Bruce Bennett, Getty Images

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.

Comments (26)

  1. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that these two hits are as similar as they appeared at first glance.”

    Unfortunately? Were you hoping that they were more similar?

    • Yes, if only to see how Shanahan would treat the two players.

    • Did the poster really say that Ashams cross-check seemed to be less powerful then Backstroms? Backstrom was just standing there when he did it, and its the kind of move you see a lot of players doing in scrums. Asham was full out skating towards Schenn with the Cross-check… so if my grade 2 math knowledge is right, mass x accelaration = more then just mass. To put it simply, if I pushed you from a standing position, it may not do much. If I ran at you and pushed you, you will most likely suffer more damage and fall over.

      BTW, why are cross checks to the back allowed? Or cross-checked allowed at all? You see it in every game a defensemen cross-checking a player on their boards, or in front of their goalie, or while they are on the ground and trying to get up. Isn’t cross-checking bad? So why is it not bad in those cases?

      • The rules allow for a ‘push’ with the stick in both hands, as opposed to a ‘cross check’

        The way it was explained to me during the refferee training is the location of the stick at the time it is extended from the body.

        If the stick is in contact with the body, and then pushed, its legal
        If the stick is pushed out and then makes contact, its a cross check.

        Given the speed of the game at the NHL level, I suspect the refs give a little/lot of lee way to determine a push from a crosscheck.

      • Your “grade 2 math knowledge is right, mass x acceleration = more then just mass”? I didn’t even learn my times tables until the 3rd grade, let alone basic physics. I’m gonna have kids someday, what school district do you live in? ha ha.

  2. I know a lot of Caps fans and writers are saying “ohhh but Peverley went after Ovechkin right before so what Backstrom did wasn’t that bad, he was just standing up for his teammate.” The reason Peverley tripped Ovechkin was because while Peverley was eating the puck along the boards Oveckin came in with speed and DRILLED him right in the numbers.. I was shocked that wasn’t even mentioned by the broadcasters.

  3. Not only was that the third cross check by Backstrom in the game, it was the third face-targeting cross check by the Caps in the series. Ovechkin got Seidenberg in the face in Game 2, and Krejci has stitches in his lip courtesy of another (Beagle?) In Game 1. Sure looks like a pattern to me.

    But no matter. Backstrom is a star, and he hit a Bruin. He won’t be suspended.

  4. “as [Schenn] had just finished a big (legal) check on Paul Martin and clearly anticipated a shoving match”

    I’m sorry, you must have missed the charging call that Schenn got on the play. Unless charging is considered a “legal” 2 minute penalty now.

    If you run a D-man like that who’s engaged with another player, you shouldn’t expect a “shoving match” (fighting over handbags at WalMart?)–you should expect a fist in the face. What Asham did went well beyond the bounds of reasonable response, but let’s not give Schenn–who returned the next shift–a clean rapsheet with respect to the incident.

    • Agreed. This has always bothered me: when someone does something wrong and has something wrong-er done to him, members of the media try to erase the thing he did to cause the retaliation in the first place. Not that I’m a Chris simon fan, but it drove me nuts that Hollweg was painted as an innocent in the press despite hitting Simon in such a way as could have broken his neck a few seconds prior. Same with Steve Downie. Teeth-gnashing about how much a menace he is (he sort of is, but that’s beside the point), yet nary a mention that Christophe Schubert pointlessly charged and boarded him before he wiped out dean maccammond on his own charge.

      There was no (clean) hit by Schenn on Paul Martin. He charged him. I’m not saying he needs to sit for 3 games or anything, but let’s not make a guy who plays right on the edge into some type of wholesome saint when he’s not just because somebody crosschecked him.

    • Wait, Schenn was called for charging? Sheesh. I’d feel worse about missing that if it wasn’t such a terrible call.

      • The referee gave no indication of a call on the play until Asham’s crosscheck, when he penalized both hits. Bogus call on Schenn, and even if it weren’t, a charge that doesn’t involve a high hit, violent contact with the boards, feet being left, or any indication of injury on the play hardly justifies Asham’s hit.

      • Ah, I see. So the real issue as to the legality is whether *you* agree with the call or not. Fact is, it’s charging per Rule 42.1:

        “Charging shall mean the actions of a player who, as a result of distance traveled, shall violently check an opponent in any manner.”

        In general, this is applied when you take three strides to hit another player, or charge directly at him for roughly 40 feet or more without attempting to play the puck. Both apply here.

        • jvertol1 and docciavelli are both right. If Asham cleared the puck there would have been no call on Schenn. The Flyers had just gone up 3 – 1. The ref didnt’ want to give them a 5 min PP. 3 mins was the classic NHL trade-off / make up call.

          That said Schenn came at Martin from a good distance, boxed him into the hit with a 2nd Flyers forechecker, and definitely didn’t attempt to play the puck.

          If “attempt to play the puck” is part of a consideration, Neal needs to be suspended for both the hit to Coturier and the hit to Giroux.

  5. If they didn’t give Weber a suspension I don’t see how they can give Backstrom a suspension. $2500 fine and it’ll be a day. Peverley was not as defenseless as Zetterberg and that was also the end of that game(which Nashville was winning).

  6. I agree. Both had the potential to do some pretty serious damage on the initial cross-check, but Asham’s follow up punches gave me flashbacks to Bertuzzi driving Moore’s face into the ice. It wasn’t AS bad, but the follow-up on the cheap shot is a clear demonstration of intent and not just “oh crap that wasn’t a shoulder I connected with, that was a face”.

  7. I feel like the Backstrom/Peverly incident is more closely related to the Weber/Zetterberg incident.

    Both after the horn. Both “star” players. Both resulted in head hits. Neither led to injury.

    I’m honestly not sure of Weber’s history with Shanny but I know Backstrom’s is clean and I will assume Weber’s is too since I don’t know. But I think there is a clear difference between the two in terms of “intent to injure”. Backstrom’s cross check was deflected up by peverly’s stick (as you pointed out). He did not even intend to hit the head, but rather the shoulder. Weber palmed Hank’s skull, and slammed his face into the glass…. twice.

    Standing alone, I’d say I think backstrom should get his 1 game suspension. But if you bring the Weber incident into the picture and if there is any hope of cosistency (I can hope right?) I don’t think he will …. or should (considering Weber).

  8. Love how suddenly the Caps are a dirty team. For years they have been labeled as “soft” and now suddenly the big bad Bruins are the victims here. If you want to say there have been three cross checks to the face by the Caps fine (Assuming this counts Beagles that was most likely inadvertent off the face off). But there has been stuff going on both ways and you have blinders on if you dont see it. Chara slashes whoever checks him behind the play, post whistle cross checks from the Bruins, Blockers to Backstroms head, Holtby getting a stick to the head on and on and on. It goes both ways, to this point the Caps just havent commented on it.

    • I’m not sure how you got the idea that a ‘soft’ team couldn’t be a dirty team. One of the biggest issues people have had with the Caps the last few years is the penchant for a few players to take liberties when the opportunity for a cheap shot appeared and then refuse to answer the bell when called on it.

      • Can you name an example of this? I never got the impression that there was an issue like this within the past few years.

        Aside from the Steckel/Crosby incident in which Crosby skated into Steckel and Penguins fans cried murder, I cannot think of an incident the past few years where a Capital refused to answer the bell when called.

    • Soft doesn’t equal clean. Look at Vancouver… another “soft” team that’s among the dirtiest teams in the league.

  9. Schenn’s ridiculous charge into martin was a bad call? He had him lined up from the blue line, martin had a guy hanging on, and schenn practically dove into martin’s head and did leave his feet. That hit was worse than either of neal’s by the simple fact that he targeted the head. Schenn should be in shanahan’s sites as well.

  10. The thing that is not mentioned is intent. When you go and cross check somebody near the head there is intent to hit the face which translates to attempt to injure. Backstrom deserves 4 games if not more because he is unable to accept the loss he goes and does that to peverley. if I was a caps fan I would hope for a heavy suspension so that backstrom doesnt have his career ended from returning to play. Your choice.

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