So far during the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, there has been no shortage of emotional moments, stirring comebacks and terrific individual performances. Still, we are once again left with an uncomfortable sense of bewilderment at just what the NHL powers want the game to look like, what is going to be acceptable conduct on the ice (or the bench), and how you make the appropriate statement to reinforce that. Lots of lows and a few highs.
What are we talking about?
How about this: There is no way to defend Minnesota forward Matt Cooke's knee on Tyson Barrie in Game 3 that likely finished the Colorado Avalanche defenseman's season and earned Cooke a seven-game suspension. None. But to instantly assume that a guy who hasn't run afoul of NHL law in terms of supplemental discipline since late in the 2011 season is merely revealing his "true" colors is just a tad too convenient for my liking. All the evidence suggests Cooke worked at changing the way he played, changing angles of approach and learning when to back off rather than ram forward. Was this a dangerous play? Yes. Was it worse than Bryan Bickell's knee on Vladimir Sobotka in Game 2 of the Chicago-St. Louis series? The outcome was different and assailant was different, but they are basically the same type of play with the same potential outcome. Barrie is gone long term, while Sobotka was able to get up and return to action. Bickell was assessed a minor penalty, as was Cooke. Now Cooke is gone seven games because in this league, you can never really escape the past. Should you be able to? That's a fair question. Shouldn't this be like the penal system where rehabilitation is as much a part of the equation as punishment? Part of the legacy of former head of player safety Brendan Shanahan was reaching out to players who might have been close to the line to talk about modifying their games or warning them of future consequences. In the end, Cooke deserved to be punished, and many wanted to see an even greater penalty. Still doesn't excuse Bickell's reckless play, which should have cost him at least some time away from the series.
And then there's this: Boston's Milan Lucic spears Detroit's Danny DeKeyser in the groin area. Painful? Check. Reckless and dangerous? Check. The Bruins winger wasn't penalized during the game and gets a $5,000 fine, half the maximum allowed by the current collective bargaining agreement. Really? Why not a one-game suspension? And why, for goodness sake, not the full $10,000, as paltry as that is for a stick in the nether regions? Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who had the misfortune of briefly grabbing his own groin area after officials failed to call a penalty in overtime of Game 1 of the Hawks' series with St. Louis, had to pay $25,000 because the league can do whatever it likes to coaches, general managers and other team officials. Logic check to Aisle 1.
The three-game suspension given to Brent Seabrook for his dangerous hit on Blues captain David Backes left us wanting, as well. Granted, it was better than, say, one or two games. But why not simply close the door on Seabrook for the entire series? Neat and tidy and completely warranted, given that the hit checks every box regarding the predatory hits the NHL insists it is trying to eradicate from the game. What do you think the chances are that Backes is back before Seabrook? Our guess is slim, and, if Backes is not back and the Blackhawks win this compelling series, that's a great injustice. But we learned long ago that supplemental discipline isn't always about justice.
And what about the Flyers' Matt Read leveling the often unlikable Daniel Carcillo of the Rangers with a dirty, sneaky head shot in the neutral zone in the third period of the Flyers' loss in Game 3 on Tuesday night? Yeah, Carcillo is a loose cannon, and he has created lots of mayhem on his own, but doesn't he deserve to be treated by the same standards as any other player who is the victim of a dangerous, predatory hit like the one Read laid on him? No penalty was called on Read, but that's what video review is for, right? Read should be cooling his blades for at least a game for the hit, regardless of whether it was Carcillo or not. The fact the incident went unpunished (as useless as they might be, why not at least acknowledge the incident happened with a fine?) reinforces the notion that it's not always what happens on the ice, but to whom it happens.
As for the comments allegedly made by Blackhawks players to a woozy Backes along the lines of "Wakey, wakey," a couple of former players suggested folks are a bit ultrasensitive if they're up in arms. The bottom line is that there are really no limits to what gets said on the ice. The league has done a nice job of ensuring that players know there is a line, such as racial slurs or comments about sexual orientation, but other than that, it's pretty much open season when it comes to trash talking and verbal jousting. It might not be nice and, certainly given the seriousness of the concussion issues in the NHL, it might seem somewhat more shocking that those words were exchanged. But trust us, in the heat of the moment, much worse stuff gets said and stays on the ice, where it belongs.
Anytime you get swept, it's embarrassing, and the Tampa Bay Lightning should be embarrassed on some levels by their meek four-game exit at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens. The series was a disaster for Anders Lindback, who finished with 14 goals against, an .881 save percentage and 3.91 goals-against average, as he tried to hold the fort in the absence of Ben Bishop. In hindsight, coach Jon Cooper should have rolled the dice after Game 2 and gone with the young Latvian Kristers Gudlevskis, who came on in relief in two games and stopped 18 of 20 shots. But the Lightning failed to do many things right in this series, so it would be unfair to pin it all on Lindback. Worth remembering, though, is that the Lightning were the youngest of the 16 NHL teams in the playoffs and boast two of the three Calder Trophy finalists for rookie of the year -- Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. And Victor Hedman really blossomed this season. But part of moving from expectation to delivering the goods sometimes means taking your lumps in the playoffs, as Hedman and the Bolts can understand.
On the other side of that series, I'm pleased for Montreal head coach Michel Therrien, who has rewarded general manager Marc "Dancin' in the Press Box" Bergevin's faith after Therrien, and the Habs, imploded in the first round last year against Ottawa. And likewise, nice to see Daniel Briere, who struggled through a difficult regular season under Therrien, do what he does best and deliver in the playoffs. Briere finished the series with a goal and an assist, including the primary helper on Dale Weise's overtime winner in Game 1 and the opening goal in the series finale.
Have to give credit to Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau for making the hard decision and scratching future Hall of Famer Teemu Selanne for Game 4 in Dallas. The Stars are a big, physical team and without last change on the road Boudreau figured the team's chances of winning were better with Selanne -- one assist in the first three games of the playoffs and just nine goals during the regular season -- in street clothes. The problem for the Ducks was that they also were without captain Ryan Getzlaf, who was scratched with an upper-body injury. The Ducks couldn't hang on to an early 2-0 lead and lost 4-2, evening the series at two games apiece. Getzlaf's status for Game 5 is cloudy. The Selanne scratch prompted Selanne's son, Eemil, to post a tweet joking that Boudreau had been reassigned to the American Hockey League. It's always tough at this stage of an elite player's career when their history is at odds with their ability to contribute in the here and now. Selanne was not a factor in last spring's first-round playoff loss to Detroit in which the Ducks led early but couldn't close the deal. And he has struggled in the bruising Western Conference this season in spite of a terrific turn for Finland at the Olympics, where he helped lead the Finns to a bronze medal. The Ducks, the Pacific Division champs, are in tough against a Dallas team that is brimming with confidence, so the tough decisions for Boudreau aren't going to go away anytime soon.
And finally, we are pleased for youngster Tomas Hertl of the San Jose Sharks, whose chance at a rookie of the year award and a spot on the Czech Olympic team was dashed with a serious knee injury back in mid-December. He returned without missing a beat in spite of the four-month layoff and had two goals and two assists in the first four games against the Kings. I chatted with Hertl in San Jose just before he suffered the injury and, while shy, he talked with great excitement about getting his driver's license and how helpful countryman Martin Havlat had been both in the dressing room and outside the hockey world in easing his transition to the NHL game. Right from the get-go, Sharks coach Todd McLellan has had terrific confidence in the talented winger, playing him with Joe Thornton and Brent Burns early in the season. Hertl has played a different role to start the playoffs, lining up on the Sharks' effective third line with Tommy Wingels and James Sheppard, although he also has played some with Thornton and Burns. The ripple effect of having Hertl back in the lineup is obvious, as McLellan has the luxury of using Joe Pavelski at either center or wing, which makes the Sharks especially hard to defend. Just ask the Los Angeles Kings.