Sunday, January 09, 2011

Enough Already!

More ink has been devoted to Sidney Crosby's medical condition over the past few days than has been spilled in chronicling Justin Bieber over the last year, with as much point to it. One of the subplots here is that his concussion was actually suffered as a result of a hit he took in the Winter Classic against the Caps on New Year's Day. And within that subplot, there is the none-too-subtle suggestion -- much of it from Crosby himself -- that David Steckel's hit on him that might have caused the injury was outside the rules. In fact, there is the whiff of "intention" in some of the comments.

We are tempted to use a Bruceism here. We do not claim to be utterly unbiased in looking at the play in question, but we do think a compelling case can be made that the play was a hockey play that went wrong for Crosby. And we have several snapshots from the NBC/CBC coverage of the game to offer to support that point of view. One angle of the play provides the following:

In the first frame we have what really started the play. Karl Alzner backhanded the puck in an effort to clear it out of the zone, and Crosby tried to block the clear with his right leg…

Having missed on his attempt to block the clear, Crosby turns to see where the puck has headed, but look at his lean and his skates. In turning to see where the puck headed, his body is turning, too, causing him to start to circle to his right.

In the third frame, his momentum is starting to carry him further to the right, but he is still in motion in a direction opposite of a number of Capitals skating out of the zone in pursuit of the puck.

In frame four, Steckel enters the picture, also heading up ice as the puck heads toward the Pittsburgh end. Crosby’s head is still turned, and he appears unaware that Steckel is heading in that direction. More to the point, Crosby seems unaware that his momentum has caused him to slide into Steckel’s skating path.

At the moment of impact, Crosby is still turned as if looking for the puck, and Steckel looks to be trying to duck under him. The problem here is simple matter of dimensions. Crosby is listed at 5’11”, while David Steckel is 6’5”. The six inch difference in height places Steckel’s shoulder at approximately the same plane as Crosby’s head. If there is going to be a collision, there is where it will be.

From our point of view, frame six – just after the collision – provides the clearest evidence that the hit was not intentional, at least in the sense that Steckel was trying to get a free shot at a vulnerable Crosby. His position, with his arm extended and his right shoulder lower than that of his left, suggests that he was trying to duck around Crosby to jump into the play. If a player wanted to deliver a blow, he might be expected to keep his arm tucked and drive his shoulder into the other player. That is not in evidence here.

A series of shots from behind the play suggest the same. In the first frame, Karl Alzner is the player crossing from left to right in front of Crosby (in the rear in this shot) backhanding the puck past Crosby and up ice. Steckel (39) is in a defensive position behind Alzner.

In the second frame Alzner has crossed to the edge of the left wing circle. Matt Hendricks (on the left of this frame) is already in pursuit of the puck, and Steckel is just getting underway. But again, look at Crosby. He has already turned and started circling to his left, which will bring him into Steckel’s path.

In the third frame, it is evident that Crosby has moved a few feet closer to the left wing boards and directly into Steckel’s path. Steckel looks to be trying to avoid the obstacle Crosby presents in an effort to join the play.

In the next frame, Crosby has been struck by Steckel, who is continuing along his path up ice, trailing Hendricks.

Finally, Crosby is on the ice, but Steckel still has the lean in his posture that suggests he was trying to jump around to the left of Crosby to avoid the collision and join the rush up ice.

No one who respects the sport, even among Caps fans, can take comfort in seeing a player injured. Even if that player is Sidney Crosby. But no one who respects the sport, even those fans of Sidney Crosby, can take a clear-eyed look at the tape and assume that Steckel’s hit was “dirty” at worst, irresponsible at best. But we have commentators such as Don Cherry who, upon seeing the tape, remarked off-handedly, “funny [Steckel] hit his head," implying that there was no coincidence here. Even Crosby remarked later that “It's really tough to decide if he meant to or didn't mean to. I feel like he could have gotten out of the way and avoided me. Whether he tried to hurt me, only he knows. I guess we'll never know that, but you still have to be responsible out there.”

There are players in this league who would have taken that free shot at Sidney Crosby or another player in that situation. You might argue that Crosby shares a locker room with one of them. But David Steckel has nothing in his past to suggest he is one of those players. He has seven penalties this season, six minors and a fighting major. That fight is one of four that Steckel has in his NHL career, one fewer than Crosby. He has a career total of 106 penalty minutes in 270 games, an average of about 25 seconds of penalty time a game. By comparison, Crosby has 387 penalty minutes in 412 career games, a rate more than twice that of Steckel (and yes, Crosby averages almost twice as much ice time per game as does Steckel).

There is an issue that deserves some consideration, though. Rule 48 was instituted to protect players from blind side hits. Rule 48.1 states: "A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted." One can say with great confidence that Steckel did not “target” Crosby’s head, but even Caps fans would have to acknowledge that it was the “principal point of contact.” The mitigating factor in this is that Crosby came into Steckel’s skating path as Steckel was trying to make a play, in this instance to join on a rush up ice. That kind of condition is not accounted for in Rule 48, which states with clarity that “targeted” or “point of contact” head shots are forbidden.

Had Steckel been penalized under Rule 48 (which requires a major penalty assessment), one could make a case that it was warranted. The rule addresses an act without regard to intent or circumstance. But please, don’t be making the case that David Steckel is a dirty player or that he took advantage of an opportunity to injure, or at least deliver a blow to an vulnerable opponent. This was an unfortunate incident that has and will have effects on the Penguins, at least for the next week or so. It isn’t any more than that, try as some might within the narrative of the Capitals/Penguins rivalry narrative to make it so.

A TWO-point night -- Game 42: Caps 3 - Panthers 2

It was not pretty. But it was a win.

The Washington Capitals worked their way to 6-0-2 in their last eight games last night with a 3-2 win over the Florida Panthers. The win was significant in several respects. First, it marked the Caps working their way all the way back from the 0-6-2 streak they had in early December. Second, they recorded a power play goal. The power play remains 7-for-64 (10.9 percent) since that losing streak started, but every power play goal is a sign of hope that the team is getting that back on track. Third, Alex Ovechkin recorded a goal, only his fifth in his last 24 games. However, that goal last night was his third in five games, a pace with which Ovechkin and fans are more familiar.

Other stuff…

-- Florida had three shots and a goal before the Caps recorded their first shot on net almost six minutes into the game. That might not be especially significant, except that the Caps enjoyed a power play in the middle of that on which they had no shots on goal and were whistled for offside three times. And that lone shot on goal had to last them another seven-plus minutes until they got their second one (at 13:14 of the period). That is pretty much the definition of a slow start.

-- Not that the Panthers were lighting up the shot meter, either. They had only three shots in the first 15 minutes of the first period. That buzzing sound was 18,398 fans dozing.

-- Speaking of 18,398 fans, that makes 84 in a row… sellouts, that is.

-- Mike Green had the power play goal last night. It didn’t come in the usual way – the weak side pinch on the right side – but rather via a backhand when he had some open ice in front of him leading to the slot. It was “usual” in this respect. Of the eight goals Green has so far this year, five have come with the man advantage.

-- Alex Ovechkin played a lot of right wing last night. One could see an effect similar to that in basketball where a player favors dribbling with one hand or the other. In basketball, if a player favors one hand or the other, a defender can overplay him to that side. Defenders were doing that with Ovechkin, either cutting off his power move to the middle from the left wing (which plays to the strength of his right-handed forehand) or leaving Ovechkin with a frustrating path if he tries that move. On the right side, his right-handed forehand makes a cut to the middle a problem precisely because he is a right-handed shot. He has to carry the puck wide to create space for himself. Repositioning him provided Bruce Boudreau with the means to force Ovechkin to do things that he probably should have been doing on the other side. It didn’t seem to slow him down; he still had 11 shot attempts and six on goal.

-- A somewhat unusual night in a defensive respect. Karl Alzner was on the ice for both Panther goals; John Carlson was on the ice for the second one. It was Alzner’s first “minus” game in his last ten. He was a plus-8 in the nine games before last night. Alzner also tied for the team lead in hits last night (four).

-- Don’t look now, but last night makes three goals in three games for Eric Fehr, four in his last six (4-3-7, plus-5). And where is he getting them from? Well, of the last three, plunking himself in front of the net to convert a turnover, a breakaway, and plunking himself right at the top of the crease last night to rook a pass from Mike Green. Go…to…the…net.

-- Nicklas Backstrom continues to struggle to find the back of the net – no goals now in his last 16 games. But with an assist last night he has eight assists in his last 14 games, four in his last six.

-- Alexander Semin did not answer the bell for the third period. He took a hit by Steve Bernier late in the second period that sent him awkwardly to the ice. Looks like a leg injury that leaves him day-to-day.

-- The 3-2 score was indicative of a game played in a 200-foot, take-the-local sort of game. The teams combined for 54 shots on goal and only 109 shot attempts in the 60 minutes. Compare that to the Los Angeles-Columbus game in which there were 70 combined shots on goal and 128 shot attempts in 60 minutes of a 6-4 Kings win.

-- Of the 27 shots the Caps had, 11 of them came from Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green. Eleven players shared the other 16 shots on goal.

-- In as tightly-contested a game as this the Caps did themselves no favors in the offensive end in getting puck possession. They were 5-for-15 in faceoffs in the offensive end.

-- 13 of 18 skaters had hits; 11 of 18 skaters had blocked shots. Defense means paying a price, and the Caps seem to be buying into that notion that holding teams off the board requires that price be paid. We can make that 16 skaters in a way, since Mathieu Perreault is out there with a shattered nose (you want to hit a guy or go down for a blocked shot with that?), and Alexander Semin didn’t play in the last 24 minutes (although hits and blocked shots are not generally a feature of his game).

-- Scott Hannan was minus-9 and didn’t have a plus game in his first eight games with the Caps. In his last eight games he is plus-3 and has not had a minus-game.

-- Semyon Varlamov just keeps on rolling.  He is 4-0-2 since he was lit up for seven goals against the Rangers and marries that record to a 1.31 goals against average and a .956 save percentage with one shutout.

In the end, it was another grind-it-out sort of game for the Caps, making them 11-4-6 in one-goal games so far this year. The .524 winning percentage pace is one that would improve on last year’s 20-8-13 mark in such games (.488). It is as good a signal as any that the Caps are not relying on blowing out teams with big offensive nights. They can play these low-scoring, no-highlight games in a way that eluded them last year. It might not be pretty to watch, but it brings a smile to folks’ faces when they look at the standings the next morning.