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Lucic disciplinary decision may prove pivotal

Sabres coach Lindy Ruff was angry about his team's tepid response to goaltender Ryan Miller being run by Boston's Milan Lucic, but real fireworks may be in store if the NHL doesn't clamp down. (Michael Dwyer/AP)


By Stu Hackel

Milan Lucic gets hauled in front of the NHL's justice system Monday afternoon after the big, tough Boston winger ran Sabres goalie Ryan Miller on Saturday night, a play that some considered the turning point in the Bruins' 6-2 dismantling of Buffalo. Miller is out indefinitely with a concussion after Lucic plowed into him like the 6:46 from Haverhill to North Station.

It might be an overstatement to say that what Brendan Shanahan and company decide on Lucic will be a defining moment in this new era of player discipline; in fact, it may end up being more of a defining moment for the Sabres. But Department of Player Safety rules may help clarify what is and what is not considered "a hockey play" in the current scheme.

UPDATE: The NHL announced Monday afternoon Lucic would face no disciplinary action, citing a lack of intent on his part.

Here's the incident:

Asked about it after the game, Bruins goalie Tim Thomas stated (as quoted by

Jimmy Murphy of ESPN Boston on his Twitter account), "I will say that as a goalie, you’re not even prepared for people to hit you in a situation like that. You’ve been trained over the course of your whole career that you’re not going to get hit in situations like that. So it must have taken him by surprise."

Miller didn't like it much.

Let's dispel right off any notion that this is a legal play. It is not. Goalies are not "fair game" when they are out of the crease handling the puck. That rule has been gone since 1965-66. That's 46 years ago, long enough that anyone who follows hockey should know about it.

Rule 42.1 on charging (Rule 47c in the old book) states, "A goalkeeper is not 'fair game' just because he is outside the goal crease area. The appropriate penalty should be assessed in every case where an opposing player makes unnecessary contact with a goalkeeper. However, incidental contact, at the discretion of the Referee, will be permitted when the goalkeeper is in the act of playing the puck outside his goal crease provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact." (That language is repeated in Rule 69.4 on goalie interference, although the refs called this charging)

No objective person can deny that Lucic made no effort at all to avoid contact with Miller, much less a reasonable effort. He lost the puck, and it was obvious to everyone in the rink that Miller would get to it first. The onus was on Lucic to avoid contact. Instead, he went directly at the goaltender and that's why the penalty was called.

Should it have been more than a charging minor? Five minutes would have been assessed had the referee determined that Miller had been injured. But, as we've seen frequently with concussions, that particular injury is not always immediately apparent. Miller stayed in the game, but felt increasingly worse as it went on and did not play in the third period. Should it have been called a deliberate attempt to injure, as the Sabres announcers suggest? The refs didn't see it that way.

But these two additional ways of viewing the play -- the attempt to injure and the resulting injury -- are why there is supplementary discipline, because facts and consequences emerge after an on-ice incident for the league to review. In fact, there was an injury on this play; we know that now. The question then becomes: how responsible for it was Lucic?

As I see it, Lucic is pretty responsible, not just for skating into the goalie, but for lifting his arms and driving his right forearm into Miller's upper back and neck area, causing the netminder's head to snap and his helmet to fly off as he turned to avoid the collision. That Lucic's arms followed through, and that he did not pursue the puck, but stopped after the collision and stood over Miller indicates to me that he wasn't interested in playing hockey here.

Whether Shanahan and his confreres concur with this view and see the play as a deliberate attempt to injure is uncertain -- and only their judgment matters when it comes to Lucic's immediate future. It's not fruitful to guess what NHL disciplinarians might do, especially now when they are relatively new to the job and still finding their way. Even if they don't see an attempt to injure -- it could just be one of those "hockey plays gone bad" in their view -- that doesn't mean Lucic may escape punishment. The rule of thumb used to be that when an illegal play resulted in an injury, a suspension usually followed, but such punishment was not universally applied in the past and may not be here, either.

Of course, the Sabres want Lucic suspended. "If this hit and other types of hits like this are not suspended, we are opening up the possibility of losing goaltenders to injury. And not just injury, but concussion," Sabres GM Darcy Regier said Sunday night (quoted by Mike Harrington in The Buffalo News). "... When I look at the position of goaltending, in a lot of ways it's not unlike quarterback in football. I feel very strongly the protection has to be provided and players committing these types of action should be punished."

The rules are written that way, to protect goaltenders. Whether the NHL will back them up here is the issue.

What may not be an issue is how the Sabres reacted -- or, more accurately, didn't react -- to their struggling star goalie getting bulldozed by one of the strongest bulls in the NHL.

The Sabres did not skate on Sunday but coach Lindy Ruff — clearly displeased by his team not sticking up for Miller — met with his players. Harrington, blogging for The Buffalo News, described the scene: “There were understandably a lot of stern faces and Lindy Ruff was not pleased one iota. Told by team spokesman Mike Gilbert that reporters were waiting to speak to him, Ruff curtly responded, '[Bleep] the media' and stormed out of the building.” (That, coupled with Miller's sentiments about Lucic, prove Gordie Howe's point that "All hockey players are bi-lingual. They know English and profanity.")

Some Sabres players who spoke publicly — notably 6-foot-4 Paul Gaustad, who was on the ice when Lucic ran Miller — expressed remorse for their placid response.

“I hoped I could have done more there,” Gaustad said. “It was something where I thought it was an illegal hit and today it’s one of those things you take a look at how guys respond and how I responded and I can only look at myself and look myself in the mirror. I wasn’t good enough as a player last night to help the team win.”

Others on the team shared Gaustad's embarrassment. "We need to do a better job of challenging Milan and protecting Ryan," said defenseman Robyn Regehr. "That was part of (the Bruins') game plan."

And in Montreal this morning,  Gaustad told reporters (including Dave Stubbs of The Montreal Gazette) the team apologized to Miller and said it wouldn't happen again. You can bet that starting tonight at the Bell Centre, Buffalo is going to show more edge to its game.

No Sabre seemed inclined to go after Lucic, who has been an intimidating force since he destroyed Montreal's Mike Komisarek three years ago (video). Until that point, Komisarek had been a highly effective physical force. His shoulder injured in the fight, he was never the same player afterward.

But the traditional way of handling these matters was, "If you run my goalie, I'll run yours," not to go after the guy doing the running. In fact, Thomas expected as much. “Basically, from my perspective, after that happened, [I was] just trying to make sure I was on my toes,” he said after the game (quoted by DJ Bean of WEEI). “I didn’t know if there would be kind of a retribution hit. That’s kind of the old school way.”

It didn't happen. Not this time anyway. The rematch is scheduled for Nov. 23.

Here are a couple of old school scenes from Dec. 23, 1987 that prove the point. They feature a guy even tougher than Lucic, Bob Probert, who ran the Sabres' Tom Barrasso:

And later on, the Sabres' Kevin Maguire got even, running Detroit goalie Greg Stefan -- and things degenerated from there:

The NHL likes to think those days are behind it. But every time the league doesn't take strong action when players step out of line -- and we're thinking here about a number of incidents from last season, including the off-the-rails Penguins-Islanders brawl in February and the ongoing Bruins-Canadiens hostilities -- it invites an escalation down the road.

Maybe the highest decision-makers in NHL want it that way. Maybe they believe their customers like fomenting hatred and continued dangerous play. Some fans certainly do, as do some NHL owners, no doubt. But as we've said before, if that's the direction the league wants its game to travel, it risks further marginalizing itself in the landscape of professional athletics alongside mixed martial arts, ultimate fighting and other extreme sports.