Emotions run high during the Stanley Cup playoffs and, in turn, so does vitriol toward the NHL's Department of Player Safety every time a questionable hit occurs. The victimized team and its fan base demand supplemental discipline. The perpetrating team and its fan base proclaim the player's innocence. After the decision, one side ends up enraged.
The Detroit Red Wings and their tribe of keyboard warriors are furious with Niklas Kronwall's Game 7 suspension. Sorry, Detroit, but you shouldn't be. The Kronwall case wasn't even vague. He hammered Tampa Bay's Nikita Kucherov with violent force directly to the head. It's rule 48: illegal check to the head. Or, as the league stated specifically, it's rule 42: charging. The DOPS had an excellent chance to send a zero-tolerance message by sitting down Detroit's best blueliner for a series-deciding game. Consider the test passed with flying colors. The rationale behind the decision:
As player safety director Patrick Burke says in the video (alternate link here), Kronwall launches his forearm up into Kucherov's face. Kronwall, though eligible to deliver a legal hit on the puck-carrier's core, leaves his skates and launches into the head with violent force instead.
To the tweeters wondering how the hit was different from Kronwall's trademark exploits, delivered in the same spot on the ice, that's explained in the DOPS video, too. The famous hit on Jakub Voracek shows Kronwall's skates don't leave the ice until after, and as a result of, the body contact:
Secondly, in the Voracek example, Kronwall uses his own core to cleanly hit Voracek's core, whereas Kronwall launches the elbow and forearm into Kucherov's face:
So, bada bing, bada boom, suspendable offense for Kronwall. Injury and suspension history affect the length of the suspension only and not the decision to suspend. So Kronwall gets the one (pivotal) game but nothing more since Kucherov wasn't hurt and Kronwall has never been suspended before.
The league gets a gold star for this one. A common immediate reaction to yesterday's news, however: "What about Alex Ovechkin on Thomas Hickey?" It's an excellent question. Don't buy for a second the crackpot theory that the league favors stars – Ovechkin has been suspended three times, and Claude Giroux was banned from a 2012 elimination game, which his Flyers lost – but the Ovechkin hit on Hickey warrants another look. Did the DOPS miss something on this one?
First, another look at Ovechkin taking out Thomas Hickey in Game 7 against the New York Islanders Monday night:
The league didn't suspend Ovechkin for the play, which didn't draw a penalty, and didn't find the decision particularly difficult, according to Damian Echevarrieta, the NHL's vice-president of player safety. He explained the rationale to THN as follows:
"Like all hits, it was reviewed by our department. Although we thought it could've been a penalty called on the ice, we don't think it rose to a level of supplemental discipline. We don't think the degree of force was quite there for a suspension. Ovechkin's arms were already out and extended, and he just hits him with his stick extended. He doesn't necessarily drive him, recoil his arms and push him. And we think, at the end of the day, he's a bigger, stronger guy hitting a smaller guy. And it looked to us like Hickey was almost bailing on the hit, like stopping up, which led to an off-balance situation. The hit looked worse than it really was. And, after thorough review, we didn't think it rose to the level of discipline."
So that at least helps us understand the logic behind the decision. It's true Ovechkin doesn't explode his body into Hickey's and that Hickey makes himself more vulnerable by pulling up before the contact. But does that make it OK? His back is turned to Ovechkin, giving Ovechkin lots of time to see he's about to hit an opponent in a precarious position. And while Ovie doesn't appear to show malice on this play, is the league right about the degree of force? Ovechkin is heavy enough and powerful enough that, say, 65 percent force sure seems like enough to endanger Hickey.
Ovechkin has always been a rambunctious forechecker, and it's gotten him into trouble before. The Brian Campbell hit in 2010 comes to mind immediately:
As per the league's logic on Hickey, the Campbell clip works in Ovechkin's favor today. Note how Ovechkin's arms go from folded to extended while he shoves Campbell. Ovechkin generates full force here. The play was deemed suspendable, and Campbell's injury added to the ban, resulting in a two-game timeout for Ovie.
So, based purely on the criteria the league uses, it's at least understandable why Ovechkin escaped supplemental discipline. But that does not mean he should have. Player safety has to include policing reckless behavior, and Ovechkin's hit, while not over-the-top forceful, was reckless. That type of hit should never be acceptable. It probably doesn't fall under rule 43, checking from behind, as that entails the victim not knowing about the impending hit. Hickey's skates make snow as he anticipates the contact. The hit does, however, look like rule 41, boarding:
"A boarding penalty shall be imposed on any player who checks or pushes a defenseless opponent in such a manner that causes the opponent to hit or impact the boards violently or dangerously. The severity of the penalty, based upon the impact with the boards, shall be at the discretion of the referee."
It sure seems like Hickey impacts the boards violently from a defenseless position. The sticking point, though, is that the play requires judgment, from a referee on the ice or the league during review. The NHL didn't believe Ovechkin's force was excessive enough. When a decision is subjective like that, there's not much we can do unless the rulebook is amended to crack down harder on hits to a defenseless player.
So let's give the league 1.5 out of 2 for Monday night's controversial collisions. It aced the Kronwall situation, and it wasn't hard enough on Ovechkin despite using good logic to explain the lack of a suspension. Anyone with conspiracy theories about superstars getting preferential treatment, though: that's not what this is. Please check your head to make sure you haven't been Kronwalled.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin