You know it's the NHL postseason when two star players, each with a knack for scoring goals, both with a history of concussions, square off and fight and one of the coaches calmly remarks, "That's really playoff hockey."
Yes, it's that time of year again, a time when all things matter, all injuries are hidden and no one backs down from anything without putting a glove in the other guy's face.
But when the normally mild-mannered Sidney Crosby starts punching the point-producing Claude Giroux, it's a whole other level of intensity, one that has made the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers matchup the most violent, exciting, reprehensible and watched series in the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.
Viewers have been magnetized by the first round. TSN on Monday reported a 56-per-cent jump in year-over-year ratings to date, with the Penguins-Flyers series its most watched with average audiences of more than 1.4-million viewers. In the U.S., the Penguins-Flyers game on Sunday afternoon had a 2.3 overnight rating, a 77-per-cent hike over a comparable broadcast of a Washington-N.Y. Rangers game last year, according to USA Today.
In just six days, we've seen all manner of nasty performances, from Nashville Predators defenceman Shea Weber's head-ramming of Detroit Red Wings star Henrik Zetterberg to New York Rangers rookie Carl Hagelin's three-game suspension for an elbow to the head of Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has already had to review close to a half-dozen incidents involving overly aggressive play, and that begs the question: Is this really the norm for playoff hockey or is there something different this spring?
Keith Tkachuk thinks things have changed.
"Do guys cross the line? Sure they do. It's always been the case in the playoffs," the former NHLer said. "But if anybody would have told me this would be happening, I would have started laughing. It's just a lack of respect, player to player. It's a different game now."
On Monday, the league was back at it, fining Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma $10,000 (all currency U.S.) and suspending forward Craig Adams for one game for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of their clash Sunday with Philadelphia. It also fined Ottawa Senators tough guy Zenon Konopka the same amount ($2,500) as Weber for "verbal abuse directed at a Rangers' player conducting a live television interview." That earned Shanahan another round of criticism for not suspending Weber and living up to the NHL's new head-shot standards.
"Just as a lengthy suspension sends a message, I think no suspension sends a louder message," prominent player agent Allan Walsh said.
When Shanahan was given the player-discipline portfolio almost a year ago by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, it was hailed as a long-overdue culture change. A hard-edged player in his day, Shanahan the administrator made his reputation early, coming down hard on several offenders in the preseason. However, critics noted Shanahan's suspensions in the first few months of the regular season were not as severe. Some NHL general managers admitted making complaints about the suspensions and Walsh thinks this had a softening effect on the league.
"What we ended up getting was a serial lessening of enforcement of rules against head shots over the course of the season," Walsh said. "What was worthy of a 10-game suspension was not even worthy of a one-game suspension to start the playoffs. By the start of the playoffs, this culture change was completely thrown out the window. It set the stage for what we saw [Sunday] between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh."
Brad May, who did not mind the rough going during his 19 seasons in the NHL, acknowledged Shanahan's decision on Weber may have convinced some players that discipline was relaxed for the playoffs. He also thinks players are out to win at all costs, which he does not see as a problem.
"I do not want be the guy who calls out the NHL," said May, now a broadcaster for Sportsnet television. "Let them play. The media, and I'm one of them, is questioning if [the tactics]are outside the lines but the players love it. And really, it's the players' game."
Senators forward Jason Spezza was asked Monday if the first round of the playoffs was on the verge of slipping out of control and answered no. He said it's about every team believing it has an opportunity to win right now.
"I think it shows the parity in the league, the six, seven and eight seeds feel they can win, and because of it I think you're seeing a lot of competitive games," Spezza said. "The matchups are closer than they probably have ever been, and that's maybe what's led to the physical play you've seen. It just shows everybody thinks they have a chance to move on and nobody's willing to roll over."
There's also another point to consider: that to be the Stanley Cup champions, you have to beat the Stanley Cup champions and that means constructing a team that can outmuscle the Boston Bruins. Perhaps the Flyers will get that chance, once they dispense with the Penguins and their scrapping captain.
"Would I rather have [Giroux]keep his gloves on? Sure," Philadelphia coach Peter Laviolette said. "But when he's fighting Sidney Crosby, that's playoff hockey."