2012 NHL playoffs: First-round series marked by violence, suspensions

April 18, 2012

The first week of the NHL postseason has produced spectacular goals, scintillating comebacks and two series on the verge of surprising upsets. There’s also been a notable increase in controversial violent hits and fighting — and disciplinary suspensions by the league.

The NHL has doled out, or upheld, bans to nine players, including Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals, for a total of 16 games in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The league has also fined two players and a coach a total of $15,000. There were seven suspensions during all of last year’s postseason.

“Just watching — and I’ve been watching a lot of the games — everything is just a little bit more intense than it normally is,” Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner said Wednesday.

No one is certain why the violence and mayhem are up this year, though Alzner said it may have something to do with the success the Boston Bruins had last year in winning the Stanley Cup. “Everybody wants to establish their dominance,” Alzner said. “Everybody saw what Boston did last year and how they were so good at fighting for their ice and frustrating teams. Everyone is trying to play a little like that.”

One theory is the heated series between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers, in-state rivals with a history of dislike for one another. Referees handed out 158 penalty minutes during Game 3 of their best-of-seven series, which the Flyers lead 3-1 after Wednesday night’s 10-3 win by the Penguins in Game 4.

It included a rare fight between two of the game’s superstars — Sidney Crosby of the Penguins and Claude Giroux of the Flyers. Indeed, three of the nine bans handed down by the league — and one of the fines — have been levied against members of the Penguins.

The Penguins-Flyers matchup has also put the NHL in a familiar quandary. On the one hand, league officials say they want to reduce violence in the game. On the other, violence drives television ratings.

The rating for the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia Game 3 on NBC reportedly drew a 2.3 share, the best number for an NHL playoff game, excluding a Stanley Cup final contest, in a decade.

Another theory for the uptick in violence is that players are finding it harder to straddle the line between being aggressive and out of bounds.

“The internal compass between what is right and wrong is gone for lots of players,” said Ray Ferraro, who played 18 seasons in the NHL and is now a hockey analyst for Canadian broadcaster TSN. “Keep suspending them. And I don’t care of the outcry from the Board of Governors is, ‘Oh, we’re losing our players at the most valuable time of the year.’ Too bad. If you’re players don’t commit the act, they won’t get suspended.”

At Kettler Capitals Iceplex on Wednesday, there was considerable discussion about a hit delivered the night before by Phoenix Coyotes forward Raffi Torres against Chicago Blackhawks star Marian Hossa. Torres left his feet to hit Hossa squarely with his shoulder in center ice just after the Chicago forward had delivered a pass.

The hit left Hossa sprawled on the ice for five minutes. He had to be placed on a stretcher and was taken to the hospital in an ambulance.

He was released later in the evening, but the Blackhawks set no timetable for his return.

Torres was not penalized for the hit during the game but has been suspended indefinitely and is scheduled to have a face-to-face hearing with Brendan Shanahan, the NHL’s director of player safety, Friday in New York.

“I don’t recall anybody getting hit the way Marian Hossa got hit,” Ferraro said. “Maybe there was. I just don’t recall it.”

An NHL spokesman said it would be inappropriate for anyone from the league headquarters to comment on the rash of suspensions because of the pending decision on Torres.

Boston defenseman Greg Zanon said the onus for controlling the violence is ultimately on the players.

“Seeing some of the highlights of some of the hits, it’s just a lack of composure,” he said. “You want it so bad. The will to win is what’s driving everybody to play so much more intense. As players we have to figure out a way to still have that drive but keep our emotions in check enough where we’re not hurting one another.”

Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin said it doesn’t help that players are unsure of what constitutes a suspendable offense and what does not, pointing to Nashville defenseman Shea Weber escaping with only a $2,500 fine after using his hand to smash Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg’s head into the glass last week. Zetterberg was uninjured but his helmet was broken in two.

“You can see how Weber hit Zetterberg in the head and he gets just a fine,” Ovechkin said. “That might be a dangerous moment. You never know what’s going to happen …what the decision is going to be. We can talk about it all day, but nothing is going to change. It’s all about them and their minds.”

Although there are many theories for the increase in violence, the consensus among Capitals and Bruins players Wednesday was that ultimately it is not good for the game.

“Guys have to take it upon themselves to realize what is good for the game of hockey and what is hurting it from the bad press you get for it,” Capitals winger Troy Brouwer said. “Hockey’s already got a rep for people who don’t know as being a sport with a bunch of guys who just go out and fight. For the average fan who just sees those kinds of things on the highlights, that’s not really selling the game to them.”

Added Comcast SportsNet hockey analyst Alan May: “We’re here talking about suspension, not the quality of the hockey. In every series it’s getting to the point where all people are talking about are suspensions, non-calls and calls.”

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