In the NHL Playoffs, the hitting is ferocious as is the intensity. This postseason’s been no exception. In both the first and second round, we’ve seen questionable hits cause injury, aggravation and frustration.
During their first round series loss to the Penguins, the Rangers were up in arms over this undetected Kris Letang stick swing that took out three of Viktor Stalberg’s teeth. NHL Player Safety didn’t even discipline him for it. Ironically, Letang did get punished for his illegal hit that could’ve seriously injured the Caps’ Marcus Johansson in Game Three of the Eastern Conference Semifinal the other night. Only called an interference minor, the All-Star defenseman stayed in the game his team hung on to win 3-2 to take a two games to one lead. He is suspended for tonight’s Game Four which starts in a few minutes on NBC Sports Network.
It was in last night’s tough Islanders’ 5-4 overtime loss to the Lightning in Game Three at Barclays Center that another tough hit led directly to the game-winning goal scored by Brian Boyle at 2:48. Moments earlier, it was Boyle who came across and delivered a hit that knocked down Isles’ defenseman Thomas Hickey. As he laid on the ice, it started a three-on-one for the Bolts with Boyle getting a fortuitous bounce on a wide Victor Hedman shot that caromed off the back boards, allowing him to beat Thomas Greiss for the overtime winner.
After falling in heartbreaking fashion, Islanders coach Jack Capuano fumed over the Boyle hit. He and team captain John Tavares were visibly upset charging that Boyle’s controversial hit cost them the game.
“It’s a direct shot to the head,” Capuano charged in a New York Post article written by Brett Cyrgalis. “[Boyle is] probably going to get suspended a game. The whole game, it shouldn’t come down to that.”
While that’s true to a certain extent, it doesn’t fully explain the end of regulation. Cal Clutterbuck put them in front 4-3 with 8:37 left. But Tampa’s young ace Jonathan Drouin patiently waited before somehow finding just enough real estate for a seam pass to Nikita Kucherov, who tied the game with his playoff-leading seventh at 19:21.
In essence, that was where Game Three turned in the Lightning’s favor. A flat Islanders never recovered, losing quickly in sudden death on Boyle’s rebound. If you watched the Boyle hit which can be seen on the video provided above closely, he never leaves his feet. Instead, the bigger 6-7, 243-pound Boyle simply delivers a shoulder hit to a prone Hickey. If you look at it enough, Boyle makes shoulder to chest contact catching Hickey’s chin which knocked him down and forced the turnover.
Is it a “head shot” as Capuano claims? The issue with some hits is that they can wind up high and make head contact. However, not every hit is dirty. In this case, it looks like a bigger player delivering a clean check that caught a smaller player who wasn’t expecting to be hit. Nothing was called on the play, allowing it to continue- resulting in Boyle’s OT winner.
In this particular instance, the two refs and two linesman got it right. Unfortunately, it cost the Isles a game they had under control. They had done a good job protecting the one-goal lead following Clutterbuck’s tip in past Ben Bishop of a Casey Cizikas pass. Even after Tampa coach Jon Cooper pulled Bishop for an extra attacker, they hadn’t gotten much. In fact, the Isles could’ve sealed it with a vacated net but the Bolts recovered just in time.
Ironically enough, Drouin had just returned from taking a similar hit from Hickey back in the second period. In that case, a puck carrying Drouin came across the Isles’ blue line and was drilled by a great Hickey open ice hit that took him off the puck. He missed the rest of the second before returning in the third and impacting the game. Afterwards, the Bolts’ second-year forward said it was a good, clean hit.
Not everyone agreed. Some thought Hickey left his feet. In watching the hit, it’s close. But I don’t think it merited a penalty or any discipline. Not coincidentally, Hickey’s hit on Drouin wasn’t reviewed by the Department of Player Safety either.
In each case, both hits were fine. It’s hockey. Sometimes, it happens. This wasn’t a case where a player crossed the line such as Brooks Orpik on Olli Maatta. On that one, he came too high and caught Maatta flush with a late hit that was a head shot, injuring the Pens’ defenseman who hasn’t returned since. Orpik received three games and won’t return until Game Six if there is one.
NHL officials and NHL Player Safety have a tough job. We don’t always agree with their decisions. But they’re not always wrong. The game is faster than it’s ever been. From time to time, things get missed. If you watched how badly outplayed the Rangers were by the Pens, I don’t think a double minor to Letang would’ve made any difference. However, they only trailed by one and lost 2-1 in Game Three. But they were dominated.
For the Islanders, they must move on. Game Three is over and done with. They had an opportunity to take a 2-1 series lead. Ultimately, they blew it. Rather than focus on Boyle, they must turn their attention to Game Four, which isn’t until Friday. Make no mistake about it. They must win that game on home ice. If they don’t, their season will probably end.
In Game Three, it wasn’t all bad. Josh Bailey returned and rewarded Capuano’s faith by scoring twice. He had a great game after missing the first two due to an injury. So much for all the criticism that he shouldn’t have replaced Ryan Strome. Bailey is a better overall player at this point, playing more responsibly in his end. Strome is still not a finished product. He impacted Game One recording two primary assists on a pair of Shane Prince goals in a 5-3 win. But was ineffective going minus-one with no shots in a 4-1 Game Two defeat.
Brock Nelson has also struggled. After notching two helpers in the first game, he is without a point in two straight with three shots and a minus-one. During the regular season, he scored 26 goals but has only one in the playoffs. None over the last eight. Kyle Okposo is also without a goal in eight straight. He’s been quiet so far against Tampa with one assist despite recording a game high 10 hits on Tuesday. The Isles need more from their second leading scorer.
Speaking of which, Tavares didn’t record a point for the second consecutive game. In Game One, he was dominant scoring his team-leading sixth and setting up another. A tighter checking Lightning have paid closer attention to him. He and Okposo each were minus-two in Game Three. The Islanders won’t come back if Tavares doesn’t lead them. He’s the best player in the series.
So far, that distinction goes to Tampa defenseman Victor Hedman, who recorded his second goal of the series and helped set up Kucherov’s tying marker after making a great defensive play. Hedman has been a big factor in the Bolts’ two straight wins, recording two goals and three helpers while going plus-four and playing more minutes than any other skater. Cooper has no choice with Anton Stralman still out. He’s leaned hard on the former ’09 second overall pick, who came behind Tavares. Matt Duchene followed at number three.
With the big Game Four still two days away, the Isles must be ready. The focus is on evening the series and turning it into a best-of-three.