The NHL announced today that Winnipeg’s Josh Morrissey would be suspended for his team’s Game 5 against the Wild, after Morrissey smashed Minnesota’s Eric Staal with a cross check to the back of the head in Game 4.
There’s nothing particularly surprising about the suspension, especially in a year when the NHL Department of Player Safety seems to be especially stepping up its playoff discipline on dangerous checks. But what’s weird about the Morrissey play is that the Jets defenseman didn’t get any kind of penalty for his play during the game on Tuesday. Staal crumpled to the ice without a whistle.
One of the other two suspension-worthy plays so far this postseason also passed without any penalty, when L.A.’s Drew Doughty plowed into the upper body of Vegas’s William Carrier. Doughty would avoid the penalty box in Game 1, but be forced to miss Game 2.
And finally tonight, in the first period of a tense Lightning-Devils Game 4, Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kucherov delivered a dangerously high check on New Jersey’s Sami Vatanen. Vatanen went to the locker room, but Kucherov didn’t get called for a penalty, even though his hit seems like a definite cause for at least a discussion in the league office.
So what’s going on? Why haven’t these NHL refs been able to call penalties in what appear to be the most obvious penalty-calling situations? Of course, hockey is a fast game, and the difference between a low, feet-on-the-ground, legal check and a suspension-worthy play isn’t always immediately apparent. But these refs usually do fine with all the other penalties, so it doesn’t seem like a big ask to catch the serious ones. And even if that’s not possible, there are ways the NHL could help them out. I am utterly loath to suggest more opportunities for replay review in hockey, but if you can stop the action to see if a guy’s blade was two inches offsides before a goal, why not also let coaches challenge for potential game misconducts?
Whatever the issue is, these missed penalties in the first round are giving rise to a frustratingly delayed system of justice that draws attention away from what’s actually happening on the ice. Besides the near 24-hour delay in discipline that must drive coaches crazy, the one-game suspensions where game misconducts probably would have sufficed can create the perception that the NHL is overdoing the punishment on the back end to make up for the incorrect non-calls. While it’s on players first to learn how to play safely, the refs have a huge responsibility to police the egregious offenses where they occur. And in an ideal scenario, all but the absolute worst cases can be resolved during the game. The less the league office can be involved, the better.