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In the first period of Wednesday night's game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Dallas Stars, Kris Letang went to the back of his zone to play the puck. Soon after in the play, Eric Nystrom skated in and made contact with Letang's head, knocking him out of the game.
Nystrom got two for roughing, but do you think he violated the illegal headshot rule? Is this a suspendable hit by your estimation?
First let me tell you what the rule says and then I will tell you what I think.
There's some wiggle room in the language of rule 48 (Illegal Check to the Head) to find reason for the referee not to penalize Eric Nystrom or even perhaps for Brendan Shanahan to avoid suspending the Dallas player for the hit (See the video highlights in the link here) that knocked Kris Letang out of the game (At the time this was posted, Brendan Shanahan already said there would be no suspension or fine). Based on the events of this this play, I don't buy any of it. Here's why.
Rule 48.1 talks about targeting the head as the principal point of contact in the application of this rule, "however, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered." (Wiggle, wiggle)
Kris Letang's sole and obvious intention was to play the loose puck from the moment he began to pursue it from 15 feet away. Letang's focus on the puck and body language tells us so. Through this commitment to make the play on the puck Kris lowered his body position, extend his stick with a reach to poke the puck which thereby put him in a vulnerable position with his head exposed.
With Kris Letang's lowered posture to make the play, and depending upon the referee's vantage point I can appreciate how difficult it would be in real time to determine if Letang's head was the principal point of contact. (Camera angles from two sides demonstrate a totally different look; one accurate one not.)
Eric Nystrom, on the other hand, clearly and immediately made the choice not to play the puck. Instead Nystrom's sole intent was to deliver a hard body check on Kris Letang based on his body language. Given the reasonable distance of separation between the two players when these individual decisions were made (play puck - take the man), coupled with the fact that Letang's alteration in body position was not made immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit, I place the onus on Eric Nystrom to make a conscious decision to avoid contact with Kris Letang's head. Given the fact that Letang was vulnerable and exposed throughout his attempted play on the puck I would not apply the caveat in the rule reference. As such, Eric Nystrom should not be given a free pass on this play.
If the referee had deemed the infraction to be an illegal check to the head instead of roughing the same two-minute time penalty would have resulted. It is now decision time for Brendan Shanahan. I hope he makes the right one.
Following the game I stayed tuned to NBC Sports Network and caught an animated and seemingly heated debate between Mike Milbury and Jeremy Roenick (See the video highlights in the link here) as they shouted their opposing opinions of the Nystrom hit on Letang. With host Bill Patrick and analyst Keith Jones standing on the sidelines unable to jump in I was waiting for a shoe to drop.
On this night (and this play) there was no protest from Mike Milbury that the game would be further 'sissified' if we eliminated these types of hits from the game. On the contrary, Mike got on the stump lauding hits to the head such as this one that result in concussions. He went so far as to say they must stop given the extensive list of concussed players he cited. Milbury even called for a five-game suspension to Eric Nystrom on this play to send the proper message that these irresponsible hits to the head must stop.
I never thought the day would come that Mike Milbury and I would be on the same side of this issue but the day of reckoning has finally arrived. I agree totally with what Milbury expressed in his postgame rant. Player attitudes must change on what they deem to be acceptable body/head contact. More drastic measures in enforcement must be taken by the referees and Brendan Shanahan (and Player Safety Committee) to force players to make the right decisions in real time. Those player decisions must be to check responsibly and not to the head of their opponent when it is exposed or the player is vulnerable.
A five game suspension for Eric Nystrom's poor decision would not be out of line with verdicts imposed on Andy Sutton and others. Moving forward any player in the future that checks the head of their opponent should expect the same sentence.
The League owes it to their players, their future health and the game in general to eliminate as much of the 'wiggle' room as possible when it comes to dangerous hits and principal point of contact to the head.
A five-game suspension might just be the place to restart a player awareness program before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin.