by: Dejan Kovacevic, TribLIVE Updated:
NEW YORK - There's a raging temptation to push for the NHL to punish Marc Staal with the same ferocity, the same lack of remorse that the New York defenseman displayed in hacking the back of Sidney Crosby's head not once but twice Monday night.
Both were committed with the stick, essentially a weapon.
Both were aimed at the most dangerous part of the body to strike.
Both were blindside.
Both were cowardly.
And you guessed it: Both were missed by both referees, meaning a suspension is the only remaining recourse.
“Hey, what's the difference?” as Matt Niskanen was telling me after the Penguins’ 2-0 shutout of the Rangers in Game 3 of their Stanley Cup playoff series. “You do it, and you know all you'll get is a fine.”
Sad to say the man is right. That's Gary Bettman's NHL. Never mind protecting the stars. Not even the rabble among the game's players are safe from head assaults like Staal's.
I'll be surprised if Staal gets so much as a wag of the finger, never mind a robustly deserved suspension.
So in lieu of this laughably inept league taking real action, I've got a better proposal: Splice out one seven-second sequence from early in the second period, strap Staal down to watch from a chair Clockwork Orange-style, and roll it on an endless loop.
You know the one: Robert Bortuzzo's stretch pass sprung Crosby with a partial break near the New York blue line. It was partial because Staal was nearby. Just not for long. Crosby smoked him with an unfair first step, then swooped toward the left before unleashing a wicked wrister by Henrik Lundqvist's far side.
Nothing cheap about that shot.
For a first goal of the playoffs, first in 13 games of any kind, first after missing glaring open nets?
Yeah, that'll do.
“Honestly, it did feel good,” Crosby said with a slight smile. “The main thing is that you get chances and that you trust that they'll go in.”
Here's hoping Staal has plenty of popcorn for the viewing. It couldn't have happened, on this night, to a more fitting villain.
I don't mean to be a downer here. I get that the victory was vital for the Penguins in giving them control of the series. And I appreciated Marc-Andre Fleury's brilliance in back-to-back shutouts, Paul Martin's command of the blue line, Jussi Jokinen coming up big yet again and the staunch penalty-killiing that must have the Rangers muttering to themselves.
But sorry, I think too highly of this beautiful game of hockey — and so, so little of those who run it at the NHL level, including the ironically named Player Safety department — that Crosby/Staal loomed largest from this view.
If, like referees Dan O'Halloran and Kelly Sutherland, you missed those plays, here's a breakdown:
• Midway through the first period, with Crosby in the New York slot but facing back to the points, Staal crosschecked Crosby across the back of the helmet with such force that Crosby's head snapped forward the way one sees with car crash test dummies.
I don't have to remind anyone in Pittsburgh what that could mean with this particular player.
“He's pretty good like that,” Crosby said, initially joking a bit as he spoke. “He can be sneaky. It's not the first time.”
But in a quieter moment later, Crosby was serious when he said simply, “He got me good.”
Still, Crosby kept playing. Didn't dive. Didn't whine.
But if there was any reward for that, it sure didn't come later in the period when Staal used his newfound license to lumberjack his stick downward onto the side of Crosby's neck.
Again, no complaint. No stoppage. Heck, even in my asking Crosby about the incidents, I pretty much had to drag it out of him.
What else does the NHL want to see from its biggest star?
For that matter, what else does the NHL want to see to finally get serious about cutting down on concussions?
Crosby's hardly alone in this category. Staal missed half a season three years ago with his own concussion, one that some feared at the time could cost him his career.
And if that guy doesn't worry about the consequences of seriously injuring a peer, it's painfully clear the league's message … well, there just isn't any message.
Staal's only response when asked about his stick assaults on Crosby: “It's competing. He's coming to the front of the net, and there can't be free ice.”
Play on, boys.