It's been a long time since we've seen an open ice hit on a goalie like the one Boston's Milan Lucic delivered to level Buffalo's Ryan Miller on Saturday. That's a good thing. Goaltenders are too immobile, and thus vulnerable, when ambling out to play the puck. Rule 69.4 allows for contact -- but only as long as it is incidental while the goalie is in the act of playing the puck. Lucic turned it into a puck optional play and decided to take a direct line at Miller instead.
Now, the rule is clear and the referee assessed the proper two-minute charging penalty on the play. (Brendan Shanahan, the league's chief disciplinarian, called Lucic in for a hearing on Monday, but declined to suspend or fine the Bruins winger.) The outrage stems from the rarity of such a play in recent times. Of course in Buffalo, the anger has to do with Miller being concussed and indefinitely sidelined.
Behind closed doors, the furor is also rooted in the Sabres' lack of team response on the ice.
All too often these days, we see players engage an opponent in a fight for delivering a clean hit on a teammate. This time, a questionable blow delivered on Buffalo's goaltender went unchallenged. That is unacceptable, which coach Lindy Ruff made clear in colorful tones to his team at practice in Montreal on Sunday afternoon as the Sabres prepared to take on the Canadiens Monday night.
Even Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas admitted that he was "on his toes" in case the Sabres invoked old school retribution by getting physical with him during the rest of the game. Nothing happened, which is one of the reasons why Ruff was so incensed with his team. No one in his locker room took it upon himself to make a solidarity statement. Ruff remembers what it used to be like when contact with goaltenders was more common in the 1970's and '80's. Guys would run the goalie with the sole intent of starting a brawl. It was automatic.
Having suffered two concussions myself after admiring a pass while standing in roughly the same spot on the ice where Lucic and Miller "collided", I'm not condoning perilous puck-playing times for goalies, but it does make you aware -- or in my case, it should have made me more aware -- of the whereabouts of opposing skaters. The possibility of being run over forces you to make quick decisions -- move the puck and scamper back to the "comfy" confines of the crease.
The league dealt with the brawl-inducing tactic of running the goalie by making such hits off limits when the netminder is out playing the puck. Yes, it cleaned up the single event spark for mayhem, but the unintended byproduct was that it led to goalies standing over the puck far from the net, diffusing the forechecking and slowing the game down. The answer to that was adding the trapezoids behind the nets, creating no-handle zones so that, in theory, forechecking would be restored as goalies were made less of a factor in fielding the puck.
Somewhere in between is the answer. Lucic's hit was a penalty no matter who was handling the puck. To me, restricting goalies who have puckhandling skills is ludicrous. Let them handle the puck wherever they want. Get rid of the geometric restrictions below the goal line. Just enforce the rule that requires forecheckers to make a play on the puck when they're pressing a goalie who is brazen enough to venture out of the net.
Coincidental contact is permissible as long as it is a true play on the puck first and no obvious body leverage is used. I think such legal contact adds an element of excitement -- especially for those netminders who think they have better puck-moving skills than they really do. Turnovers abound, which is a good thing from a pace of play/unpredictability standpoint. But that doesn't make Lucic's play on Miller any more valid as an overall tactic. It was a cheap hit; one that needed answering in the moment. The Sabres didn't respond and Lucic went as far as admitting after the fact that he wasn't surprised that they looked the other way, saying, "...they aren't that type of team."
Goalie goonery or not, in the words of Yosemite Sam, "Now, thems fightin' words."