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roy macgregor

It was a game that had a tough time finding its identity.

The coaches and players had taken their shots: Ottawa Senators head coach Paul MacLean telling the Montreal Canadiens players to "grow up" the night before; Montreal assistant captain Brandon Prust calling MacLean a "bug-eyed, fat walrus" in the morning.

The starting lineups were rigged for explosion: Matt (The Kassassian) Kassian, normally a scratch, dressed for the occasion; the Montreal players opposite up to the occasion.

And yet, nothing happened. At least not for a long, long while.

The Senators, with a chance to win a second consecutive match on the road in this first-round playoff series, could not even get a shot on net until more than seven minutes into the game.

Game 1, on the other hand, had been fast, skilled, thrilling – marred only by a second-period collision between huge Ottawa defenceman Eric Gryba and Canadiens forward Lars Eller. Gryba's thundering hit had knocked the Montreal player out, causing his face to slam into the ice, blood pouring from broken teeth and nose.

And that, of course, changed everything.

Long before NHL vice-president of player safety Brendan Shanahan ruled Gryba had no "malicious intent," but still deserved a two-game suspension as an illegal hit to the head, the hockey world had tied itself in knots over the issue.

An Ottawa Sun front showing the bleeding Eller behind a "First Blood Sens" headline drew furious protest in social media, with some respondents threatening their own violence.

MacLean had blamed the Montreal defenceman, Raphael Diaz, for sending a "suicide" pass up to Eller, but had pretended not even to know his name, mentioning him only by number. The callousness had outraged Montreal counterpart Michel Therrien, who accused MacLean of showing a "total lack of respect for Lars Eller and his family in the stands. I'm not going to accept that."

It was a strange debate that raged across the land and Twitter-verse all day Friday. "Respect," Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kessler told reporters on the West Coast. "You've got to have respect. There's not much respect in this league."

Nor, it seems, is there much agreement on what's right, what's wrong, what's a penalty, what's not, and what's suspend-able and what's not.

Once a country of 30 million general managers when it comes to drafts and trades, Canada has become a country of 30 million vice-presidents of player safety when it comes to supplementary discipline and interpretation of the rules.

The reaction to first the hit and then Shanahan's ruling caused such vitriol in social media and the sports media it is fair to say at the moment hockey's mystical "code" has gone through a paper shredder, even if it is supposedly unwritten. No one is sure any more of anything.

What exists today is a cat's cradle of polarized views, Habs fans vs. Sens fans being only the most obvious, simplistic and understandable. But there are other duelling tensions – Old-School Hockey vs. New Hockey Awareness; A Man's Game vs. A Brain's Game. …

What is missing is any middle ground where common sense can stake out some ground. Yes, it is a tough, rough game. Yes, player safety is paramount. But beyond that, where are the answers?

This struggle is hardly new to the game.

In 1904, Ontario Hockey Association head John Ross Robertson warned if they didn't clean up the game they would one day be calling in the coroner.

Coroners have been called in; little has ever changed.

In the 1960s, Senator Hartland Molson, of the family that again owns the Canadiens, called on his fellow owners to "Put an end to the mayhem. I cannot see any argument against criticism of unnecessary roughness."

Well, if the senator were alive today he certainly would have heard it Friday.

The Senators argued the hit was fair, the injury unintentional.

Some said the NHL was punishing the result, not the act. Some said this two-game suspension – and the earlier one-game suspension Shanahan gave to Boston Bruins defenceman Andrew Ference for a vicious elbow to the head of Toronto Maple Leafs forward Mikhail Grabovski this week – are not enough to change the culture of the game.

But change is no easy road. That was evident in MacLean's various statements that the hit was merely a hockey play gone bad – true enough, in one sense – and that it was no different from hits delivered in the past by the likes of Scott Stevens.

"I think it's still like that," MacLean said. "It's still like that."

With respect, sir, it isn't.

The Stevens hits to Eric Lindros and Paul Kariya, both contributing to the stars' early exits from the game, would not go unpunished today. The rules have changed slightly; society has changed a lot – in no small part from what science has had to tell us about a game we all love.

In time, this second match lowly turned into a determined bid by the Canadiens not to avenge Eller but to even the series, which they did convincingly in a 3-1 victory over the Senators.

This singular match did eventually find its identity.

But it is the game itself that still needs to.