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.