The opening round of the playoffs has been a little insane. Cam Charron has already pointed out that the number of major penalties and fights is way up from last season, with much of the craziness occurring in the Penguins/Flyers series, with one of the most brutal incidents occurring in game three on Sunday, when Arron Asham cross checked Brayden Schenn in the throat.
Asham was assessed a match penalty for attempt to injure, which carries an automatic indefinite suspension until Brendan Shanahan renders a final decision. Asham has been offered an in-person hearing, which means the potential suspension can be greater than 5 games. By the time you read this, Shanahan may have already rendered a verdict.
Considering Asham is a fourth-line forward known more for his pugilistic abilities than his hockey skill, he’s an easy target for a message-sending suspension. What makes things interesting is that there was another match penalty assessed for a cross check on Monday, but this time it was to a star player: Nicklas Backstrom of the Washington Capitals.
On the surface, the two cross checks bear a striking similarity, with the main difference being the quality of the player doing the cross checking. After Shea Weber escaped a suspension for intentionally grabbing Henrik Zetterberg by the head and slamming him into the glass, there has been a lot of discussion regarding star players receiving special treatment. Is this a test case for seeing how Brendan Shanahan treats first and fourth-line players differently? With these two incidents occurring so close together, it’s worth taking a closer look to see how similar they truly are.
It’s not too surprising that star players would be treated differently by the Commissioner’s office. Ultimately, the Commissioner answers to the owners, and no owner wants to see one of his star players sidelined by a lengthy suspension. As much as the owners pay lip service to wanting stronger penalties, I’m willing to bet that James Wisniewski’s suspension during the pre-season sent waves of panic throughout the ownership, who are likely fine with strong suspensions until they threaten to hurt their bottom line.
Let’s start with the circumstances surrounding the two hits. Asham’s match penalty occurs in the first period during the course of play, while Backstrom’s occurs at the end of a game that the Capitals lost as the final horn sounded. This has played into Shanahan’s suspension decisions before, such as in the Wisniewski case, where the fact that it occurred after the final horn when Cal Clutterbuck would not necessarily expect to be hit was one of the reasons given for the length of the suspension.
I’m not sure it will have as much an impact on Backstrom’s case, however, as the Bruins’ Rich Peverley at least saw Backstrom coming and had his own stick up. While Peverley clearly wasn’t expecting as vicious a cross check as Backstrom gave him, he wasn’t “unsuspecting” in the sense that the NHL normally uses.
Neither was Brayden Schenn entirely unsuspecting when Asham cross checked him, as he had just finished a big (legal) check on Paul Martin and clearly anticipated a shoving match, if not a full-fledged fight, with Asham. Again, he wasn’t expecting the cross check to the throat that Asham gave him, but he did see him coming at the very least.
There’s also the matter of motivation. For Asham, it’s clear that he goes after Schenn for the hit on Martin, so it’s an act of revenge or retribution. For Backstrom, it appears to just be an act of frustration, seemingly borne out of a tough loss on home ice, coupled with Peverley tripping Ovechkin.
Here is the Asham cross check on Schenn:
Asham’s cross check initially makes contact with Schenn’s shoulder pads, but clearly hits Schenn in the throat with the force of his follow-through. Schenn, anticipating contact in the chest, has both his arms out to protect himself, but can’t do anything about the unanticipated high hit. If that wasn’t enough, Asham further ensures that his hit will be seen as malicious by punching Schenn in the back of the head after he has collapsed to the ice and is in a prone position.
Now here’s Backstrom’s cross check to Peverley:
It seems to me that Backstrom’s cross check is actually delivered with more force than Asham’s, though that may simply be because Asham’s stick made solid contact with Schenn, stopping its forward momentum suddenly, while Backstrom’s stick was deflected upwards. Backstrom’s cross check appears to be aimed at Peverley’s shoulder, but when it hits Peverley’s stick, it deflects upwards and makes contact with Peverley’s visor.
While the deflection off Peverley’s stick may seem to exonerate Backstrom, it was still a high cross check that may have done the same thing that Asham’s cross check did, as it too initially made contact with the shoulder. While Peverley’s stick deflected the cross check into his own visor, if his stick wasn’t there, the cross check could easily have impacted him in the throat.
The fact that Backstrom only made contact with Peverley’s stick and visor, however, is likely why Capitals’ coach Dale Hunter suggested that the league would rescind Backstrom’s match penalty on review. The clear maliciousness of Asham’s extra punch also sets the two incidents apart, giving Shanahan an out for giving Asham a suspension without giving Backstrom one as well.
Neither player is considered a repeat offender (Asham having avoided a fine or suspension for his post-fight taunting of Jay Beagle earlier in the season), so that won’t play into the decision. Something else to keep in mind, though, is that this was Backstrom’s third cross check of the game, having already received two cross checking minors.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that these two hits are as similar as they appeared at first glance. Asham’s cross check makes contact with Schenn’s throat directly, while Backstrom’s deflected up off Peverley’s stick and only hit his visor. Additionally, Asham’s cross check is more clearly malicious, as demonstrated by the follow-up punch. If anyone is looking for a chance to compare directly how the NHL treats a star player and a fourth liner for the same infraction, this doesn’t appear to be the right case.
While I believe that Backstrom might still get a one-game suspension for a dangerous stick infraction, Asham is likely to get significantly more.