NHL must stem the rising tide of crease-crashers; NHLPA intrigue

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At first glance it sounds like something out of a Vince Vaughn movie: "Crease Crashers -- the sequel to Wedding Crashers and every bit as outrageous!" Except we're talking hockey here and running goaltenders in the crease isn't funny and it can be dangerous.

Like most things in the NHL, the how and why isn't really at issue. Goalies, well-padded but arguably as defenseless as a punter in the path of a half-dozen onrushing linesmen, are being overrun across the NHL. It appears to be a tactic and the league is at least giving lip service to doing something about it.

Though it hasn't officially been added to the agenda for next month's general manager's meetings, enough GMs are lobbying to get it there. That alone doesn't provide for any real hope to putting a stop to the nasty tactic. One need only look at the way the GMs skirted the issue of blows to the head and the NHL Players Association again buried the idea of adjusting the size of goaltenders' equipment to suspect that there will be much noise and very little action. Still, crease-crashing is an issue that impacts a very important segment of the playing fraternity and, perhaps more importantly, attracts the attention of ownership.

After all, forwards are a couple million dollars a dozen and tend not to get hurt running a stationary object like a goaltender who sometimes doesn't even see one coming. Defensemen aren't likely to get hurt there either, given that they seldom venture that deep into the offensive zone, and when they do, it's not with the speed of an attacking forward. It's more with an idea to get the puck deep, maybe even take a chance with a close-in shot on net, but get out quickly enough to return to a defensive position. It's even hard to make a numbers case regarding goalies getting hurt, given all the protection they wear, but this season's crease-crashers seem set on coming in not just fast but with elbows high and directed at or near the goalie's head. That does cause some concern.

Goalies are a rare breed. There are only 30 No. 1 netminders in the sport and even the ones who aren't considered top 10 material are important to a team's overall success. Reliable ones are hard to find and it's darn near impossible to win without a good-to-great one, so keeping your goaltender healthy is a concern to owners as well as their general managing employees.

And they are targets.

Buffalo Sabres coach Lindy Ruff last season argued long and hard that the New York Rangers ran his netminder, Ryan Miller, at the edge of the crease, putting Miller out of commission for several weeks in February and March. Ruff and Sabres management argued that Miller's ankle injury went a long way toward assuring that the Rangers made the playoffs that season while the Sabres, in the end, missed by two points.

Go to any video website and look for goalies being crushed and the archives are full. Miller already this season has been battered about as if opposing teams are testing his injury from a season ago. The New York Islanders went after him hard early this season, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the coaching staff.

Ironically, or perhaps not so, Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been a oft-centered target this early season, apparently because coaches believe that getting him off his game or out of the game will go a long way toward collecting two points.

Just this week, Ruff told reporters in Buffalo that he saw a hit on Lundqvist that appeared to be part of a tactic. "I think some of that is strategy now," he told John Vogel of the Buffalo News. "I think that's going to be the trend to disrupt teams that aren't giving up a lot, or a hot goaltender. I more than expect it. It's not anything new. I think when teams get frustrated with not scoring goals, then you get more and more powerful people going through the paint."

Even when players aren't mounting an all-out attack, there are issues. Taking up a position in front of the goal is legal, and game officials tend to overlook instances when opposing forwards are battling defensemen and they all go down in a heap. But take a closer look at some of those plays, especially in the playoffs last spring, and you'll see players who seem to intentionally fall into the goalcrease or the goaltender so as to obstruct his ability to play the puck or position himself for a shot.

There were also numerous cases of an onrushing forward pushing a defenseman back and into or over his goaltender, creating the kind of chaos that can easily lead to a goal while giving the forward the cover of claiming he was trying to pursue the puck. Like so many judgment issues in the NHL, there is no clear consensus as to what to do about the problem.

Just a decade ago, the league took a strong stance and decreed that an opposing player couldn't be anywhere near the inside of a goalcrease and couldn't even violate the airspace above it. That gave goalies a world of room, but it also added to a woeful lack of scoring in the game as the era of goalies with season-long goals-against averages of under 2.00 suddenly became the norm. The NHL modified that standard during the postseason in 1999, but that move didn't do it any favors as it led to the now-legendary foot-in-the-crease debate regarding Brett Hull's Stanley Cup- winning goal vs., ironically enough, Dominik Hasek and the Sabres. It was a black eye for the league that hasn't healed a full decade later.

It's a tricky issue for referees as well. Though there is video replay, allegedly on every goal, the refs are also charged with determining whether the puck crossed the goal line. For the refs to be reversed, there has to be overwhelming video evidence. That puts a burden on them to get the call right, and in looking intently at the puck and the line, they can easily miss some of the antics that are being employed.

So what can we expect from the GMs meeting on the issue?

It's not a bet against history to say they will do nothing, but there is a group arguing that the refs should at the very least be instructed to have the down-low official look for the puck while the second ref, usually either up along the blueline or along the boards keeps an eye out for goaltender interference and/or a deliberate attempt to injure.

It's not a fail-safe situation, but it would be a decent start.

A select group in the NHLPA, largely pushed by Chris Chelios -- the longtime NHLer currently playing in the AHL -- has managed to get certain members of a clearly apathetic union to endorse a four-man committee to investigate the firing of Executive Director Paul Kelly. That's a huge step forward in the ongoing debacle that is the PA's administration these days, but the question is whether four is enough. Minority players already wield a lot of clout in a PA that seems to want to do the right thing but doesn't quite know how.

Chelios cares and he's good at pushing for progress, but with the season underway and him not having a role with an NHL team, it could be a problem for the committee to get enough players to listen to the problems at hand and act accordingly. Chelios' time as player rep of the Detroit Red Wings technically ends when this month does, and securing a spot on the committee should keep him in the mix. But the fact that he is no longer an NHL player opens the door to his opponents for questioning whether he should have as much say as he has garnered.

Some members are complaining that they can't get a quorum in their conference calls, not because of indifference but tactics. They privately argue that those who are fighting Chelios' plans have used non-participation in the calls to block his progress. Chelios appears to have beaten that tactic as of today, but one can't help but wonder if there will be other obstacles put in his way now that he's technically out of the NHL.