The Penguins kicked off the Eastern Conference Finals with the Tampa Bay Lightning last night, losing 3-1, but it didn't take long for the type of cheap hit that kept the Department of Player Safety so busy during their second round series to rear its ugly head. Just 2:50 into the game, Ryan Callahan was sent off with a 5 minute major for a disgustingly dirty boarding penalty against Kris Letang in the left corner of the Pittsburgh zone. It's time to call a spade a spade: this was premeditated, it's everything the league should want to eliminate from the game, the on-ice officiating continues to be inept, and the NHL deserves to have its ass handed to them in a lawsuit when a player finds themselves paralyzed by this nonsense.
“I’m trying to ride him in there obviously on the forecheck, and unfortunately, he turns at the last second. I’m committed, I think, when he turns his head, and his body is pretty low. So, I’m trying to pin him, and in that split second, I can’t really make a decision. Unfortunately, I think the position he was in made it worse than it was, and it was good to see him come back. Obviously, you don’t want to see anybody injured, and that’s not what you’re trying to do.” - Ryan Callahan
First off, Callahan's comments after the game that Letang turned at the last second, and that he was just trying to pin him against the boards, are completely asinine and in no way fit the reality of what happened on the ice. Callahan tracked the puck and Letang from above the faceoff dot as it came into the corner. He knew who he was chasing down, and even more so because Letang's numbers were turned straight towards him well before he was in a position to make contact. There was more than enough time for Callahan to be able to see that was not a scenario in which he could make that type of check. And no, Callahan was not trying to pin Letang up against the boards - he comes in on him with his forearm up and extended, catches Letang up high and uses his arm to force him down.
Fact is that Ryan Callahan knew exactly who was going back to get that puck as he charged in on the play from the blue line on the other half of the zone. He knew it was Kris Letang, that he was the Pens' best defender and arguably most irreplaceable player, and he knew that he needed to finish his check and send a message. There's little doubt that the Lightning talked about and planned on taking the body on the Pittsburgh defensemen, because Ondrej Palat also picked up a boarding penalty, albeit less egregious than the Callahan one, on Brian Dumoulin late in the game that leaves Dumoulin's status questionable for Game 2. The hit on Letang was predetermined from the time Callahan saw the puck get deep. No matter how precarious of a position Letang was in, or how much time he had to react to that, he had to crush him because on the wrong side of 30 that's how he earns a spot in the lineup, by doing the tough, physical, dirty work. But a reckless and dangerous hit like that one earns a spot in the press box courtesy of a suspension.
At least that's the way it should work, but it doesn't because the NHL fails miserably in any "attempts" at deterring players from delivering checks when they clearly shouldn't. The NHL rule book is very clear - if a major penalty is imposed, and there's a resulting injury to the head, the referee must impose a game misconduct penalty. It also allows for a match penalty at the referees discretion if he judges the player attempted to or deliberately injured his opponent on a boarding penalty. Well, Kris Letang went face first into the boards, laid on the ice in obvious pain, went down the tunnel to get looked at further, and the refs somehow managed not to kick Callahan out of the game. It's sad when this level of incompetence can be viewed as a step in the right direction after the referees missed a blatant knee-on-knee by Tom Wilson against Conor Sheary in Game 1 last round, or somehow gave Brooks Orpik only a minor penalty for swerving out of his way to head hunt Olli Maatta in Game 2, but that's the state of the NHL's officiating.
And in fairness, their incompetence is greatly overshadowed by that of the Department of Player Safety. The refs have to react to a play in real time, but the league office has the benefit of watching and re-watching a play over and over, from multiple angles, until they're satisfied with the decision. That the league could somehow view this hit and decide not even a fine was warranted is a complete joke and earns them every bit of the "garage league" moniker Mario Lemieux bestowed on them.
Pittsburgh is lucky that Letang escaped without serious injury and has not developed any concussion-like symptoms up to this point, but effectively condoning this behavior is to invite it to happen again. And when this goes unpunished, players are going to feel comfortable crossing the line a bit more at a time trying to gain an edge. Callahan was trying to deliver a crushing blow on Letang, and he picked about as bad a spot as possible to do so. One of these days, a player is going to get his neck broken and find himself paralyzed on a play like this. And when that inevitably turns into a lawsuit and the NHL needs to defend themselves in court, the plantiff's lawyers are going to play this hit and similar ones on an endless loop, telling the jurors that the NHL views these brutal attempts to injure as okay. It's not okay, and the NHL needs to get this type of bullshit out of their league.