The Hit Heard 'Round The Crease
Milan Lucic argued it wasn't intentional.
Ryan Miller would disagree.
Lucic's bodycheck on Miller, Brendan Shanahan believes, was "nothing egregious."
Miller, sitting at home with a big headache, would disagree. Given that egregious is defined as "conspicuously bad," and that I haven't seen a goalie nailed like that in years, it's worth wondering what would be an egregious hit on an NHL goalie.
That Shanahan, the NHL's hanging judge, ultimately saw the weekend incident all Lucic's way and not Miller's is, really, the latest example of a process that began 12 years ago when Brett Hull had a toe in the crease and they counted his Stanley Cup winning goal anyway.
Against the Sabres, by the way.
Back then, that toe was controversial because all season the league had enforced a philosophy in which the blue paint was there for the goalie and the goalie only, and any interloper was to be sanctioned. It was too hard to call consistently, and too many goals that were viewed as good hockey plays were wiped out on itsy-bitsy infractions.
The Hull goal, approved that weird night in Buffalo by a phantom memo similar to last year's "hitting zone" memo that allowed Raffi Torres to skate unpunished after a head shot on Brent Seabrook, was the beginning of the end for the toe-in-the-crease philosophy.
That the crease wasn't there for only the goalies really picked up steam two seasons after the 2004-05 lockout when the league began to notice scoring was slipping again after the first season following the work stoppage included all kinds of offensive fireworks largely because of new rules and an enforcement on hooking and interference fouls. Teams adjusted defensively, and rather than do something radical (and logical) like expand the size of the nets to fit the much larger modern goalie, the NHL quietly started allowing more contact in the crease. The goalies suddenly were required to deal with a great deal more interference and body contact, often trying to play the position with enemy attackers standing in the middle of the crease.
That philosophy - such an immense departure from the toe-in-the-crease days - has hit a crescendo this season with more contact on goalies than has been seen in the history of the sport. Goalies are now seen as often without their masks as with, which is good, perhaps, for the marketing end of things if you want to get a closer look at these fellows' faces, but also an indication of how often they're being hit and hit hard.
Concussions suffered this season by two high-profile NHL goalies - Miller because he's outstanding, James Reimer because any goalie who tends goal for the Maple Leafs, good or bad, is by definition high-profile - is the result of the philosophy that goalies are not to be protected. Reimer was elbowed in the head by Brian Gionta, who was assessed only an interference penalty. The league was basically silent on that one. Lucic just hit Miller like he would any player on the ice, and while he received a minor penalty, the B's were more than rewarded for the hulking winger's decision to hit Miller when the Buffalo goalie had to leave the game.
That sets up a nice scenario next week in Buffalo when Boston's goalie, whether it's Tim Thomas or Tukka Rask, will undoubtedly get run and a brawl will ensue. The NHL doesn't mind this stuff. Sells tickets, as will that game between Washington and Pittsburgh in early December will at least partially because it will be the first between the two clubs since Arron Asham's most unfortunate mocking of a concussed Jay Beagle after a fight.
But with respect to goalies, the NHL is walking an intriguing line, here. It clearly doesn't view netminders as equivalent to football quarterbacks and thus in need of special protection. Rather, it views the ability of NHL forwards to create chaos in the blue paint as integral to the sport, although it's interesting that a decade ago under the very same Bettman administration goalies were protected in a very different way.
Coaches are again proving to be more successful at producing choking defence than creative offence, as proven vividly by the embarrassing display by the Tampa Bay Lightning last week, and the NHL undoubtedly worries that doing more to allow men to stop the puck without being battered will only further reduce scoring. Moreover, it seems to believes goalies are far more replaceable than No. 1 goalies, and maybe they have a point. Jhonas Enroth may have inadvertently demonstrated that Monday night in Montreal, and the the ups and downs of goalies in recent years has some convinced that the days of star goalies able to dominate the position for years are over.
That's another debate, however.
On Lucic, he deserved the penalty, and probably at least a fine from the NHL. He deliberately ran over Miller, and it's surprising Shanahan saw it so differently. That Lucic then essentially taunted the Sabres, saying the Bruins would never stand for such an insult to their goalie, will help produce fireworks next week that NHL.com will gleefully both promote and then feature on its website.
But in it's "war" against concussions, the league seems to have excluded goalies from the endangered list. Right now, given the Reimer and Miller incidents/injuries, you'd have to argue there's evidence that taking a run at the other guy's goalie is more than worth it.