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Boston Bruins' Marc Savard lies on the ice after being hit by by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, (Keith Srakocic/Keith Srakocic/AP)
Boston Bruins' Marc Savard lies on the ice after being hit by by Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke in the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Pittsburgh, Sunday, (Keith Srakocic/Keith Srakocic/AP)

Allan Maki

More nastiness foreseen as Bruins' anger escalates Add to ...

It is building into something toxic, something the NHL needs to address before it spills from the airwaves and Internet onto the ice. Fans are angry. The general manager is angry. The Boston Bruins' players are upset.

They've been raked for not taking their pound of flesh from Matt Cooke, the Pittsburgh Penguin who knocked Bruins centre Marc Savard cold, perhaps ending his season. The Bruins hoped the NHL would suspend Cooke. It didn't.

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And in less than a week, the Bruins and Penguins are scheduled to play again, this time in Boston's TD Garden, where the mood is certain to be grim if not hostile if not bloodthirsty.

Does this not set off alarm bells or remind you of what led to Todd Bertuzzi suckering Steve Moore in 2004? It should.

Instead of defusing matters by suspending Cooke, the NHL finds itself with a potentially explosive situation that has satisfied few and infuriated many. Bruins' fans critical of how the team chose not to physically confront Cooke in last Sunday's game in Pittsburgh are venting their spleens demanding revenge.

One website scribbler opined: "This whole team should write a letter of apology to Marc Savard."

Former Bruins coach Mike Milbury, now a Hockey Night in Canada commentator, said in his blog: "Not often in the last five decades have the Bruins been accused of being soft, but in their Cheez-Whiz approach to the incident on Sunday, this group qualifies as mushy. They accepted the hit on Savard as quickly as they would a free lunch."

Those comments have been heard by the Bruins' players, one of whom, injured defenceman Andrew Ference, feels the NHL's decision not to punish Cooke has left them in a bad place.

"I think the league has a responsibility to hand out punishment," Ference said. "It can't be a vigilante league or you get the Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore incident.

But you have a fan base screaming, 'You didn't do anything in Pittsburgh. Where's the payback?' They want retribution. Now they're even more enflamed by having zero punishment.

"The players feel pissed off because there are no consequences for a hit like that. It's such a bad situation for the league as well as the fans and players."

What has also crawled under the Bruins' skin is the league's decision that it couldn't suspend Cooke because he'd broken no rule - didn't leave his feet, didn't use an elbow, just lowered his shoulder into an unsuspecting player in a vulnerable position.

Bruins' GM Peter Chiarelli figured there was still a way the NHL could have punished Cooke and argued that point vehemently.

"I tried to convince the hockey operations staff to take it out of the current rule and use the repeat offender criteria to kind of implement an infraction of intent to injure," Chiarelli told the Bruins' website. "I am disappointed. I thought the hockey operations staff would push the envelope a bit on supplemental punishment."

Considering the league's GMs were just debating new rules over head shots at their Florida meetings, you would have thought suspending a repeat offender, particularly one as loathed as Cooke, would have been quick and easy business. Instead, it's all been made worse with the players once again wondering what rules can be stretched and how far.

"You just told every guy in the league, 'Feel free to knock a guy's head off and you won't be suspended,'" Ference said. "If you can sleep at night doing it, feel free to make hits like that. Beyond our game in a week, what are you telling guys? If they won't suspend a guy for that in the regular season, it must mean they won't do it in the playoffs."

And try this one on for size: What if matters were reversed and it was Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby felled by a shoulder to his head? What if the Bruins target him in next Thursday's game? Try to imagine the outrage if Crosby should be sidelined for any length of time, including the playoffs.

This is not a comfortable spot for the NHL, not when a Cooke suspension would have calmed things and prevented a steady cry from veteran NHLers such as Bill Guerin and Vincent Lecavalier calling for a ban on head shots. What we have instead is what we're hearing and reading: The Bruins are ticked, their fans want revenge.

It's a bad mix - dangerous, noxious, regrettable. And the game looms ever larger.

Follow on Twitter: @AllanMaki

 

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