Matt Cooke’s despicable dirty elbow puts Mario Lemieux and NHL on the hot seat

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It seems that lately not a week goes by without some debate or outrage over a hit. In the last year, the name that comes up more often than not is Matt Cooke. Once again, Cooke delivered a very blatant and dirty hit, this time to New York Rangers defenseman Ryan McDonagh. Cooke’s hit put the Penguins down a man for five minutes as he was ejected for the blow. During the course of the major penalty, the Pens were able to score once shorthanded but allowed two goals to swing the game in their favor.

This time around, his chicken-wing elbow to the back of McDonagh’s head comes during a high-profile game just days after the NHL’s general managers met in Florida to figure out what to do about further reducing blows to the head. Thankfully McDonagh wasn’t injured on the play, that’s the good news. The bad news is that Matt Cooke is continued to terrorize opponents on the ice with his brand of hockey. When not delivering cheap shots, Cooke is an excellent checking forward but today’s incident against the Rangers proves that he just doesn’t get it and the guy that’s going to have his hands full in dealing with him is Penguins owner Mario Lemieux.

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After the Islanders-Penguins brawl in Long Island, Lemieux lambasted the league for not doing enough to protect its players. Lemieux was torn to shreds for his statements for his seeming ignorance that he employs a cheap shot artist of his own. Lemieux then later wrote a letter to Gary Bettman coming up with some very progressive ideas on how to improve punishment for dirty hits including fining teams large sums of money for keeping those players employed under their watch. In that letter, Lemieux owned up to the players of that ilk they have on their team, a nod to those critical of his first statement.

Now all those who clamored for Lemieux to recognize that his employment of Matt Cooke is part of the problem in the NHL have a loud voice again and rightfully so. For all the issues the league is having with players disrespecting each other and delivering questionable hits to one another Cooke is the poster boy for it all. From his boarding of Fedor Tyutin that earned him a four game suspension, to his hit on Ovechkin, and thinking back to his disgusting hit on Marc Savard a year ago the league hasn’t had this obvious of a pariah in its history.

The NHL has whiffed badly on previous instances on an alarmingly consistent basis to show that they give even half of a damn about player safety. For all the talk that went on at the GM meetings we’ve seen the league fail to take charge with their soft two-game punishment of Brad Marchand of the Bruins for connecting to the back of R.J. Umberger’s head with a blow and the failure to punish Patric Hornqvist of the Predators for his elbow on Boston’s Tyler Seguin. Two very dirty plays, two very head-scratching and soft penalties to both. This time around, the league has a lot to work with.

Cooke’s hit touches on a lot of things the league wants to eliminate from the game and makes him the perfect target for a message-sending landmark punishment:

  • He delivered a blindside hit
  • He delivered a blow to the head
  • He targeted McDonagh’s head
  • He’s a repeat offender

If all those things aren’t grounds for a major suspension, then there’s something inherently wrong with everything the league is doing when it comes to disciplining players.

The one guy who could make the debate over what the NHL will do irrelevant is Lemieux. If Lemieux believes in what he was preaching to the world in the wake of the Islanders thuggery against them, he’ll drop the hammer on Cooke himself before the NHL gets to. If Mario comes out and does that, he’ll set the example he was hoping to with his initial decree to the league. People respect Mario and if he takes a stand like that he’ll be an even bigger hero across the league.

We’re going to assume that the NHL’s response to Cooke’s hit will not be sufficient for most people. After all, how do you appropriately punish a player that’s escaped previous bans for any number of reasons and thus getting by on the NHL’s backwards logic that you’re essentially allowed one dirty play before you’re really punished. Cooke’s record looks virtually spotless considering he’s played over 800 games in the NHL and only been suspended for a total of 10 games in his career.

It seems that each time after he does something else foul we rush to yell that it’s an opportunity for the NHL to send a message to the rest of the players that wanton wretched play will not stand in the game. We’ve yet to be wowed by anything the league has done regarding other thugs and cheap shot artists and maybe for once the league can finally do something to be a positive influence instead of just talking about doing things the “right” way.

Trade: Rangers send Grabner to Devils

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The New York Rangers signaled that they’re still open for business – and aren’t taking injury chances – by making Ryan McDonagh, Michael Grabner, and Rick Nash healthy scratches in Thursday’s eventual loss to Montreal. It wasn’t long before they showed why.

The Rangers, daringly, traded with local rivals in the New Jersey Devils for the first time ever. Grabner serves as another significant forward the Devils have added via a trade.

The Trade: Devils acquire Michael Grabner from the Rangers; Rangers receive a second-round pick and prospect Igor (Yegor) Rykov.

Why the Devils made this trade: New Jersey is battling hard for playoff positioning, and things have been a little dicey lately, with two straight losses, even as Taylor Hall continues his red-hot scoring streak.

[Get up to date on a busy night on the ice for the Metro division]

Grabner gives the Devils more scoring punch, and considering his speed, he could really fit in well with the way New Jersey has been converting to the sort of attacking system that was once almost unthinkable.

Maybe New Jersey needs defense more, but is it that easy to come by? “Out-scoring your problems” is a fun strategy, either way. Grabner, 30, currently boasts a “Cy Young” stat line of 25-6 (25 goals, six assists) so far this season. Really, he might be the biggest winner of all; the pending unrestricted free agent could enjoy an even bigger raise from his bargain-basement $1.65 million cap hit if he powers the Devils during a playoff push.

Why the Rangers made this trade: Grabner’s contract expires after this season. Getting a second-round pick and a prospect is a nice return for a mid-level “rental.” The Rangers have made no mistake about being in liquidation mode, as Grabner continues the work they already began by moving Nick Holden. There could be quite a bit more coming for the Rangers.

It’s unclear if Rykov will be much more than a throw-in.

Some like the defenseman’s two-way game, and he’s maturing in the KHL. That said, the 20-year-old wasn’t drafted in 2015, while the Devils selected him in the fifth round (132nd overall) in 2016. All About the Jersey provided interesting instant feedback on Rykov when he was selected.

This is most likely about the second-rounder for the Rangers, although …

Who won the trade?

This is a straightforward deal. The Devils gamble a bit, but not enormously, to try to further their playoff push. There’s always the chance that Grabner would be a big hit in Newark and re-sign, but so far this sure looks like a short-term fix.

The Rangers get a fabulous return for what might just be a few months of Grabner’s services, which weren’t going to do them any good with their season going down the tubes. This could really get the ball rolling on a wave of moves, whether this franchise goes “full rebuild” or leans more toward a “reset.”

(Ah, sporting terminology …)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Metro movement: Flyers gain on Capitals, Penguins

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Every now and then, it’s convenient to group the highly competitive Metropolitan Division’s games into a lightning round post. That was especially true here, but it seems reasonable enough tonight, too.

Let’s start at the bottom: the New York Rangers are just short of waving the white flag, as they lost to the Montreal Canadiens. The most relevant thing they did on Thursday was to make Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, and Michael Grabner healthy scratches, a nod to the trade deadline. They’re stuck at 59 points in 61 games.

[BREAKING: Rangers reportedly send Grabner to the Devils(!)]

Now let’s rattle off the relevant results, going from the first-ranked Capitals and stepping down the ladder.

Inactive on Thursday: Penguins (74 points in 61 games played), Hurricanes (64 points in 60 GP)

Capitals drop emotional loss to Panthers, and (barely) in regulation

It seemed like Washington would shake off Roberto Luongo‘s much-see speech and grab a win during an emotional night in Florida. They had a 2-1 lead fairly deep into Thursday’s game.

The Panthers wouldn’t be denied. They ended up tying the game with less than four minutes remaining, and then Vincent Trocheck won it with just 20 seconds left in regulation. Leaving this one empty-handed stings for the Caps, although in the grand scheme of things, it was nice for Florida to get to W.

[Luongo’s speech, Panthers’ emotional ceremony.]

Flyers virtually tie second-ranked Penguins, beat Blue Jackets in regulation.

On paper, this wasn’t a pretty 2-1 win for the Flyers. Prevailing in regulation against a divisional opponent, thus limiting at least one threat from chipping away at their buffer? Now, that’s beautiful for Philly.

If you want a summary of how rapidly fortunes can change in the NHL, consider this: the Flyers have a very real chance to win this division mere months after losing 10 games in a row. Sports, everyone.

Both teams only managed 20 shots on goal, making for a pretty friendly way for Petr Mrazek to make his Flyers debut. Claude Giroux (goal, assist) and Shayne Gostisbehere (two assists) really powered the victory, too, as they were involved in both goals.

The Flyers are showing that they can win a variety of games … and with a variety of goalies. They’re now on a four-game winning streak, and are even better when you zoom out, going 8-0-2 in their past 10 games.

Mrazek got the Ric Flair treatment:

The bright side for the Blue Jackets is that they’re currently in the final wild-card position, even with frustrations piling up. Still, this was an opportunity to create some distance from opponents that are breathing down their necks …

Islanders fall to Maple Leafs, but it was in a shootout

… as the Islanders grabbed a “charity point.”

While the Blue Jackets are at 65 standings points in 61 games played for that final wild-card spot (and fifth in the Metro), the Islanders are close by with 65 points in 62 GP.

It was a thriller in Toronto, and while Doug Weight’s bunch deserves some kudos for hanging in there, they did see 2-0 and 3-2 leads dissolve.

The brightest side is probably that they might be making modest gains on defense, as they’ve limited opponents to 32 and 31 shots on goal during the past two contests. That’s progress for a team that recently saw goalies make 45 and 50-save shutouts.

Taylor Hall remains hot, but not enough for a win (again)

The New Jersey Devils fired 40 shots on goal, and Taylor Hall kept his remarkable scoring streak going. (Officially, his 26th goal of 2017-18 pushed him to 13 games, while others believe it’s 20 in a row.)

You’d think that would be a winning combination, but not exactly the quietly climbing Minnesota Wild, who ended up winning 4-2.

Still, that Hall kid is going to be OK, eh?

***

So, here is how the Metro looks after all of that action.

Capitals: 75 points in 61 games played (31 ROW)
Penguins: 74 points in 61 GP (33 ROW)
Flyers: 74 points in 61 GP (31 ROW)
Devils: 70 points in 61 GP (27 ROW)
Islanders: 65 points in 62 GP (26 ROW)
Hurricanes: 64 points in 60 GP (24 ROW)
Rangers, if you must: 59 points in 61 GP (24 ROW)

The Penguins also have 35 vanilla wins, while the Flyers are at 32.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Panthers’ Luongo gives emotional speech about Florida school shooting

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Prior to Thursday’s game against the Washington Capitals, the Florida Panthers honored victims of last week’s shooting Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, which claimed the lives of 17 people.

Being that the high school is located about 14 miles from the Panthers’ BB&T Center, it’s not surprising that many players were highly emotional during the ceremony. Remarkably, Roberto Luongo gave an outstanding speech about his love for the Parkland area, where he’s spent 12 years of his life, and how the shootings affected his family and the community at large.

You can see a full transcript of Luongo’s emotional speech here and watch it in the video above this post’s headline.

NHL.com’s Nick Cotsonika noted earlier today that Luongo’s son experienced a scare last week:

That’s just one of Cotsonika’s tweets about this emotional night; his full feed is worth your time.

The Panthers projected names of the victims on the ice during the pre-game ceremony, and also provided this beautiful tribute:

It says a lot about the composure of Luongo and the Panthers to go from such an emotional ceremony into a game against the Capitals, especially considering moments like these:

For more information, particularly how to support those affected, the Panthers’ website is a great place to start. You can also find out more about the Panthers’ tribute in this earlier PHT post.

Sadly, nights like these have been far too common lately, but credit the NHL and its teams for heartfelt responses to tragedies. Much like the Vegas Golden Knights opening their inaugural season without ads on the boards and with an emotional presentation, the Panthers handled this situation with class.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Canada, Russians get dream draw to reach gold-medal game

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GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Informed Germany had upset top-seeded Sweden and would be Canada’s semifinal opponent, Eric O’Dell’s unfiltered reaction didn’t last long.

”Oh yeah? Perfe – it doesn’t matter,” he said, abruptly changing what he was going to say. ”We’re ready for any team, and every team from here going forward’s going to be tough. It really didn’t matter for us, but we’ll be ready.”

Many Canadians share O’Dell’s initial surprise and happiness to face underdog Germany instead of Sweden, and the same can be said for Russians at least relieved to get the Czech Republic and not the faster United States. They have perhaps the best draws they could have imagined on a crash course to the gold-medal game at this Olympic tournament with no NHL players.

The two traditional hockey powerhouses have been clinical but not perfect in getting to this point and should have one final chance to get their games in order for what would be a tense final between two longtime rivals. But Canada overlooking Germany and the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” overlooking Czech Republic would be a mistake.

”They belong in the semifinals,” Canada captain Chris Kelly said of the Germans. ”They’re playing well. They’ve won two overtime games and last game they were in control. They were up 3-1 in the third period, so we need to be at our best against them. We need to stay in the moment and focus on them. We can’t look too far ahead.”

Slovakia coach Craig Ramsay said before the tournament that if the Germans get good goaltending they can do some damage. They’ve gotten that from Danny aus den Birken, who has a 2.43 goals-against average and made 31 saves in a 4-3 overtime victory over Sweden.

Germany had never before beaten Sweden at the Olympics, and after doing so even coach Marco Sturm conceded his team’s expectations and goals have changed throughout the tournament.

”It’s our dream and we’re allowed to dream,” said Sturm, who played 14 NHL seasons before moving into coaching. ”I think all the athletes who are at the Olympics are allowed to dream and our dream came true and now we’re in the top four, so it can’t be better that.”

The two favorites came in expecting this, and after beating Norway in the quarterfinals, Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk said, ”Our dream’s still on.” The Czech Republic stands in their way, and the Russians watched it beat the United States and the defensive-minded team has improved every game.

”They are good,” former NHL player Ilya Kovalchuk said. ”They’re really strong, they won their group, they beat the Americans who is a really good team, so we need to be prepared.”

The Czech Republic will certainly be prepared and have no shortage of belief after knocking off the United States in a shootout. It has gotten similarly strong goaltending from Pavel Francouz, who has stopped nine of 10 attempts in two shootouts, including in the quarterfinals to eliminate the United States. The Czechs have a handful of former NHL players in Roman Cervenka, Jakub Nakladal and captain Martin Erat.

It’s starting to feel familiar to Hockey Hall of Famer Dominik Hasek, who led the Czech Republic to the gold medal in 1998 in Nagano by beating Canada and Russia.

”They don’t have as many stars as we did in Nagano, but they have some skilled players and they play like a team,” Hasek said by phone. ”It reminds me a little bit (of) our team in ’98. We didn’t have as many stars as Americans or Canadians, but we play as a team the best hockey.”

Canada has played some of its best hockey, too, and will likely have former New York Islanders goaltender Kevin Poulin in goal against Germany after he replaced injured starter Ben Scrivens during its 1-0 quarterfinal shutout of Finland. General manager Sean Burke called Scrivens day-to-day with a shoulder/collarbone injury and expects the veteran to return. Scrivens did not practice Thursday.

Burke, 51, was a goalie for 15 NHL seasons but isn’t eligible to suit up.

”It’s not me,” he said. ”Hopefully it’s somebody better than me.”