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Giroux's hit on Zubrus gives Shanahan second chance to get ruling right

Though Dainius Zubrus of the Devils ultimately wasn't injured, the headshot he received from Claude Giroux (not pictured) was egregious enough to merit a disciplinary hearing. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Will the NHL show courage and suspend Claude Giroux for Game 5 of the Flyers' series against the Devils? A disciplinary hearing took place on Monday morning and Giroux certainly deserves a ban for targeting the head of the Devils' Dainius Zubrus late in the second period of Sunday's Game 4, which New Jersey won, 4-2, to push Philadelphia to the brink of elimination. But to remove Philly's best player from the lineup in a potential elimination game would be a bold a move for Brendan Shanahan and the league's Department of Player Safety. It would, however, show that they've learned from an earlier mistake.

UPDATED: The NHL has suspended Giroux for one game. Here is the league's statement and Shanahan's video explanation.

First, here's the incident in question:

Giroux got a two-minute minor for an illegal check to the head, a violation of good ol' Rule 48. Flyers partisans can try to justify and rationalize this hit all they want, but there's no denying that is was the action of a frustrated player who didn't like the way the game was going for his team and was upset that the referees had failed to call a penalty on Marty Brodeur for handling the puck outside of the trapezoid (not seen on this video). That's what Giroux is complaining about to the ref in the video just before he goes after Zubrus.

The irony is that the kind of frustration that Giroux displays here mirrors Sidney Crosby's and the Penguins' during their first round series against the Flyers. They took foolish penalties when things weren't going the way they had envisioned. It became pretty clear as Sunday's Game 4 proceeded that the Flyers are now displaying the same lack of discipline. It's a big postseason truism:  If you want to succeed, you've got to play through adversity when things go against you, not succumb to it.

Let's look at the hit more closely. It's late, no doubt about it. Zubrus had long since gotten rid of the puck. And it's a hit to the head. The right play here would be for Giroux to go shoulder to shoulder with Zubrus, rub him into the boards and separate him from the puck. That's not what he does, however. He gets slightly ahead of Zubrus and thrusts his shoulder into Zubrus' head. In the parlance of hockey discipline, he "picked" the head.

The way the league judges this sort of hit has to do with whether the check is a full bodycheck, one administered to the core of the puckcarrier's body. It's the checker's responsiblity to avoid making the head the principal point of contact, and if he gets the body as well as the head, the league will cut him some slack. That's how the Senators' Chris Neil got away with his check on Brian Boyle in the first round -- and we aren't particularly in favor of that standard when the head is targeted regardless, as we've stated here before, but that's the way it is at the moment. Regardless, that's not what happened in Giroux's hit on Zubrus.

Those who believe that Giroux should be excused because Zubrus was bent over and his head was lowered are going to be surprised if Shanahan does not agree. As we've seen before when there's a check to the head, the guideline is whether the player who is hit changes the position of his head just prior to or simultaneous with the delivery of the hit. That's been the standard for headchecks from the outset. If you look at Zubrus' head, it's in the same lowered position the entire time, meaning Giroux saw where it was the entire time and didn't avoid it. If the head doesn't move, the onus is on the checker to not make it the principle point of contact. Giroux did.

Both aspects of the hit -- picking the head and it being lowered -- were essential aspects of the ruling that Shanahan made during the regular season on Montreal's Max Pacioretty who targeted Pittsburgh's Kris Letang. Here's his explanation of that when he gave Pacioretty: a three-game vacation in November.

Three outstanding factors remain in the Giroux incident. The first is that Zubrus wasn't seriously injured on the play. Lots of people (including us) don't like injury, especially the lack thereof, weighing as heavily as it does on NHL discipline, but it remains an important ingredient. And yet, we saw in Shanahan's decision to suspend the Coyotes' Rusty Klesla for Monday's Game 5 against the Predators after his Game 4 hit on Nashville's Matt Halischuk (video) that the lack of injury is not always a factor in letting a perpetrator walk free. If the infraction is considered bad enough, the culprit is going to sit anyway.

The same thing applies to the second factor: the player's history as an offender. Listening to Shanahan's ruling, it's clear that Klesla's suspension for a different infraction five years ago was considered a minor, even unimportant piece in the decision against him. Giroux has no history of suspensions or fines, and while that might work in his favor, if the headshot on Zubrus is considered bad enough, his clean record may only reduce but not erase a possible suspension.

Finally, there is the political factor, one that has nothing to do with the infraction itself. Does Shanny have the will to remove the Flyers' best player for a game in which they are fighting for their playoff lives? It's a tough call, made even tougher by the fact that Flyers owner Ed Snider is one of the most influential in the NHL. You'd hope that wouldn't be part of Shanahan's thinking, but one can only guess at how much of a role it will play.

As the playoffs have proceeded, the outrageous, excessive behavior of the first week has declined while the games have been no less physical, intense and competitive. The fact that Shanahan declined to suspend Nashville's best player, Shea Weber, on the first night of the tournament after he rammed Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg into the glass fueled the turmoil that followed. Shanny's got a second chance now and maybe he'll get this one right.

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