You can say one thing about Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's new czar of discipline (and head of the player safety committee). He isn't afraid to throw the book at star players, even the ones named Alexander Ovechkin (of the Washington Capitals) or Shane Doan (of the Phoenix Coyotes).
Just Wednesday in fact, Doan received a three-game ban for an elbow to the head of Dallas Stars forward Jamie Benn, a play that occurred the day before in what finished as a 4-3 Phoenix loss.
It'll be a suspension worth remembering when Shanahan convenes a disciplinary hearing into an elbow that the Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith delivered to the head of the Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin during Wednesday's game between the two Western Conference rivals, won by Chicago 2-1 in overtime. There's a lot of bad blood between the two teams, stemming mostly from a series of gripping playoff meetings over the past couple of years – but this? This is starting to escalate out of control.
It used to just be Dustin Byfuglien harassing Roberto Luongo. Fun. Then last year, it ramped up in Game 3 of their first-round series, when the Canucks' Raffi Torres clobbered Brent Seabrook with a vicious hit behind the net that inflamed passions on both teams – especially Keith, who is Seabrook's friend, defensive partner and someone who raised the overall level of his play dramatically in the aftermath of the incident.
But that collision was nothing compared to the events of Wednesday night when Keith, smarting from a shoulder hit by Sedin to his head earlier in the game, lowered the boom on the Canucks' scoring star with an elbow to the head, and knocked him out of the game.
The play occurred with about six-and-a-half minutes to go in the first period, with Sedin, a former Hart Trophy winner, circling in the centre-ice area, looking to play a puck that crazily ricocheted off the boards. As the unsuspecting Sedin tried to follow the puck, Keith – a former Norris Trophy winner – came in and clobbered him with a deliberate elbow to the head. Sedin, staggered, went to the bench, briefly returned, but then left the game for good during the second period. Keith received an elbowing minor on the play.
For much of the rest of the game, the Canucks tried to exact their pound of flesh from Keith, and ultimately precipitated a second-period brawl that saw Alex Burrows wrestle Keith to the ice and punch him in face. Both received minors and misconducts on the play.
But the larger issues are: 1. How badly is Sedin hurt? and 2. How long a ban with Keith get for the elbow?
If Sedin, the Canucks' leading scorer with 30 goals, is out for any extended period, it won't matter how long a sentence Keith gets – three games, like Ovechkin and Doan earned, or more, because of the seemingly deliberate nature of the hit. Normally, Keith is not a dirty player and has never been called on the NHL carpet before. That sets him apart from Ovechkin and Doan who were repeat offenders when they got the call from Shanahan. But it doesn't excuse, or change the fact, that Keith lowered the boom on a defenceless player, the sort of head shot that the NHL is desperately trying to get out of the game.
Rivalries are a funny thing. Earlier this year, Chicago's Dave Bolland was busy making fun of the Sedins in a local radio interview. Coach Alain Vigneault took it to heart and blasted Bolland back. Usually, whenever Chicago and Vancouver meet, the result is riveting, intense games. But more and more, the players seem to be crossing the line, and that's not good – not good for the hitter, the hittee or the game itself.
One of these days, the line will be extended beyond the three-game mark and Shanahan's going to make an example of somebody. It'll be 10 games or more, and maybe the message will eventually start to sink in.