The Senators have put the Rangers on the ropes in their playoff series, and New York’s situation is even more precarious since they will be without their third line centre, Brian Boyle, who was concussed in Game 5. Boyle has arguably been the most important player for the Blueshirts but an unpenalized hit by Ottawa’s Chris Neil knocked him woozy and he didn’t finish the game.
The decision by the NHL to not conduct a hearing or suspend Neil is almost certain to be widely condemned by Rangers fans and others who have expressed outrage against the atmosphere surrounding this year’s playoffs.
But while Rangers coach John Tortorella drew comparisons between Neil’s hit to that of Raffi Torres, which earned a 25-game ban, the real, most legitimate comparison is with the hit by the Canadiens Max Pacioretty on Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang, also a hit delivered when the victim was in the act of shooting.
And in his video explanation that Brendan Shanahan provided when he suspended Pacioretty, we can find the key to why Neil is not being punished.
First, here’s the hit on Boyle from the CBC telecast:
Here’s how it looked on NBC Sports Network with another replay angle:
This play is very similar to the one from last November at the Bell Centre, when Pacioretty leveled Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang just after Letang followed through after a shot. If you recall, Letang’s nose was broken, he left the game briefly then came back and scored the game winner. He was concussed, however, and missed a total of 24 games. Pacioretty was not penalized but was suspended by Shanahan for three games for the hit.
Habs fans may remember Pacioretty expressing surprise that he was suspended, believing he did nothing wrong, that he had always been told the type of hit he made on Letang was the right play and a legal one.
Here’s the Pacioretty hit and the explanation by Shanahan about why he was suspending Max, and it is one of the more detailed explanations Shanahan provided this past season:
The key to Pacioretty’s suspension — and the key to why Neil was not suspended — can be found in Rule 48 and in Shanahan’s words: “When cutting through the middle on a play like this, all players accept and understand the danger and expectation that a full bodycheck may be looming. Letang makes the decision to sacrifice his body and must accept the possibility of taking the hit to make the play. However, what no player should expect is that his head will be picked and made the principal point of contact on such a hit.”
Shanahan goes on to say that his Department of Player Safety has to ask on a play like this whether the shooter moves his head in such a so as to put himself in a vulnerable position; if so, the onus is removed from the checker and placed on the puck carrier. The video spotlights Letang’s head and shows its position doens’t appreciably change and that put the onus on Pacioretty to avoid making the head the principal point of contact.
“While we agree with Paccioretty’s assertion that Letang’s body position makes it difficult to avoid the head,” Shanahan continued, “it is still his responsibility to make principal contact through the core of Letang’s body.” The video then shows how Pacioretty shifted his weight to make contact with Letang’s head. He uses the word “reckless” in describing the hit, meaning he did not believe Pacioretty intended to make head contact.
That didn’t change the result, however. The bottom line is that Pacioretty made very little, if any, contact with Letang other than to his head area.
Going back to look at Neil’s hit, the two replay angles at the top, while not as truly definitive as the video Pacioretty hit, they don’t really show that Boyle’s head was the principle point of contact as much as it was a full body hit. The head was contacted, but was not “picked” or made the principal point of contact.
Now, the NHL also had additional angles of the hit from the Rangers home telecast on the MSG Network that helped them make the decision — and you can see them here, starting at 1:20 of the video. These are more definitive with regard to how much contact Neil makes with the rest of Boyle. He certainly hits Boyle’s head, but he also hits through “the core” of Boyle’s body. That’s what distinguished it from Max’s hit and was most likely the determining factor in letting Neil off.
Of course, Pacioretty returned from his suspension and went on to have a breakout season for the Canadiens as the club’s top scorer, coming back after being victimized last year by Zdeno Chara in one of the most notorious incidents of the 2010-11 campaign. Even though he’s not part of the playoffs, the decision to suspend him provides an explanation to a postseason incident that will certainly be talked about for a while.