Too little, too late for NHL rule changes

Savard.jpgThis is obviously the biggest story of the week and when all is said
and done the 2009-10 NHL season will go down as the “year of the head
shot”.

What is most frustrating about the entire situation is the
fact that the victim of the latest dirty hit — and there’s no doubt in
my mind it was dirty, I don’t care what the NHL says — is at home and
is still suffering from some significant concussion symptoms.

At
least there were some steps taken in the right direction this week with
the GM’s proposing a rule change that would make hits like Matt Cooke’s
illegal. What’s most disturbing however is the fact that all hits to the
head will still not be penalized — but you have to wonder just how far
the NHL can go down that path.

There’s no doubt that the NHL is
an extremely fast and physical league and that hits to the head will
happen, and not all of them are dirty hits. Sometimes accidents happen
and player are going to get seriously hurt, no matter what the NHL does.

But
the point here isn’t to just blindly outlaw all high hits; we’re
talking about protecting NHL players from the ones that have no regard
for their opponents on the ice. It’s ice hockey, I realize that the
point of the game is not only score but to punish the players on the
other team with brutal checks along the boards and in open ice. My point
is that there exists a middle ground where the league can protect
players from serious injury while maintaining the physicality that makes
the sport so much fun.

Marc Savard will most likely not return to
the ice this season. He’s sleeping most of the day, and it’s going to
take him a long time to recover from such a severe concussion. I’m not
someone who believes that the offending players should be suspended for
as long as the victim is injured — there are just too many variables  involved — but the fact that Matt Cooke escaped without punishment is a
travesty.

The NHL is facing a PR nightmare over this incident but
the sad truth there is nothing they could do about this latest hit.
Technically, Cooke’s hit was legal in the eyes of the NHL and the fact
that Mike Richards was not suspended for a similar hit earlier in the
season handcuffed the NHL on what they could do.

So now we have
the league being reactionary instead of proactive when it comes to the
safety of the players, and it’s making the NHL appear even more middling
than they were before. This is a league that has struggled with
mainstream success ever since the lockout five years ago and these incidents do nothing but set the NHL back from whatever progress
they may have made.

There is an irrational fear that supporters of
stricter rules and punishments — like myself — want to turn the NHL
into a sport that is “un-manly” or “wimpy” and abandons the physicality
that sets it apart from all others. That’s not anywhere close to being
the case; in fact, I loved good physical lockdown hockey where goals were
at a premium and there wasn’t a penalty called every 4 minutes for
touching an opponent with your stick.

The issue at hand is the
safety of the players. The cold reality is that players are faster,
bigger and carry more power than ever before and you can’t deny the
increased amount of serious head injuries is alarming.

The NHL is
on the right track, but we shouldn’t have had to wait for one of the
NHL’s best players to be sitting at home with a severe concussion before
anything was done about it.

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    The Buzzer: Bolts send Devils packing, Caps jump ahead, Leafs extend series

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    Three games on Saturday

    Tampa Bay Lightning 3, New Jersey Devils 1 (Lightning win series 4-1)

    The Devils were one of the biggest surprises in the NHL this season, but their 2017-18 campaign officially came to an end on Saturday. They’ll be disappointed, but this season was a success for the group. As for the Bolts, they’ve punched their ticket to the second round after a terrific regular season. The Lightning received point-per-game production from Nikita Kucherov (1o points), Steven Stamkos (6 points) and Alex Killorn (5 points), but they also had 14 different players pick up a point during the series.

     Washington Capitals 4, Blue Jackets 3 (OT) (Capitals lead series 3-2)

    Four of the five games in the series have gone to overtime. Game 5 was a typical back and forth affair, as the Jackets scored first before the Capitals went up 2-1. Columbus tied the game, Washington went ahead, again, 3-2, but a dominant third period led to the Blue Jackets forcing overtime. Nicklas Backstrom tipped-home the game-winning goal in overtime to give the Capitals the first home win of the series. This has clearly been the best first-round series of the playoffs.

    Toronto Maple Leafs 4, Boston Bruins 3 (Bruins lead series 3-2)

    The Maple Leafs jumped out to 2-0 and 4-1 leads, but the Bruins managed to make things interesting in the third period. Boston had a number of power play opportunities, but they couldn’t cash in. Unfortunately for the Bruins, they’ll have to go back on the road to try to put the Leafs to bed. The Leafs managed to keep Patrice Bergeron, David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand off the scoresheet on Saturday. Replicating that two more times won’t be easy.

    Three Stars

    1. Nicklas Backstrom, Washington Capitals

    Backstrom scored two goals, including the overtime winner against the Blue Jackets in Game 5. He also added an assist on T.J. Oshie‘s go-ahead goal late in the second frame. The win gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series. The 30-year-old has two goals and eight points in five games this postseason.

    2. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

    The Capitals had a one-goal lead heading into the third frame, but they were badly outplayed in the third period. Holtby is the biggest reason why Washington was able to make it to overtime at all. The Blue Jackets outshot the Capitals 16-1 in the third frame. Holtby had a rough season, but his play in Game 5 was very encouraging.

    3. Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

    The Maple Leafs had to kill a number of penalties during their Game 5 win over the Bruins, and Andersen was one of the key reasons they were able to do so. The Leafs netminder faced at least 40 shots for the third time in five games (he’s 2-1 in those contests). If Toronto wants to force a seventh game, they’ll need him to turn in another fantastic performance on Monday night.

    Factoid of the Night

    Sunday’s Schedule

    Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Philadelphia Flyers, 3:00 p.m. ET

    Nashville Predators vs. Colorado Avalanche, 7:00 p.m. ET

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    Leafs chase Rask, hold on to win Game 5

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs came into Saturday’s game facing elimination, but they managed to force a sixth game, thanks to a 4-3 win over the Boston Bruins.

    The Maple Leafs built up a 2-0 lead heading into the first intermission with goals from Connor Brown and Andreas Johnsson. They would increase it to a 4-1 lead in the second period. That’s when the Bruins pulled Tuukka Rask in favor of backup Anton Khudobin.

    After the goalie swap, Sean Kuraly managed to cut the deficit to 4-2 before the end of the frame.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Toronto did their best to blow their lead, as they took penalty after penalty in the second half of the game. The Leafs took the final four penalties, but the Bruins failed to convert on their opportunities on the man-advantage. They even gave the Bruins a 5-on-3 power play for over 1:30 before Kuraly scored moments later.

    Goalie Frederik Andersen turned aside 42 of 45 shots. This was the third time in five games that he faced at least 40 shots in this series.

    The Leafs will now return home for Game 6 on Monday night. They’ll need to perform more like they did in the first half of Saturday’s game if they want to force Game 7 in Boston.

    Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

    Backstrom provides OT winner as Capitals take 3-2 series lead

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    The Washington Capitals are on the verge of the second round.

    Yes, the Capitals, who began the series with back-to-back losses in Game 1 and 2 to the Columbus Blue Jackets, are now on the brink of eliminating Ohio’s team after Nicklas Backstrom‘s deft deflection in overtime gave the Capitals their third straight win and a 3-2 series lead.

    It was the fourth time in the series both clubs played to a tie in regulation. After Columbus won the first two in OT, Washington replied with a win in double-overtime in Game 3 before Backstrom ended Game 5 at the 11:53 mark of the first frame of free hockey.

    Backstrom scored his first goal of the series to open the scoring for the Caps and assisted for the sixth time in the series on the go-ahead goal in the second period before Oliver Bjorkstrand tied it in third.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    Braden Holtby had to be sharp, especially in the third period as, inexplicably, the Caps were outshot 16-1. At home. Holtby made 40 saves when it was all said and done.

    Two-hundred feet away, Sergei Bobrovsky was up to the task, making some silly stops including a big one on Alex Ovechkin earlier in overtime and a bigger one in regulation time off the same man’s stick.

    Game 6 of this series is slated for Monday in Columbus, with a start time still to be determined.

    In his post-game comments, Blue Jackets head coach John Tortorella said, twice, that his team will be back in the capital for Game 7.

    The promise has been made.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

    Kucherov, Vasilevskiy shine as Lightning eliminate Devils in 5

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    One’s up for the Hart as the NHL’s best player while the other is up for the Vezina as the league’s top goaltender. Both combined their talents to eliminate the New Jersey Devils with a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs on Saturday.

    Nikita Kucherov was once again on point for the Tampa Bay Lightning in Saturday’s matinee. Leading 1-0 in the third period, Kucherov scored a clutch goal — his fifth of the series — to put the Lightning from just inside the blue line to put the Bolts up two with seven minutes and change remaining.

    It proved vital, Kucherov’s goal, as the Devils attempted a late comeback with Kyle Palmieri scored with three minutes remaining after Devils pulled Cory Schneider for the extra attacker 30 seconds earlier.

    Andrei Vasilevskiy stood tall in the final 180 seconds, stopping 26-of-27 to help usher the Lightning into the second round.

    Tampa, the Atlantic Division winners in the regular season, will face the winner of the series between the Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs, who play later on Saturday in Game 5. The Bruins lead the series 3-1.

    Kucherov was as immense for the Lightning as he was oppressive for the Devils, adding five assists to bring his series total to 10 points. His usual scoring touch was supplemented by his play in the physical department, including this bone-crushing hit on New Jersey defenseman Sami Vatanen.

    [NBC’s Stanley Cup Playoff Hub]

    For the Devils, it was hard-fought series from a young team still trying to find its way in the playoffs.

    The Devils abandoned goalie Keith Kinkaid after dropping the first two games. Cory Schneider, who hadn’t won a game in 2018 before Game 3, came in and provided the spark in goal, one that seemed to get the Devils going at the other end of the rink as well as they rolled to a 5-3 win.

    But that well ran dry in Game 4 as the Devils produced just one goal in a 3-1 loss. Game 5 was much the same, production-wise, with the Devils only managing one goal.

    Fellow Hart Trophy candidate Taylor Hall provided two goals and six points in the series after a 93-point regular season. Rookie Nico Hischier managed just a goal after scoring 20 in his rookie campaign.

    For Vasilevskiy, after looking far more human in the second half of the season, finding his mojo again can only be mean bad things for future playoff opponents.

    The young Russian finished with a .941 save percentage in the series.


    Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck