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Penalty fits the crime in case of Lucic-Miller

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / November 20, 2011

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Are NHL goalies truly at risk? It sure sounds that way, based on Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff’s concerns around the league’s decision Monday not to send Milan Lucic off to the woodshed for his collision last Saturday night at the Garden with top Sabres netminder Ryan Miller.

According to the Sabres, Miller was concussed because of the fender bender, which occurred as Miller strayed nearly to the dot in the left faceoff circle to field a puck. He was met there by the hard-charging Lucic, and the collision knocked Miller’s mask off and sent him spinning to the ice - where he then used his big goalie’s paddle to take a roundhouse swipe at Lucic that failed to connect.

Late Monday afternoon, less than 48 hours after the incident, league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan followed up a hearing with Lucic by declaring that the incident required no further discipline. On the night of the play, Lucic was tagged with a two-minute charging minor, and as far as Shanahan was concerned, that ended that.

Ruff objected, feeling the non-action by league now made it “open season’’ on netminders. Ex-NHL referee Kerry Fraser, now a paid opinionist for the website, quickly echoed Ruff’s remark, and felt that Lucic should have been suspended for two games.

“It now appears that hunting season [on goaltenders] is now open,’’ wrote Fraser. “The license takes only ‘two minutes’ to fill out and can be completed in the penalty box.’’

Look, goalies should be protected, and it’s abundantly clear that they have been and still are protected. The NHL does not have a protect-the-goalie problem, although Shanahan met with general managers last Tuesday in Toronto, and they made it clear they want a heightened sensitivity when it comes to their masked men. The NHL has some true, worrisome safety issues, by and large related to concussions and the seek-and-destroy mentality that is pervasive in today’s game. Thankfully, Shanahan has done his best in recent months to remedy some of that, fortified by mandates and rule changes delivered from the Board of Governors and most of the GMs. He said last Tuesday that concussions this year, compared with the first few weeks of last season, are down by 50 percent. Tremendous news.

Ruff did what coaches are supposed to do, which is stick up for their players and try to get the court of public sentiment on their side. His bigger issue last Saturday night was that no one in his lineup pushed back on Lucic for what the coach perceived as the big winger taking a run at his star, defenseless netminder. His Sabres shrunk at a time when they needed to stand tall. Ruff no doubt will make that point inside his dressing room over and over prior to the clubs meeting again Wednesday night in Buffalo, where winger Paul Gaustad probably will be the one to uphold the tired tradition of inviting Lucic to fight, as some ridiculous means of “making things right’’. Around and around it goes.

Please. Stop the carousel of craziness. Yes, in a perfect world, Lucic has the presence of mind and nimbleness of foot to switch his game from power forward to Shipstads and Johnson pirouette artist, thus avoiding the wandering Miller. Lucic is a lot of things, folks, but nimble isn’t one of them. He is mostly about strength - which, by the way, is why no Sabre rattled his cage last Saturday - and he is sometimes about speed. He too often goes into cruise mode with his skating and then his overall effectiveness drops off the charts. A quick-pivoting, sharp-stopping, quick-reacting winger he is not.

Miller, meanwhile, is an exceptional netminder. In fact, let us not forget, if Lucic had collided with some AHL tomato can call-up, then the whole incident probably would have gone unnoticed, with no hearing ordered. But much like Tim Thomas here, Miller’s team’s fortunes are very much connected to his W-L-OTL totals, therefore making Ruff’s reaction predictable, although irrelevant. Have we seen goalies getting tough knocks, bad breaks? Will one questionable hit change that? Absolutely not. Red herring. Coaches and GMs aren’t paid to react like whining fans.

It’s essential to note that Miller’s nomadic wandering helped take Lucic off the hook. That’s not to blame the victim, but it is to say that bad things can happen when you play in traffic. In his crease, around his cage, in the trapezoid, Miller must be protected. In fact, the rulebook reads that goalies are never fair game for contact, but refs are allowed some wiggle room when incidental contact occurs away from the net. In such instances, opponents must exhibit what amounts to a good faith effort to avoid contact.

The play was advancing toward Miller at high speed. He elected to stray far from his net, enter the highway as traffic approached, then got his doors blown off. And he was surprised that he got hurt? Gee. And now the game has exposed all of its goalies to the Hurt Locker?

Sorry, I’m not buying it. Goalies have arguably the most difficult job in sport, although, for my money, their influence on the outcome of games is far too significant (a discussion for another day). The way the game is officiated, they are given exceptional protection and respect throughout the season. To suggest now that they are an endangered species about to be hunted is total hockey hooey.

Miller took a big, aggressive gamble when he left the net and put himself in harm’s way. Once he did that, the consequences were left open to interpretation (incidental/intentional). When the ice chips cleared, the on-ice officials interpreted Lucic’s hit was worthy of a two-minute minor, and Shanahan, who has done more to protect players than anyone ever to sit in his corner office, felt exactly the same. File under: one good call deserved another.

Surfing league one quarter in

Ten musings and meanderings at the first-quarter mark:

1. Hurricanes captain Eric Staal is too good to be sitting with a line of 4-4-8 and a stupefying minus-18 through 20 games. Those numbers alone ought to be enough for a coaching change in Raleigh.

2. The Bruins and Rangers are the two hottest teams in the game, but don’t face each other until a Jan. 21 matinee on Causeway Street. Gross misconduct/negligence on the part of the schedule-maker.

3. The Oilers and Avalanche have proven to be this year’s October teasers (a combined 14-6-2). Both now look much like the clubs that barely have been relevant the past five seasons. As of yesterday, they were a combined 4-11-1 for November.

4. Dastardly Matt Cooke on Thursday night picked up only his fifth and sixth penalty minutes of the season. That alone should be worth a $250,000 bonus for safety czar Brendan Shanahan. Someone please cue Donovan’s “Mellow Yellow.’’

5. The Panthers, retooled under Dale Tallon over the summer, figured to be relevant, but it’s surprising they are this good (9-6-3, seventh seed in East, entering yesterday’s games). The allegedly washed-up Brian Campbell: 18 games/17 points.

6. Interesting, Bruins coach Claude Julien’s recent quote that Tyler Seguin is “braver’’ this season. Last year’s remarks that he wasn’t “strong’’ enough were code for not “brave’’ enough. Seguin has the speed and skill to be among the game’s top five most-dynamic players. Ditto for Phil Kessel.

7. True story, the Wild entered yesterday ranked No. 2 in the West. But still not fun to watch. Evidence: Mikko Koivu, on target for about 50 points, has far more pop to offer. Wild play mild.

8. Got it, Sean Avery is of very little relevance, but the Blueshirts took the ice in Montreal last night with a 5-0-0 mark since his recall from AHL exile. He also had a goal in each of his most recent two games.

9. Calgary might have to bid coach Brent Sutter adieu. Just as Staal’s numbers are anemic, Jarome Iginla is way better than 5-4-9 and a minus-10. Too many Flames with no-move, no-trade clauses. Killer.

10. Hockey is well-acquainted with victims of sexual abuse. See: Sheldon Kennedy, Theo Fleury. Failed parenting usually is the open door for predators. Up to all adults in the rink to care most about kids’ well-being rather than wins, losses, travel teams, $5 trophies.

Crosby wisely using his head

Still no Sidney Crosby in the Penguins lineup, which means the superstar center has now been down for the equivalent of three-quarters of a season because of lingering post-concussion symptoms. Sid the Kid was hammered first by David Steckel in the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, then again four days later by Victor Hedman. Ex-NHL blue liner Mathieu Schneider, now one of Donald Fehr’s top lieutenants at the Players Association, came to Boston in early October with three doctors, meeting with concussion guru Dr. Robert Cantu and other members of the Boston University brain-study team that has been documenting the effects of concussive and subconcussive hits in sports. It’s a growing belief, in part because of the BU study, that longer recovery periods are necessary to make a full recovery from an initial concussion, and that protracted healing time can make the victim less prone to suffering a follow-up concussion. Crosby is doing the smart thing, and here’s hoping others follow his lead.

Hitchcock painfully honest

Hockey scribes league-wide had to be ecstatic to hear that Ken Hitchcock, back as a bench boss with the Blues, has no use for the ridiculous terms “lower-body injury’’ and “upper-body injury.’’ “Stupid!’’ was Hitch’s depiction of the dodge ball practice adhered to by most clubs, which came into vogue with the new KGB NHL. “To me,’’ he said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “if a guy’s hurt, he’s hurt, and I’ll tell you what it is and we’ll go from there.’’ Then there’s the standard response Mike Milbury gave during his days as Bruins coach whenever media members asked about an injured player. “Not playing,’’ Milbury was wont to say. “Dead!’’

How soon they forget

Amid all the Buffalo bellyaching over the Milan Lucic hit on Ryan Miller, couldn’t help but think of how ho-hum the Sabres were over the vicious hit to the head Adam Mair delivered to 20-year-old newbie David Krejci in Feb. 2007. Krejci was parked at the post just to the right of Boston goalie Hannu Toivonen when Mair greeted him with a welcome-to-the-NHL blindside smash to the noggin. Good to know the Sabres have evolved to such a great degree less than five years later. Krejci made his league debut only the night before and the Mair hit sidelined him the next two games with a concussion, prior to Krejci being sent back to Providence. Mair received two minutes for charging, and then was taken to task when Wayne Primeau fought him in the third period.

Whale of an idea

Last week’s column here suggesting that now is the time for the NHL to expand, with the game’s emphasis far less on skill than it is on speed, crushing hits, and goaltending, goaltending, goaltending, produced a number of e-mails asking why I didn’t include a return to Hartford on my shopping list. My bad. Just as Montreal should have Quebec City as a provincial puck buddy, so should the Bruins and Rangers have the former Forever .500s. Nearly 15 years after Pete Karmanos left Hartford in the dust for North Carolina, Whalers gear remains a steady seller among NHL goods. Meanwhile, a smattering of Whalers Booster Club members faithfully keep up the redux dream to this day. Marty Evtushek is the president, with faithful Ken Atkinson ( still signing up new members.

Loose pucks

The Red Wings are here Friday for a matinee and the Jets land on Causeway Street Saturday night - the first time this season the Bruins play back-to-back dates . . . Midway through an entertaining New York Times story last weekend on ABC war correspondent Martha Raddatz, I stumbled across the name of the US Army’s vice chief of staff, once the second in command in Iraq, who happens to be one Peter Chiarelli. Had to search him on Google, double time. No mention on his US Army bio of Chiarelli moonlighting as the Bruins’ GM, or how he once captained the Crimson hockey team . . . Ex-Bruins blue liner Stephane Quintal (a.k.a. the Q) last week was named to assist Brendan Shanahan in the Player Safety Dept. Job title: manager. Quintal, 43, as a former defenseman can offer yet another perspective for Shanahan, the career power forward, who also has ex-blue liner Rob Blake on his staff . . . Classy gesture last Monday night by Mark Howe during his Hockey Hall of Fame induction, encouraging the hockey world to increase its financial support for families of the victims of the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv plane crash. Howe’s old blue line partner, Brad McCrimmon, the Lokomotiv coach, was among the fatalities. McCrimmon’s wife, Maureen, was among Howe’s invited guests . . . Best speech on HHOF night was delivered by Joe Nieuwendyk, and not just because he was the only one among the four to thank the media. When they showed some of Nieuwendyk’s game highlights, I couldn’t help but marvel again over his dazzling stick/shooting skills when tight to the net, a mirror of his sublime lacrosse skills . . . During his HHOF speech, Doug Gilmour made a point of thanking his longtime agent, Larry Kelly, once Chiarelli’s partner in the player rep biz. He also thanked his accountant, though not by name. Turning to his elderly parents, Killer added, “I love you and thank you for letting me live my dream.’’ . . . Eddie Belfour made the briefest of the four HHOF speeches, and wrapped up by thanking God “for giving me this life.’’ Sounds like a different guy than the one who once offered Dallas cops $1 billion if they wouldn’t haul him in on charges related to his drunkenness at a Big D hotel in Oct. 2000. He got off much cheaper, paying only a $3,000 fine for resisting arrest, a cool savings of $999,997,000 . . . We will get our first glimpse on Saturday of ex-Bruins Mark Stuart and Blake Wheeler sportin’ their new flashy Jets sweaters. The lowly Winnipeggers last Saturday lost to the even-lowlier Blue Jackets, 2-1, leaving Jets coach Claude Noel to muse, “We’re a young team, what can you say?’’ Same thing four other coaches, including Craig Ramsay last season, said for the franchise’s first 11 seasons in Atlanta . . . Entering yesterday, Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin had a combined 24 goals, 10 each at even strength. Not sure if that’s an indictment of their work on the power play or an attaboy for getting things done when traffic lanes are jammed . . . Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk is still among the game’s more electrifying pivots, even if his offensive production has dipped by about one-third this season from his typical point-a-game pace. Entering yesterday, he was tied for the league lead with 27 takeaways. Patrice Bergeron was tops for the Bruins with 15 clips. No surprise that they both lead their respective squads at the faceoff dot, too . . . Hannu Toivonen, 27, is back in Europe this season, playing in Malmo (Sweden) after getting no offers in North America last summer upon reaching free agent status with AHL Rockford. A Nov. 3 story in the Huffington Post noted that defenseman Jesper Jensen fired a shot from Rogle’s blue line that “somehow Bucknered’’ its way through the former Boston goaltender and into the goal. Ouch. Is such sarcasm really necessary?

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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