At the risk of sounding like an apologist for the Nashville Predators, it is really too bad Shea Weber lost his cool at the end of a terrific Game 1 of their playoff series with the Detroit Red Wings.
Up to the final horn when the Predators defenceman punched Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg in the back of the head and then drove his head face-first into the glass, that was a classic NHL playoff game. It promises to be a tremendous series with the Predators poised to become one of the great stories of the postseason with their first sustained playoff success.
Detroit and Nashville developed a solid rivalry since the Predators joined the NHL in 1998, thanks in part to the many Motor City expatriates who moved to the Nashville area when General Motors established a factory there. All of that emotion was on display in the crowd at Bridgestone Arena Wednesday night and on the ice as well.
Unfortunately, the Predators could pay a heavy price for their 3-2 win in the opening game of their first-round Western Conference series. Weber is the favourite to win the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenceman and is the anchor of the Nashville defence along with Ryan Suter.
Weber logged 27 minutes, 27 seconds of ice time Wednesday, second only to Suter's 28:34 of all the players in the game. Losing him to even a one-game suspension could be the difference in what promises to be a seven-game series, since the Predators are already missing Hal Gill on their defence due to an injury. The Red Wings could bounce back in Game 2 on Friday for a split in Nashville and take home the momentum of a win.
There is no doubt Weber's hits will be reviewed by Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's lord of discipline. Hey, he mugged Zetterberg right in front of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who was in the seats and appeared to be one of the few people not wearing one of those ugly yellowish Predators sweaters.
Zetterberg was not made available to the media after the game and was said to be getting treatment. However, it appears he escaped a serious injury.
That may or may not influence Shanahan, but there is a chance he will let Weber escape with a fine, which is sure to enrage the Wings. As Craig Custance points out on ESPN.com, Shanahan indicated at the annual general managers' meetings last month that, like his predecessor Colin Campbell, Shanahan looks at the playoffs a bit differently than the regular season.
"The standard of what is illegal or legal doesn't change. When you suspend a player during the regular season, you're suspending him over 82 games," Shanahan said at the meetings. "[In the playoffs] you're looking at things in seven-game clumps. It's a seven-game season each series."
In any event, the only people talking about the incident were the Predators (Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock claimed he was too far away to see anything and didn't think he'd watch the replay). Weber told The Tennessean newspaper, well, it's the playoffs and he wasn't sure if Shanahan will act.
As for the game itself, the Predators showed the Red Wings they are ready to end years of playoff disappointment. Goaltender Pekka Rinne was the big star with 35 saves as the Red Wings came on strong in the last two periods, with his biggest save coming in the third when he sprawled across his crease, flung up his blocker glove and robbed Zetterberg, who had an open net.
But the Predators also showed they have the right mix of skill and tenacity to go deep into the playoffs. GM David Poile assembled the team of Brian Burke's dreams.
The Predators were all fore-checking with gusto – even one of the Kostitsyns was seen throwing a body check for crying out loud – and defending the same way. Their best forwards in the game – Gabriel Bourque, Matt Halischek, Paul Gaustad, Patrick Hornqvist and Nick Spaling – showed you don't need the most skill to compete, just the most resolve, something the Toronto Maple Leafs could learn.
Globe hockey writers offer their opinions on the play:
SEAN GORDON: Ugly. Colossally stupid. And beyond the pale.
The playoffs are about intensity, but when the red mists descend, as they evidently did for Shea Weber, there has to be a stiff sanction.
Punching an opponent in the back of the head during a scrum is one thing, deliberately ramming his head into the glass - after having punched him a couple of times - is quite another.
This isn't WWE Smackdown, dammit.
Weber contends Zetterberg started it, but that doesn't wash, revenge is no kind of defence.
Sorry Nashville fans, the captain's got to sit.
In the regular season it would doubtless be multiple games given Weber's a recidivist, but I strongly doubt the NHL will have the stones to dole out that stiff a punishment in a seven-game post-season set.
He'll probably get off with a stern finger-wagging. Which is ridiculous and unfortunate.
ALLAN MAKI: Shea Weber said it all Wednesday night when he said little about a possible suspension other than, hey, it's the playoffs. That time of year when it's perfectly reasonable to Hulk Hogan an opponent's head into the end glass.
Isn't that what the Stanley Cup playoffs are about?
Tough hockey is one thing but stupid hockey is another matter entirely. And what Weber did to Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg in the dying seconds of their Game 1 playoff matchup was 100 per cent bonehead. For that, he deserves to sit out a game.
Will it happen? Probably not. Brendan Shanahan, the NHL's top cop, will likely fine Weber and thus allow the Nashville Predators' captain and ace defenceman to keep playing. That would maintain the competitive integrity of the series. Because that's what's most important here. It's the playoffs, baby.
Time to push the limits, along with a few heads.
ERIC DUHATSCHEK: There was a funny/telling moment on the bench between Red Wings' coach Mike Babcock and NBC commentator Brian Engblom about midway through Wednesday's opening game of the Detroit-Nashville Predators series. Engblom had asked Babcock a fairly innocent question designed to get in and out in a hurry – had the steady stream of players to the penalty box thus far interrupted the game's flow?
Normally, these exchanges between coaches and interviewers mid-game produce some of the most inconsequential observations in professional sport, but Babcock's reaction was priceless, and revealing. He paused for a second, smiled, thought about how far he could go - and then answered by observing, first off, that the Predators and Red Wings were among the cleanest and lowest-penalized teams in the NHL this past season.
But, continued Babcock wearily, referees are competing too – for a chance to go to the Stanley Cup final – and so this is what you get. And he left it there, just hanging. But the implication was pretty clear - here we are, at the start of the playoffs, a time when referees always get a fresh set of marching orders from hockey operations and this is how it manifests itself – with an early crackdown, even against teams that generally play is pretty straight. Babcock didn't describe the penalty parade as chintzy, but that was implied too.
And so it begs the larger question, if the on-ice officials are going to spend these first few days of the playoffs reinforcing the so-called "standard," how then will the off-ice officials – namely the NHL's department of player safety – respond to Shea Weber's last-second brain cramp when hurled the Red Wings' Henrik Zetterberg, face-first into the boards?
Normally, precedent matters a great deal to the man in charge, VP Brendan Shanahan, but it is hard to find many previous examples of just that sort of play in the regular season. (Maybe he can consult WWE archives and their department of wrestler safety for input).
Shanahan's predecessor as the NHL's chief disciplinarian, Colin Campbell, used to say one playoff game was worth the equivalent of two regular-season games when it came time to handing down suspensions. Shanahan likely believes the same. If the league was interested in sending a message – about treating the head with more respect – there would be a suspension on the play. Philosophically, Shanahan's position is that he needs to treat each incident as a separate entity and thus isn't interested in using his power to suspend to send a message. If he sticks to that belief in the Weber-Zetterberg case, he'll saw the baby in half and deliver a $2,500 slap on the wrist - as opposed to the far stiffer alternative, which would be to bounce Weber for the second game of the series. We'll see.