About halfway through the second period of Wednesday night’s Penguins-Rangers game, you’d have bet good money the series was over.
Needing one win to end it, Pittsburgh was up and cruising. New York looked like a team thinking about good tee times. A metaphoric spotlight followed Penguins captain Sidney Crosby around the rink as he reasserted himself as the game’s once and future king.
That’s when Ranger Jacob Trouba decided to adjust the thermostat on the series by turning it up. Way up.
During a melee in the Rangers zone, Trouba came out to greet Crosby and give him a handshake. With his left elbow. In the head.
It happened too quickly and at too odd an angle to be a clear case of headhunting. But that’s the right way to headhunt. You can’t be obvious about it.
If the guy is shorter than you (Trouba has four inches on Crosby), stand up tall as you collide. Then pretend you were trying to put the shoulder in, but you missed your guy by a foot and hit him with that elbow that you very naturally were holding up around your ears.
Crosby fell hard. Upon rising, he went back to the bench. No penalty was called.
Crosby came out for a couple more shifts before calling it an evening. Some of his own teammates turned to watch him go.
The Rangers trailed 2-0 when Crosby left the game. Four minutes later, they led 3-2. A turning point could only be more obvious if there had been a guy in a swimsuit circle the rink carrying a placard reading “Turning Point.”
Afterward, the Penguins would not say “concussion.” That word is too loaded when it comes to Crosby. They would only allude to a non-specific evaluation process.
The Penguins also refused to rage about the hit, probably because that would sound too much like panic.
Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan went the Agatha Christie route: “Did you see the hit?” Sullivan said. “Then you probably have the same opinion I do about it.”
That would depend on where you collect your paycheque. I’m going to guess that every guy in the Rangers dressing room thought that hit was a) dirty and b) brilliant. It flipped this series. If Crosby is out, and even though the Rangers are down 3-2, it’s now advantage: New York.
You can’t do that with a big goal or a great save. Only an act of impeccably timed violence can have that effect.
Ten years after the rough stuff went out of fashion, the NHL finds itself saddled with the drug tester’s dilemma. Drug testing doesn’t eliminate drugs in sports. Every sport is rife with drug use. What testing eliminates is the stupid drug user.
The same rule applies to violence. Not so long ago, seeing a guy charge from one end of the ice to the other so that he could launch himself fists first into the other team’s best player was not uncommon.
That’s easy to stop. First, tamp down the public cheerleading in locker rooms. After a while, the media will figure out the new marching orders and change their own tone. It used to be “Violence? Fun!” Now all the same people think the NHL is going way too easy on some people and maybe it’s time to get The Hague involved.
A little while after the media begins rending its garments, most of the fans will, too. It’s basic herd psychology.
But just because they’re not tapping their sticks on the boards whenever someone ends up in a bloody pile, that doesn’t mean the players have become conscientious objectors. They’ve just stopped being stupid about it.
Raise the stakes enough and you get a Trouba on Crosby. It’s inevitable.
Whether or not they think the hit was strictly illegal, the NHL has to suspend Trouba. This isn’t about his body angle and the relative wind speed. It’s about permitting an environment where players of Trouba’s calibre think they can take their chances with a player of Crosby’s calibre. That way lies madness.
But there is no suspension large enough to convince anyone in Ranger blue that what Trouba did was stupid.
Had he tried it, missed and got a five-minute major, allowing the Penguins to put the series away – that would have been stupid. That would have cost Trouba in terms of lockerroom popularity points. But he didn’t miss and he wasn’t caught. As instinctive gambles go, it was a long shot that paid off.
With the old sort of violence, the equation was personal – Am I going to win this fight? Will I look silly if I miss this hit? Will my teammates admire and fear me if I play like I’ve just broken out of a police cruiser?
The calculus of the new violence is collective – what is the likelihood doing this will help my team more than it can hurt my team?
Toronto’s Kyle Clifford coming across the ice like a dump truck with its brake lines cut to put Tampa’s Ross Colton through the boards in Game 1 of the Leafs-Lightning? Are you kidding me? Ross Colton?
You targeted a guy who doesn’t matter. You were never getting away with it. You did it when it had more chance of deflating your own side than your opponent’s. You got tossed and your team got better, proving you are expendable. Not smart.
Clifford on Colton was just as dirty as Trouba on Crosby, but that is the only thing that connects those two acts. If the Rangers win this series, Trouba is the silent hero. If Clifford isn’t a Leaf next year, that hit on Colton is the reason why.
Without radical interventions, this is the best the NHL can hope for when it comes to violence – mitigation. Convince players to do a half-second cost-benefit analysis before that elbow comes up.
Most of the time, this system of passive prevention works. But push enough into the middle of the table at the right moment and someone’s going all in hoping for a dirty jackpot. Trouba may have just hit his.