Wednesday March 30th, 2016

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It’s gut-check time for the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

One of the league's top stars, Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith, is in the DPS's cross-hairs after brutally slashing Minnesota's Charlie Coyle in the face on Tuesday night. And they have to come down on him. Hard.

Keith, who earned a match penalty for the infraction, tried to sell the notion that he was falling down and lost control of his stick before it struck Coyle. That can happen, but there's really no room for benefit of the doubt here. He was down on the ice, he looked up at Coyle and then he took a swing that bloodied Coyle's face. Simple as that.

This was as reckless a foul as you'll see, an action demonstrating complete disregard for the safety of another player.

But maybe we shouldn't be surprised. Keith, after all, is a repeat offender. In 2012, he was given a five-game suspension after concussing Vancouver forward Daniel Sedin with a vicious elbow to the head. A year later, in the Western Conference Final, he was suspended one game for jabbing his stick in the face of Kings forward Jeff Carter.

Neither of those "count" toward repeat offender status under the CBA, but that history still comes into play. So let's do the math. Two violations involving a stick infraction. Three involving a head injury. What's that all add up to?

The Blackhawks have five games remaining in the regular season. Any legitimate response will ensure that Keith misses all of them. But that can't be the end of it. Suspending him for those games alone would be the equivalent of a pre-playoff vacation, exactly what a player who'll skate up to 40 minutes a night in Chicago's Cup defense needs.

NHL Power Rankings: Surging Blues challenge Capitals

No, this has to cost him some playoff time as well. Two games, three games, whatever. DoPS simply has to make a statement that no one, not even a superstar on the verge of the playoffs, is above the law.

Keith's a terrific player, one who'll be sorely missed by a Chicago defense that's already stretched thin. But there's not a lot of wiggle room here for the DoPS, which has offered him a face to face hearing.

• One more from Chicago: The Blackhawks have reinstated prospect Garret Ross after a charge of non-consensual dissemination of sexual images against him was dropped on Tuesday.

"On March 23, 2016, the Chicago Blackhawks suspended Garret Ross after learning of a legal proceeding against him, and stated at that time that the suspension was indefinite pending the outcome of the legal process," a statement from the team read. "We learned today, March 29, that the legal process concluded in Illinois with the dismissal of all charges against Garret. As a result, Garret Ross is reinstated with the [AHL Rockford] IceHogs, effective immediately. We will have no further comment on the matter."

Allowing Ross to rejoin the IceHogs is their prerogative, of course. But it comes off as another tone-deaf decision by an organization that's made too many of those this season.

The thing is, the charge wasn't dropped because of a lack of evidence. Ross is off the hook because the investigation revealed he'd been in Michigan when he allegedly shared personal photos of a teammate's ex-girlfriend. That means he couldn't be charged under Illinois' "revenge porn" law. And since Michigan doesn't have a similar statute, he's free to move on.

Which is all fine, as far as the law goes. But it doesn't mean he didn't do what he's been accused of. And since that's an incredibly damaging act, one that can have a lifelong impact on a victim, it seems like this is being dismissed far too easily.

Who knows. Maybe the Hawks conducted their own investigation and found the charge to be baseless, in which case good for them. But since there's no mention of anything like that in their statement, we're left to assume that they're content that the player has been dealt with appropriately and simply want this story to disappear quietly. Which is a pretty sorry resolution to a situation that likely won't be the last of its kind in this sport.

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• Matt Hendricks isn't the sort of guy who attracts a lot of attention. The veteran forward, currently plying his trade in Edmonton, is a fourth-line grinder who makes his way in this league with heart and will rather than talent. He averages just over 13 minutes per game, 12th among the team's forwards, and has just 12 points on the season.

But that doesn't mean he's not highly regarded, as evidenced by his nomination for the 2015-16 Masterton Trophy by the Edmonton chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association.

“Matt Hendricks personifies the Masterton Trophy, spending seven NHL seasons blocking shots, killing penalties, and playing hurt for four different organizations," it says in his nomination bio. "In Edmonton he is an undisputed leader by example on a young team in search of veterans to follow.”

He's unlikely to win the award, which recognizes "perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.” Jaromir Jagr seems like the obvious choice, while strong cases can be made for Joe Thornton, Pascal Dupuis and Brian Elliott as well. But it says something about who Hendricks is and the impact that he's made in a limited role that he earned the nod.

So does the fact that he's a repeat nominee. Hendricks also was honored last season in Edmonton. Before that, he was the nominee for the Colorado Avalanche (2009-10) and the Washington Capitals (2010-11).

Hendricks also was chosen as the captain of Team USA at the 2015 World Championships. It seemed like an unlikely honor at the time, but on a team that skewed heavily young, his experience and presence was a difference maker for the eventual bronze medalists.

"He's a glue guy," former Nashville teammate Shea Weber said. "He's someone that can help a team win."

Hendricks may not be there when the Oilers finally start winning. The 34-year-old has just one season remaining on a four-year deal that pays him an average of $1.8 million per. But as this nomination proves, he's helping to lay the foundation for the success that's just down the road for Edmonton.

The numbers game

With new heavier game, Stars are dangerous

• At 50-25-7, the Dallas Stars are enjoying their first 100-point season since 2006-07.​ They also have three 30-goal scorers (Jason Spezza, Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn) in the same season since 1992-93 when Russ Courtnall (36), Ulf Dahlen (35), Dave Gagner (33) and Mike Modano (33) all did it.

• The Wild are now the first team to sweep a season series of at least five games against the Blackhawks since 1938-39, when the Bruins went 8-0-0 against them. They also joined that Boston squad as one of only three clubs to sweep a seasons series of at least five games against a defending Stanley Cup champion. The other was the Devils, who went 6-0-0 against the Penguins in 2009-10.​

• Tom Kuhnhackl and Nick Bonino are now the fastest pair of Penguins to pot shorthanded goals (24 seconds) since Dec. 13, 1990 when Phil Bourque and Randy Gilhen bagged a pair of shorties 12 seconds apart against the Devils.

Hot links

• Steven Stamkos ain't broke ... so why is coach Jon Cooper trying to fix him? And what are the latest odds that Stamkos bolts from Tampa Bay as a free agent?

• Elliotte Friedman speaks with the coach other coaches hate in this week's 30 Thoughts column.

What analytics can tell us about the role of fighting in hockey

• The wore jerseys inspired by baseball's St. Louis Cardinals last night. Nice way to return the favor after what the Cards did for them.

• Even as he battles concussion issues, Vancouver tough guy Derek Dorsett believes there's a place for fighting in the NHL.

• The prime minister of Canada weighs in on hockey's concussion issue.

• The Flyers will have a new but familiar face between the pipes for practice on Wednesday.

• A two-day tribute to legendary coach Al Arbour next week could feature the largest gathering of Islanders alumni ever.

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