It took until only the third night of the playoffs, with the Senators in Montreal Thursday for Game 1 of their series, for the ever-emotional “bad hit” controversy to move front and center into the Stanley Cup conversation.
Montreal forward Lars Eller, in the midst of collecting a pass from defenseman Raphael Diaz, was met near his blue line by a brutal smack from former Boston University defenseman Eric Gryba, a rookie Senator with, as we say here on the NHL Five-O beat, “no priors.”
Head down, looking to gather in the Diaz feed, Eller crumpled when smoked by Gryba’s right shoulder. Based on how he fell and the resultant damage (broken nose, facial fractures, lost teeth, concussion), it appeared Eller was knocked cold on his feet. He crashed face-down on the ice, where a sizable pool of blood quickly collected, and he ultimately was hauled out of the Bell Centre on a stretcher and ferried to a local hospital by ambulance.
Within minutes, the whole issue rested with Brendan Shanahan and his pals in the league’s “Player Safety” department. Their charge: to determine whether the hit was worthy of supplemental discipline. Gryba was tagged with an interference major (five minutes) and a game misconduct, and the 25-year-old Friday had a hearing with Shanahan and friends.
And here’s the good news: Player Safety tagged Gryba with a two-game suspension. The message: knocking vulnerable players senseless will not be tolerated. A bad day for those who’ve grown to love seek-and-destroy hockey.
The league in recent seasons has made great strides, in the wake of head injuries to Marc Savard and others, in trying to clean up, if not eliminate, hits to the head. I saw a couple of video clips of the Gryba-Eller hit and, without the ability to dissect it frame-by-frame, I couldn’t tell exactly where Gryba’s shoulder makes contact. However, it was clearly high enough to addle Eller, because he demonstrated no ability to defend himself against the face plant that immediately followed. Whether Gryba’s hit was on the button or not, it served the same as a targeted knockout punch. In other words, close enough, and plenty devastating.
These are the kinds of hits and plays that speak more to hockey’s culture than rulebook. Rule 48.1 in the league’s manual, regarding illegal checks to the head, specifically exonerates hitters in incidents where “the opponent puts himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit.’’
The key word here is “vulnerable.’’ No question, given the delivery point of Diaz’s pass, combined with the forward’s need to dip his head to find the puck, Eller made himself vulnerable. That vulnerability could have been Gryba’s get-out-of-jail-free card. Thankfully, Shanahan and crew felt differently. Common sense carried the day.
Those who argued in Gryba’s defense pointed first to Eller’s vulnerability, second to Gryba’s circumstances. For Gryba not to finish through on the check, they said, would have allowed Eller to dash by him and perhaps score. Well, maybe. I doubt it, but maybe.
The middle ground here, or the gray area, is to expect players to respect one another and not take advantage of a vulnerable player. Gryba, with the advantage of watching the play develop in front of him, easily could have hit Eller lower, closer to mid-body, with the same force. He could have pulled up or slowed slightly and still contained Eller, perhaps even be left in better position himself to make a play after contact. Both were reasonable options. Instead, Gryba remained locked fully in the game’s seek-and-destroy culture and aimed to finish the check, knock Eller senseless. Mission accomplished. Although, I have to give Gryba one benefit of the doubt here and suspect he never figured the hit would turn into such a blood-oozing train wreck.
These hits, sadly, aren’t going to change overnight. General managers guide the rulebook and they’re generally OK with these hits. Big, bloody, bone-jarring collisions help sell the game. The GMs may not always like the outcome, especially when the brain that gets addled belongs to their top scorer or primo defenseman. But they are the ones who crafted the language specifically around an injured player putting himself in a “vulnerable position.’’ They gladly accept the money that the violence produces.
Here’s hoping Friday’s decision is a meaningful step forward in changing a culture gone bad, and changing the minds of players and GMs alike.
Disease hasn’t stopped goalie
Impressive, if not courageous, performance by Wild goalie Josh Harding Tuesday night when he made a hurry-up start for Minny’s top ’tender, Niklas Backstrom. Dinged by a shot in warm-ups, the 35-year-old Backstrom was forced to yield to Harding, who was diagnosed as recently as September with multiple sclerosis.
Moments before puck drop, Wild vs. the mighty Blackhawks, prized left winger Zach Parise could be seen on the ice reassuring Harding.
“I was just telling him it’s his time now,’’ Parise told the New York Times.
Harding, 28, who saw limited action during the season, in part because he needed to adjust to his MS medication, was sensational in the playoff opener. He turned back 35 of 37 offerings and played the full 76:35 before giving up Bryan Bickell’s winner in overtime.
It was Harding’s first start since Jan. 30 and his first substantive NHL action since before bowing out of a scheduled start Feb. 12 vs. Vancouver, reporting then that he wasn’t feeling well due to his meds. He spent the next six weeks on injured reserve before reporting back to the Wild at the end of March.
Former Bruins draft pick Jordan Sigalet is the only other goalie with MS known to have played in the NHL. Sigalet spent three years in AHL Providence and served 43 seconds of relief for one game with the Boston varsity. Since retired, following a brief run in Europe (Vienna, five games, 2008-09), Sigalet these days is the goaltending coach for the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat.
Harding, selected 38th overall in the 2002 draft, is in his seventh NHL season. Last summer, prior to his MS diagnosis, he signed a three-year, $5.7 million contract extension through 2014-15.
“He’s been through an awful lot,’’ said Wild coach Mike Yeo, who brought Harding back for Game 2 Friday night. “Not many people can understand what he’s been through.’’
Windfall for Avalanche
Some of Colorado’s pain and suffering paid off Monday when the Avs won the draft lottery; they will pick first in the June 30 draft at Newark. Desperate for some back-end giddyup, they’ll no doubt select Portland defenseman Seth Jones, son of ex-NBA forward Popeye Jones. The Avs have a prized bunch of young forwards, and the likes of Jones pairing with Erik Johnson could lead to a rapid resurgence, provided the front office fills out the picture with some veteran grit/role players (maybe free agent Brenden Morrow, now in Cup exams with Pittsburgh). The Panthers will pick second, the Lightning third. It will be the third time in four years that Florida selects in the top three. Tampa picked No. 1 (Steven Stamkos) in 2008 and No. 2 (Victor Hedman) in 2009.
As reported Friday on boston.com and bostonglobe.com, Bostonian Jeff Vinik, owner of the Tampa Bay Lightning, has decided to shut down his multibillion dollar hedge fund, Vinik Asset Management. The news came on a day when the Dow ziplined along at an all-time high of nearly 15,000. V.A.M., meanwhile, was down 4.8 percent over the 10 months since July 1, 2012. The fund, valued at some $9 billion last year, had been delivering 17 percent annual growth in recent years. Bloomberg News was first to report Vinik’s decision, which he said will allow him more time to run the Bolts. In a letter to investors, Vinik wrote, “Time for us to take a break.’’
Gotta love the Islanders’ Matt Martin. The club’s 11th pick (No. 148 overall) in the 2008 draft led the NHL this season with 234 hits. And there he was Wednesday, amid the Islanders’ 5-0 meltdown in Pittsburgh, still out there smackin’, delivering 10 hits against the Penguins.
That’s a platinum plugger. The 6-foot-3-inch, 210-pound left winger also led the league last season with 374 hits —
A bit of old-time playoff hockey entered the picture around noon Friday when forward Brandon Prust, one of Lars Eller’s teammates, fired back at Ottawa coach Paul MacLean. Following the game Thursday, MacLean was among the many to say blame for the hit on Eller rested with Montreal’s Raphael Diaz, not Ottawa’s EricGryba. Prust on MacLean: “He’s already shown enough disrespect . . . we don’t care what that bug-eyed fat walrus has to say.’’ All reminiscent, of course, of May 6, 1988, when irate Devils coach Jim Schoenfeld bellowed at referee Don Koharski: “Good, because you fell, you fat pig . . . go have another doughnut . . . go have another doughnut!’’ Lard will link Schoenfeld and Koharski together for the rest of their lives. Could be the same for Prust and MacLean.
The area’s first NHL Alumni Pro-Am tournament wrapped up last weekend at the New England Sports Center in Marlborough, and the three-day event raised some $300,000 for the head trauma unit at Children’s Hospital in Boston. The Hub of Hockey never disappoints when it comes to reaching in the pocket for worthy causes. Kudos to Ray Bourque, Terry O’Reilly, Rick Middleton, Brian Leetch, Bob Sweeney, and many more for their great work, along with NESC and the International in Bolton, which played host to a Texas hold ’em event.
The Sabres announced Monday that Darcy Regier, on the job since 1997, will return as general manager, a question left unanswered in the wake of coach Lindy Ruff’s firing during the season. “Terry is asking for [us] to try a lot of things,’’ Regier said, noting that owner Terry Pegula is looking for multiple methods to turn the Sabres into a Cup contender. “He is in search of creating a Stanley Cup champion. It may require some suffering.’’ That last line will linger with a fan base that has not seen a Cup since franchise doors opened in October 1970. Fans buy into hope, not suffering. Regier has stockpiled a bunch of draft picks, some of which, he hinted, could be spun off for high-end talent, similar to how the Kings acquired Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to morph into a Cup winner last year. The Richards deal included a second-round pick to Philly, while the Carter acquisition sent a first-round pick to Columbus.
Tough night at the faceoff dot for Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf vs. the Red Wings in Game 2 of their series Thursday. The Ducks’ franchise center won only 3 of 17 drops for a lowly 17.6 percent. This after winning but 4 of 11 (36.4 percent) in the opener. Getzlaf won only 48 percent of his drops during the regular season, a steep drop from Patrice Bergeron’s league-leading pace of 62.1 percent.
The Bruins gave the Blues a sixth-round pick at the trade deadline in order to acquire Wade Redden, who Wednesday went 1-1—2 in the convincing 4-1 win over Toronto (raise your hand if you had Redden scoring Boston’s first goal in your office pool). How soon do you think it will be before that sixth-round pick goes 1-1—2 in a playoff game? . . . Craig Anderson turned aside 48 of 50 shots in Ottawa’s 4-2 win Thursday over Montreal. Per Elias Sports Bureau, he became the fourth goaltender in 30 years to win a non-overtime postseason game when facing 50 or more shots. The others: Winnipeg’s Nikolai Khabibulin (1996 vs. Detroit), Montreal’s Jaroslav Halak (2010 vs. Washington), and LA’s Jonathan Quick (2011 vs. San Jose) . . . Rookie Gustav Nyquist potted Detroit’s OT winner in Game 2 vs. the Ducks, the first time in 64 years that a rookie Wing’s first playoff goal came in OT. Nyquist, 23, was the 121st pick in the 2008 draft, the same year he joined UMaine . . . The salary cap may be falling by nearly a quarter-billion dollars next season, but Blackhawks fans won’t share in the owners’ relief. According to Mark Lazerus of the Chicago Sun-Times, the Hawks are boosting season ticket prices by 15 percent for 2013-14 . . . Without a job all season, ex-Bruin Brian Rolston officially retired last week. Impressive career line: 761 points in 1,256 regular-season games . . . A crowd of some 3,000 gathered outside Toronto’s Air Canada Centre for each of the Leafs’ first two playoff games in Boston to watch the games on a big screen. It’s the kind of outdoor partying that might happen around TD Garden if the Bruins ever get around to developing the vacant building parcels they control in the front and back of the building.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.