly scared away some suitors who otherwise might have pursued a player who scored 169 points in 159 college games and was a Hobey Baker finalist in 2014.

And it might have scared off the Bruins themselves not too long ago. But Boston is a team that needs an infusion of skill and Czarnik brings plenty of that. He’s a crafty right-shooting playmaker with excellent vision who has a knack for bringing out the best in his wingers. And he still has that competitive snarl in his game that makes him effective in areas where smaller players typically are not. “He’s not just willing to battle along the boards,” Rychel said long ago. “He goes in there and comes out with the puck.”

Czarnik is an interesting add for a team that desperately needs to update its philosophy. Given the recent success the Bruins have had with creative, fast and smallish forwards Ryan Spooner and David Pastrnak—both of whom played key roles in Tuesday night’s 3–2 win over the Panthers—it is possible we could see Czarnik in a top nine role as soon as next season.

The numbers game

NHL Playoff Race: Projected matchups if season ended today

• Alex Ovechkin has reached the 50-goal milestone for the second straight season and the sixth time in his career. He’s also joined the exalted company of Mike Bossy(9), Wayne Gretzky (9), Marcel Dionne (6), Guy Lafleur (6) and Mario Lemieux(6) as the only players in NHL history who have has many as six 50-goal campaigns.

• Ottawa’s Andrew (Hamburglar) Hammond is now the first goalie since Brent Johnson of the Blues (Feb. 26, 1999 to Jan. 13, 2001) to bag at least one point in each of his first nine career starts on the road, and the first do it in one season since Grant Fuhr of the Oilers (Oct. 28 to Dec. 9, 1981).

• Linden Vey and Bo Horvat have given the Canucks their first rookies to reach the 10-goal mark in the same season since Robert Kron (12), Jay Mazur (11), Petr Nedved (10) and Garry Valk (10) did it in 1990-91.

Hot links

NHL Power Rankings: Rangers cling to No. 1 as Wild make run at top

• Forget about tanking for the draft. Here’s a totally plausible scenario that could see two teams tanking to eliminate the Kings from the playoffs.

• Joe Pelletier reminds us of an NHL first that just happens to coincide with April Fool’s Day.

• Developing your child’s hockey skills doesn't have to break the bank.

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