The question of intent will likely be the key factor weighed by the NHL as it considers a suspension of the Chicago Blackhawks' Duncan Keith after the star defencemen delivered a nasty elbow to the head of the Vancouver Canucks' Daniel Sedin.
Sedin's condition is unknown. The NHL's top scorer last year and the Canucks' leading goal-getter this year flew home to Vancouver on Thursday for further medical attention after Wednesday night's game in Chicago. A concussion seems likely, but Sedin briefly returned to the ice against Chicago after the elbow, then left the game.
The Canucks would not comment a possible concussion, nor say how long Sedin could be out.
The decision on Keith will be one of the bigger calls this season by NHL senior vice-president Brendan Shanahan and the newly created department of player safety. The Keith-Sedin situation involves two of the league's best players and what appears, at least on tape, to be a fairly deliberate elbow to the head.
The NHL appeared to endorse the staged brawl between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils on Monday, playing highlights prominently on nhl.com. Then came the NFL on Wednesday and its hammer on the New Orleans Saints for three years of bounty hunting. While the situations vary in severity, the NFL was unequivocal in its decision. The NHL's enforcement, on ice during games, and in head-office reviews, seems to ebb and flow.
A disciplinary hearing with Shanahan, by phone, is expected for Keith Friday. Phone hearings generally mean a suspension of a maximum five games, but that is not an iron-clad rule. Keith received a two-minute minor on Tuesday, which Vancouver thought should have been a five-minute major.
In previous discipline cases this season, Shanahan has carefully used a select few words. Chief among them are "instinctively" and "intentionally." Shanahan also considers the history of the hitter (Keith has a clean sheet) and the result of the incident in question ( Sedin missed most of the game against Chicago and also a Dallas match Thursday night).
Shanahan further considers the broad context of the game: Earlier in Wednesday night's first period, Sedin laid a check on Keith on the boards, where Sedin's shoulder smacked Keith's head. No penalty was called.
The Canucks went after Keith in the second period, with captain and twin brother Henrik Sedin in the fray. Commentators said the slumping Canucks were distracted, but head coach Alain Vigneault felt his team coalesced in a game that felt like a playoff match. "I thought our battle and our compete level was real strong," Vigneault said after the 2-1 overtime loss.
The most common suspension this season has been three games, which was the penalty handed on Wednesday to Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan for an elbow to the head of Jamie Benn of the Dallas Stars on Tuesday. Shanahan stated: "Doan instinctively reaches out, catching Benn in the chin with his elbow." Shanahan added that it was a "reckless" elbow. Benn wasn't injured but Doan is also a repeat offender, with a $2,500 fine just last week for a boarding minor.
When Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins got five games in January for clipping Vancouver's Sami Salo, who was concussed on the hit, Shanahan highlighted that it was not an "instinctive" hit, noted past bad behaviour, and concluded: "We feel this was a predatory, low hit delivered intentionally by Marchand."
For the Canucks, an extended loss of their top goal scorer would be a major blow, with the playoffs less than three weeks away.
Keith expressed remorse after the game. "I'm not trying to hurt anybody. I hope he's okay."
What is arguably the best rivalry in hockey has become even more intense. There have been 35 Vancouver-Chicago games over the past four seasons, with three playoff battles. Another seven this spring could be spectacular.
During Wednesday night's first intermission, Canucks winger Jannik Hansen put it plainly: "They don't like us, and I know we hate them, it's pretty straightforward."
With a report from Mark Hume