On Thursday, Pittsburgh and Washington will meet for their tenth series all-time in the Stanley Cup playoffs with the Pens gunning for a ninth series victory. Today is the anniversary of a classic Penguins – Capitals postseason game. The fourth game of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal started on the night of April 24, 1996, with the Caps leading the Pens two games to one. It ended early the next morning, 21 years ago today, at 19:15 of quadruple overtime, at the time, the longest game in either teams’ history and the third-longest game in NHL history.
Petr Nedved scored the winner on a power play – already his sixth goal of that series – through traffic in front of Olaf Kolzig to give Pittsburgh a 3-2 victory. Later this week, the Pensblog will more thoroughly reminisce about this and other classic Penguins – Capitals playoff games as we get ready for the clash of hockey’s titans and more memorable moments in their rivalry.
But back to the present…
The legacy of the First Round series between Pittsburgh and Columbus will always be Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel double teabagging Columbus without mercy. However, one of the more notable but unfortunate footnotes that came from the series was the incident in Game 2 when Columbus forward Matt Calvert cross-checked Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl in the shoulder, then checked him in the head while Kuhnhackl was bent over. With just 35 seconds left in the third period, the Pens were clearly on the way to a 4-1 win and a 2-0 series lead. Calvert was suspended for one game.
This was a classic away-from-the-play, senseless penalty that we’ve all grown accustomed to seeing at the end of lopsided playoff games. A player or players from the losing team take out their frustration on the nearest opponent, often with intent to injure. There’s even a nice disingenuous phrase for it: “Message-sending”. Exactly what message is it? We can’t beat you on the scoreboard, but because I’m angry, we’ll beat your face into the ice…
I have a message to send.
For the sake of player safety and the credibility of playoff hockey, the NHL needs to amend some of its rules regarding end-of-game fines and suspensions to send a message to petulant players and coaches: acts of frustration that endanger members of the other team and turn the last few minutes of a lopsided game into a gong show will not be tolerated. That’s not what playoff hockey is all about.
From a disciplinary perspective, there should only be two broad categories of on-ice infractions: 1) those that are committed during actual hockey plays and 2) those that are committed away from the play, out of frustration.
Presently, the NHL Rulebook has a lot to say on the first type: fouls that are committed during the course of competitive game action. Rule 20.4 Automatic Game Misconduct and Rule 20.5 Fines describe the types of major penalties for which a player will be immediately thrown out of a game such as checking from behind, head-butting or boarding/charging/elbowing that causes a head or facial injury. Players will forfeit a minimum of $100 to $200 depending on the type of major penalty they receive.
As for the second type of infraction, the frustration type, the Rulebook is more vague. While the NHL requires an automatic game misconduct for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of a game, there is nothing in the Rulebook regarding automatic fines or suspensions for clearly dangerous acts of frustration in the final minutes of a lopsided game.
Therefore, I’d like to see a series of automatic fines and suspensions levied for any violent act of frustration committed by players in the final minutes of a game. No hearings or phone calls with the Department of Player Safety needed. Whether it’s a Calvert-like cross-check and head-shot or slew-footing, elbowing, spearing, boarding, charging, etc., let’s start with a minimum fixed suspension that’s a larger proportion of a best-of-seven series – two or three games. Raise minimum fines for major penalties and game misconducts committed at the end of playoff games into the thousands of dollars. Fine coaches and clubs for promoting or permitting “message-sending”. If discipline and cash penalties are meant to dissuade dangerous behavior, then minimum fines and suspensions must be raised to a true level of deterrence.
When the puck drops on Thursday evening at Verizon Center, true Penguins and Capitals fans alike will agree on one thing: we all want to see four to seven highly-competitive hockey games. No one wants to see the last two minutes of any of the games devolve into ten actual minutes of referees sorting out penalties borne out of frustration while the two head coaches make asses of themselves standing on the bench yelling and debating “message-sending”. Cracking down on end-of-game circuses would be one way of keeping everyone’s eyes on the skill, speed and intensity of playoff hockey, where our focus should be.