Thursday, March 1, 2012

NHL strikes out again

During last night's Penguins/Stars game in Dallas, another dangerous hit came into question. As Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang reached down to play a puck, in came Dallas' forward Eric Nystrom with a big check that injured the Pens' best blueliner.

On the play, Letang was in a vulnerable position due to where the puck was when he went to move it. However, Nystrom never made an attempt to play it, opting for the kind of hit that the NHL is supposed to be watching intently. The impact of Nystrom's hit caught both Letang's shoulder and chin, knocking the All-Star down for several minutes. Unfortunately, he didn't return and is now suffering post-concussion symptoms 24 hours later. He'd already missed time due to a concussion and recently returned. Since, the Pens have played their best hockey, trailing the Rangers by seven points for tops in the East following last night's 4-3 shootout win.

As usual, Nystrom's risky hit came under heavy scrutiny with NBC Sports Network's Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick getting into a shouting match over the severity of the play. Somewhat astonishingly, Milbury came down hard against the hit- choosing player safety while Roenick pleaded for hitting to stay in the game. Roenick didn't feel it deserved a suspension while Mad Mike, who usually criticizes how soft the league has gotten, wanted Nystrom to get five games. The emphasis of head shots resulting in many concussions after the league said it wanted tougher discipline on such dangerous hits, is one thing Milbury used to support his argument for stiffer penalties.

From watching several replays, our view is similar to Milbury with Nystrom making no attempt for the puck while taking out a player in a prone position. Making it even more daunting was that Letang had just took a clean check when he reached with his stick to move the puck in the corner. Nystrom came straight in with a right shoulder which landed simultaneously to Letang's upper body and chin, knocking him down. With some help from teammates, he was in obvious pain as he went to the locker room.

The referees called Nystrom for a two-minute interference minor. A penalty that was introduced a few years ago. It's their judgment on how much the culprit should get. I remember Colton Orr getting the book in a game for us. Could it have been prevented? Yes. Part of the problem is that there's no respect anymore. Nystrom made no attempt to avoid Letang. Even if he couldn't get out of the way, the least he could've done was try not to inflict so much damage. Instead, he didn't and was a frequent target for star Evgeni Malkin the rest of the way in a very chippy game. During a shift, the league's leading scorer tried to elbow Nystrom and slash the Star.

This is what happens when players continue to take liberties, showing blatant disrespect. That League Deputy Brendan Shanahan didn't even fine Nystrom for the hit is mind boggling. Former official Kerry Fraser criticized the ruling with some excellent observations on TSN. Maybe it's time for the NHL to reevaluate itself. After a good start by Shanahan, it's business as usual. Until the league becomes more consistent on such controversial hits, they'll continue to be their own worst enemy. If you want to protect players, then stop being so hypocritical. Maybe then players will finally get the message.

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