The violent collision between the Bruins Milan Lucic and Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller in Boston’s TD Garden last Saturday night was one of the more spectacular of the season. The verbiage in the hours following was visceral, particularly the comments coming from the injured goaltender post-game and then from his chastened teammates back in Buffalo the following day.
The ripples of the incident carried through to Monday when Lucic was interviewed by the NHL’s ubiquitous Director of Player Safety Brendan Shanahan, who subsequently released the 23 year old with credit for time served (aka the 2 minute minor for charging). By Tuesday morning, when the Leagues’ General Managers gathered in Toronto, the topic of goalie protection was a last-minute add to their agenda.
After all the attention, nothing tangible has come of it. And that’s how it should be.
To my eye, there were three reasons this story took on such significance:
- First it was the power of the collision itself, like something from a well executed car-chase scene, awful and beautiful at the same time. That the principals were icons of their teams, Milan Lucic and Ryan Miller, makes it all the more thrilling. A freight train vs a Mustang convertible, the roof of which goes flying as it spins wildly. Repeated four times in slow-motion from every possible angle. Hoozah!
Think about the history of those teams as Division rivals, recent playoff series with failures and successes, and the clubs’ identities. Boston reached the pinnacle last June with a performance that was fabulously gritty, physical and tough as nails. The reputation of the other team is, well, still undergoing an extreme makeover. These players perhaps best define that cornerstones upon which their teams are building, so it wasn’t just Lucic vs Miller, but more symbolic of different strategies toward success with a pair of high-profile faces filling our video screens.
Which is to say if it was Ryan Carter running over Kari Lehtonen, I just don’t see the same conversation ensuing.
- The second issue that came under scrutiny was in the failure of a [retaliatory] response from the Sabres. Some even speculated that was an indication his teammates don’t regard Miller as someone they need to protect. I don’t see any signs the Sabres are so dysfunctional in their dressing room.
Personally, I'll suggest the Sabres thinking was two-fold. 1) Lucic has a fight card that is both long and illustrious. As illustrated here or again, here – you sure want a piece of that? 2) With the current transition in the League trying to handle dangerous hits off the ice and making punishment for pre-meditated retaliation similarly severe, the rules are a bit fuzzy, still sorting themselves out. From the Sabres perspective, what was the smart play in 2011?
Retired players who are now among the top talking heads, like Daryl Reaugh or Jeremy Roenick, are fine with the incident, and put the onus on Miller. Others say it would have been much worse for Lucic in the immediate aftermath had it happened 10 or 20 years ago. Was the flaccid response that night more about the Sabres lack of toughness or was it about this transition of the game to being more about skill and less about goons?
- Finally, why this debate became such a tempest in a teapot grew from the most significant adjustment in the NHL rulebook this season. Driven by heightened awareness that the league needs to make more visible efforts to reduce concussions by penalizing headshots, Rule 48 was invoked in this play. Buffalo GM Darcy Regehr wasted no time in spelling out Miller’s injury, and certainly that was intended to raise the stakes and challenge Shanahan to settle the score where his own players did not.
Now, the topic “goalie protection” was somehow pinned to the headlines regarding this storyline all week, and no changes were made to the rules on the matter, last time I checked. The multi-year debate about headshots, determining whether it’s the injury or the intent (of the one inflicting it) that sets the punishment, and the most effective and common sense methods of enforcement/deterrence - both on the ice and at the League’s offices in New York – are still up in the air.
But for now, this is all we got out of it, as Shanahan provided the following directive to players following his meeting with the GM’s Tuesday, which near as I can tell, is reaffirming the status quo:
“Going through that discussion today I think there is certainly a very heightened sensitivity to the goalies in this League. Certainly they are not fair game. Players have to understand that. The general managers expressed to me the importance of all the players on the ice, but also the extreme importance of the goaltender. So I do think that is something as a message to the players around the League, if anybody does think it's a tactic and a tactic that is a smart gamble on their part, it won't be."You got all that? If not, we may see it a few more times before the line between "Do" and "Don't" becomes clear.
Photo credit: AP