-- Calgary Flames winger Ville Nieminen has been suspended one game for his forearm to the back of Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier's head late in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals Monday.
The suspension is Nieminen's second of the playoffs and adds yet another spicy subplot to this edgy series, which already has seen its share of crushing checks, three fights, two Lightning players sidelined by suspected head injuries as a result of controversial hits, and now, a head coach throwing around conspiracy theories.
"We have lost three players total to injuries that there was a total of two minutes called," Calgary Coach Darryl Sutter said at the team hotel Wednesday afternoon. "So, fine, we know what we're up against. We're the underdog. I'm not saying that to make a point, but it's dead-on true. We're the little team that wasn't supposed to be here and a lot of people don't want us to be here and to make sure that we're not successful. We know that."
Asked if he meant the NHL, Sutter said, "None of your business."
When Sutter's cell phone rang during the news conference, he said: "Probably New York again. Got to talk to Canada's team."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman issued this statement in response: "Mr. Sutter's comments were ill-advised, inappropriate and inaccurate. The focus of the Stanley Cup Final should be on the ice, and to the extent any response is needed to any gamesmanship off the ice, it will be made after the Final is over."
Nieminen, who has accumulated the fifth-most penalty minutes in the playoffs with 55 and one of the Flames' two-way forwards, will miss Game 5 at St. Pete Times Forum, where the best-of-seven series resumes Thursday tied 2-2. Lecavalier, meantime, said he will play.
Nieminen was assessed a five-minute boarding major penalty and game misconduct after he drove Lecavalier's head into the side glass with 4 minutes 13 seconds remaining in the Lightning's 1-0 victory at the Saddledome. Lecavalier, the playoffs' seventh-leading scorer with nine goals and six assists, stayed down for about two minutes before skating off unassisted. He did not return.
"I was a little dizzy, but a half-hour after the game I was fine," said Lecavalier, who needed stitches to close a 11/2 gash on the top of his head. "I feel great."
Colin Campbell, the NHL's executive vice president and director of hockey operations, spoke to Nieminen on Tuesday, then after reviewing videotape of the incident and a doctor's report on Lecavalier, handed down the suspension.
"Nieminen used his forearm to deliver a forceful hit from behind to the head of his opponent," Campbell said in a prepared statement. "This hit was more severe than any of the other plays that were brought to our attention during the Final. This was a hit that clearly crossed the line and was directed at the head. Even if Lecavalier is able to play in Game 5, this type of hit must be subject to supplemental discipline."
Campbell later added that Nieminen was shown little leniency because he is considered a repeat offender. He was suspended for Game 5 of the Flames' second-round series against Detroit for running at Red Wings goaltender Curtis Joseph.
"You're never going to eliminate it," Campbell said of hits such as Nieminen's, which the NHL has tried to curtail in recent seasons by handing out stiffer penalties. "I don't think it's a problem."
Asked what losing Nieminen means to the Flames, Sutter said: "One less Fin. Fewer vowels."
Although Lecavalier's injured teammates, winger Ruslan Fedotenko and defenseman Pavel Kubina, practiced Wednesday, their status for Game 5 is uncertain. Fedotenko, who sported a full face shield, is tied for the team lead with 10 playoff goals; Kubina is Tampa Bay's best defenseman.
Fedotenko was shoved face first into the boards by Calgary defenseman Robyn Regehr late in the third period of Saturday's Game 3. Kubina, meantime, was hit hard by Calgary's Martin Gelinas in the opening minutes of Game 3.
This much is certain: Tampa Bay players won't seek revenge. The stakes, they said, are too high.
"Everybody wants to win," Lecavalier said. "They want to do all that they can. Both teams are playing very hard, playing very physical to achieve their goal."