It was a grinding, scrappy Game 5 between the Philadelphia Flyers and Montreal Canadiens Wednesday night. It featured a collection of questionable collisions, including a hit from behind on Flyers defenseman Travis Sanheim that earned Habs center Jesperi Kotkaniemi a game misconduct. But the worst offense of the night came courtesy of Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen. He caught Canadiens right winger Brendan Gallagher with a crosscheck to the face.
The blow broke Gallagher’s jaw. He requires surgery and will miss the rest of the series. Even if he’s tougher than tough and wants to return immediately, he can’t, because he has to leave the Toronto bubble for the procedure and must quarantine for four days upon returning.
It was clear Niskanen would face supplemental discipline for the play. The officials didn’t call it in the moment, but just because something isn’t whistled during a game doesn’t mean the Department of Player Safety believes it’s clean. It was announced Thursday night Niskanen received a one-game ban for the infraction. He’ll miss Game 6.
One game? For a play that knocked Gallagher out of the series?
Before we complain, let’s iron out some rules, per the CBA: (a) an injury to the victim can never determine whether the league suspends the offender, but (b) once the DOPS decides supplemental discipline is warranted, the injury can lengthen the penalty.
Since the league opted for a suspension, Gallagher's broken jaw was fair game for influencing Niskanen's suspension length. Yet in this case, the injury didn’t lengthen the suspension at all. At best, it elevated the play from a fine to a one-game ban. That’s…shocking.
The NHL’s rationale for suspending Niskanen, according to the DOPS’ explanatory video:
“He takes his stick, pulls it back and delivers a sharp, forceful blow that that lands on Gallagher’s face, causing an injury. This is cross-checking. It is important to note that, while we accept Niskanen’s argument that he was not attempting to strike Gallagher in the head, Niskanen is intentionally attempting to deliver a cross-check to the upper body of Gallagher to knock him to the ice.
The video also outlines the counter-argument that a player can use his stick to defend his zone and separate an opponent from the puck. But is that what was really happening in this case?
Gallagher does not see Niskanen coming, and Niskanen has time to wind up and deliver a forceful, downward blow. It’s a predatory play that also has a retaliatory element to it, as Gallagher took Niskanen down seconds before it.
So why not at least give Niskanen the rest of the series for his crime? It’s always been known that playoff suspensions are weighted differently, yes. A single game is worth several regular-season games. But that doesn’t take into account the weighting of the injury. Gallagher is missing the equivalent of far more than a game or two as well. Given the Habs are trailing in the series and he’s their best shot generator, his absence probably hurts his team more than Niskanen’s.
It’s thus disappointing to see Niskanen receive such a light ban. Once the DOPS decided the play was suspendable, Gallagher’s injury was admissible for affecting Niskanen’s sentence. Or…it should have been.