NHL playoffs: Eller hit may change more than Montreal-Ottawa series
Here's a clue as to how wacky and contentious this first modern era Canadiens-Senators playoff matchup has gone so far: You lose a tooth, you end up as the star of the game.
Of course, the NHL's decision to suspend Senators defenseman Eric Gryba for two games after his hotly debated hit on Canadiens center Lars Eller in the opener may end up having more bite in the big picture beyond this series. But the fact remains that the Canadian Dental Association should be selecting la première étoile pour le match ce soir, and it makes you wonder who will lose a tooth and stand out tonight.
In Game 1, Sens goalie Craig Anderson was hit in the mask by a Rene Bourque shot and lost an incisor. He also stopped 47 other shots in a remarkable performance, leading Ottawa to a 4-2 victory.
Then in Game 2, Canadiens goalie Carey Price lost parts of two teeth when he was accidentally kicked in the mask by his own defenseman, Jarred Tinordi. Price played his best game in a long time, backstopping his club to a 3-1 win.
And in that crazy Game 3, Ottawa's rookie forward Jean-Gabriel Pageau caught a stick in the face while unloading a second period shot that beat Price for what would be the game-winning goal. Yep, Pageau spit a chicklet -- and then scored twice more for the hat trick. He also got a couple of minor penalties, but nearly everyone spent some time in the box during the Sens' 6-1 win, except those who went right to the dressing room with game misconducts.
In all, 236 penalty minutes were assessed on Sunday and that, more than missing teeth, is the story of this series.
Will the animosity of Game 3 continue on Tuesday night? That's a big question heading into Game 4 -- and not just for those who salivate over the embarrassing Junior B gong show we saw in the third period of Sunday's tilt, but also because one team is better equipped to prevail in a physical series.
Being tougher is a big reason why the Sens hold a 2-1 lead after the brawl-filled game and why they'd be perfectly pleased if things remain on the rugged side, even if open warfare doesn't continue.
The Canadiens are the faster and more skilled team, but they are also smaller, a chronic problem for Montreal that dates back a few seasons. So Ottawa's path to victory is clear: Hit the Habs early and often. Slow them down, wear them out, rough 'em up a bit. It was obvious early in Game 3 that coach Paul MacLean's troops had targeted three key Canadiens for pounding: Brandon Prust, P.K. Subban and Brendan Gallagher. Not coincidentally, they are three of the more physically effective Habs.
MacLean's team survived this season's plague of injuries to many of its skill players by bumping and grinding its way to victory, thriving on a "pesky" identity. The Senators are comfortable in that skin. And even though many of their guys have returned, they have no intention of abandoning the style that works for them. As a consequence, they have presented a formidable and multidimensional challenge to their more famous neighbors and newly-minted hated rival.
Playing with a sharp edge is only going to create more room for the always-dangerous Daniel Alfredsson, who has feasted on the Habs throughout his no-doubt Hall of Fame career. With a goal and two assists on Sunday, Alfredsson looked 10 years younger than the '40' printed in his player panel. Erik Karlsson and sniper Milan Michalek, both of whom have made stellar returns from injury, also thrive when their teammates bump the opposition for them.
A couple of in-series adjustments by MacLean also worked well in Game 3. He scratched winger Guillaume Latendresse and replaced him with Cory Conacher. Some suspect the former Hab wasn't playing tough enough for MacLean, and if so, putting Latendresse in the press box certainly sent a message to the rest of the Senators. His major move was promoting Pageau to the first line in place of Kyle Turris and getting three goals out of him. That led the fans in Scotiabank Place to sing "Pageau, Pageau, Pageau, Pageau!" to the melody of "Olé, Olé, Olé, Olé!," the favorite tune sung by Bell Center fans when their Habs get on a roll.
Now, we'll see what sort of adjustments Canadiens coach Michel Therrien conjures up. He was forced into some for Game 2 due to injuries to Eller, Max Pacioretty and Brian Gionta, all important forwards, and Therrien was able to coax a strong performance from his squad. Pacioretty and Gionta returned for Game 3, but weren't much of a factor. Neither was David Desharnais, the Habs' top center, who doesn't even have a shot on goal through three games.
One thing Therrien may want to change is his own demeanor, which is starting to remind observers of his more volatile younger days coaching the Penguins and his first tenure behind the Canadiens' bench. Once overly-emotional, Therrien was thought to have reformed, but he's getting agitated and suckered into a war of words with MacLean, who is probably very happy to see his counterpart come a bit unhinged and is not adverse to assisting in that effort by, for example, calling a timeout to set up his team's power play with a five-goal lead and only 17 seconds left in the game.
Therrien's displays of anger seemed to spread to his players, distracting them from their task. They, too, grew unhinged as the Sunday rout wore on.
Emphasizing the Habs' strengths is probably a better way for Therrien to go on Tuesday than continuing the street-fight approach that the players settled on in Game 3. They didn't win too many bouts -- except for the silly mismatch of Subban mugging Turris -- and it just detracts from what they do best.
But one thing is for sure: Therrien is going to need goalie Carey Price to outduel Craig Anderson and, so far, Anderson has clearly been the better of the two.
Subban, too, needs to relocate his discipline, and the Canadiens as a whole won't stand much of a chance if they can't figure out how to open up the ice and take advantage of the areas in which they excel. That includes the power play, which has produced only a pair of goals in 13 attempts. Improved performance with the extra man could go a long way to blunting Ottawa's game plan.
Things might be different with Eller in the lineup. He'd become a very good forward for the Canadiens during the last month, often centering for Gallagher, who is a Calder Trophy nominee, and fellow rookie Alex Galchenyuk, while playing with some edge of his own.
But the hit by Gryba, who returns on Tuesday after his two-game ban, changed all that, and the hit itself also may signal a change in the way the NHL rules on certain headshots.
The league's ruling seemed to mark something of a departure. In the past, Rule 48 had been enforced when the checker targeted a player's head and made it the principle point of contact. Videos explaining suspensions made clear that the distinction between a legal and illegal hit could often be found in whether the checker "picked" the head of his victim or hit it in the course of delivering a full body check. Not wanting to discourage checking, the NHL excused hits that involved full body contact and, by doing so, rendered certain head checks within the rules.
The ruling on Gryba's hit was different. Many observers -- including former NHL referee Kerry Fraser on TSN, who had advocated stronger rules on hits to the head -- called it a vicious but clean shot, believing head contact was made while Gryba made a full body check.
That was the most common assessment heard around the league. Personally, I watched the play countless times and could never determine for myself whether Gryba got Eller's head or his body. But it's not my decision, nor is it anyone's but the Department of Player Safety.
And Brendan Shanahan was sure. In his ruling -- which showed the hit at least 10 times from perhaps seven different angles -- he said that Gryba did indeed make contact with Eller's body but not enough of it. The head was still the principle point of contact, which is the crux of Rule 48. That was a new twist on these rulings.
Shanahan added another nuance by talking about the "route" that Gryba took to deliver the hit as not being "correct." Here's his explanation:
This distinction that the checker did not make enough of a full body check is one that I don't recall seeing in any previous ruling, which is fine because, as the league is fond of saying, every hit is different and in this one, it ruled that the head still remained the principle point of contact -- not "principle" as in the first point of contact, league spokesman John Dellapina told me in an email, but "principle" as in main point.
The idea that Gryba took an incorrect route needs some examination. Unfortunately, Shanahan didn't do that in the video and should have.
But it was explained by Brandon Prust, of all people, hours before Shanahan made his ruling. Speaking in the Canadiens' dressing room -- when he made his now well-known remark calling MacLean a "bug-eyed fat walrus" -- he talked about how Gryba executed the hit (about 1:15 into this clip).
"When a 'D' steps up -- you can ask any 'D' in the league -- you have the choice to hit the guy square on, like he has him lined up. He chose not to hit him on his front shoulder, and he went for his far shoulder. If you're going to try to avoid his front shoulder to go for his far shoulder, what are you going to pass? You're going to pass his face. And that's why he hit him in the face. He didn't want the impact of a full body check. He wanted to just hit him, and when you just hit somebody, you're going to usually catch their face."
Now you may want to dismiss Prust's words because Eller is his teammate, but if you watch the video of the hit again, what he's offering us is a pretty lucid description of how what appears to be a good hockey hit ends up being a dangerous one and how Shanahan came to this ruling.
This is all somewhat new territory for Rule 48.
Some in the hockey world are whispering that we're about to see more of the same, that the NHL will be tougher on head checks from now on because of the lawsuits brought by NFL players against that league alleging that it hid the dangers of concussions. They say the NHL doesn't want the same legal hassles and would rather show that it has been increasingly aggressive in its effort to eliminate head checks. It's certainly possible that argument could be part of the league's defense.
There's some grousing that the NHL shouldn't be tightening its rules and interpretations of Rule 48 now, while the season is ongoing, but should do so in the offseason. But with the NFL players' suit working its way through the courts, it is believed that the NHL can't delay, especially now in the first round of the playoffs where the competition is most heated and players seem less hesitant to cross the line and make over-the-top plays.
If this is all true, a new reality about head shots is upon us and the hockey world had best get used to it.
In the meantime, the Senators and Canadiens will again wage war on the ice. Hopefully, no one loses more than a tooth.