NHL playoffs: Lack of deterrent for needless late-game violence causes chaos
Both of Wednesday's games finished with needless and dangerous altercations, and there's no reason to expect incidents to stop.
In the NHL playoffs, there is an expectation of more aggressive physical play taking centre stage, but that's not a blank cheque for players to engage in violent attempts to injure each other.
There are two sets of deterrents to prevent the type of plays no one wants to see in the game. The first is in-game penalties.
If you do something reckless, there's a good chance you'll put your team in a disadvantageous position for up to five minutes. When you're playing a team like the Edmonton Oilers that's scored on 45.5% of its power plays during the playoffs, the result could be disastrous.
The second major incentive is avoiding disciplinary action from the NHL Department of Player Safety. This body hands out suspensions, which cost players money and opportunities. Depending on how team-oriented or self-interested a player is, this could be a greater force for preventing dangerous plays.
On Wednesday night, we got a clear demonstration of how these tools are not enough for the NHL to police the game sufficiently — particularly in late-game situations.
In Edmonton, Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Alex Pietrangelo's slash on Leon Draisaitl with 1:27 left on the clock was nothing short of egregious.
Alex Pietrangelo gives Leon Draisaitl a two-handed slash after an empty net opportunity. pic.twitter.com/wziPdleLDx
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 11, 2023
There's no way to link this play to anything related to the puck or the outcome of the game. Because the Golden Knights were down 4-1 with less than two minutes remaining, Pietrangelo's inhibitions were loosened by the fact a penalty wasn't going to affect the final score, or the series.
If anything, he significantly increases the Golden Knights' chances of winning the series if Draisaitl is hurt.
While it's impossible to know what Pietrangelo was thinking with 100% confidence, Connor McDavid saw the move as one with an intent to injure and it's tough to disagree.
Connor McDavid on the Pietrangelo slash on Draisaitl in Game 4. #StanleyCup pic.twitter.com/ZQpMls4Sbi
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) May 11, 2023
When Pietrangelo slashes Draisaitl, he does so with an understanding that the only real punishment he might have to deal with is from the NHL Department of Player Safety.
That's a roll of the dice that's usually come up in players' favor during the postseason. The NHL's disciplinarians have handed out just two suspensions and four fines in the playoffs. The maximum fine of $5,000 is 0.056% of the defenseman's salary.
For a frame of reference, the average personal income per capita in Nevada, where Pietrangelo plies his trade, is $58,451. So, for the average Nevadan, the NHL's top penalty would be the equivalent of losing $33.21. That's a hair under the cost of two Grand Slam Breakfasts from Denny's in Las Vegas with a respectable tip ($34.01) — it's not moving the needle.
Pietrangelo's fate will be determined in a hearing on Thursday, but anything short of a suspension will have no tangible effect on him.
There were also some shenanigans late in the Maple Leafs-Panthers game, this time coming right as the final buzzer sounded.
scrum at the end of the game pic.twitter.com/7C55XHqjMt
— Omar (@TicTacTOmar) May 11, 2023
This might look like garden-variety post-whistle nonsense, but underneath it all was Sam Bennett — who'd already made some dangerous plays in the series — getting on top of Jake McCabe with Brandon Montour and punching him in the face.
There is a certain amount of roughness after whistles — even the final whistle — that is accepted in the NHL. It's objectively stupid and adds little to the game, but it's been grandfathered in. Bennett's actions — in a world where we have a better understanding of concussions — go well beyond that.
This scrum resulted in the referees giving out 12 different penalties —including a 10-minute misconduct for Bennett — but those calls were utterly impotent considering the final whistle had already blown. With that first layer of deterrent peeled away, the players on the ice were empowered to give into their worst impulses in the name of demonstrating toughness or "sending a message."
If penalties taken late in a game carried into the next contest in the series, or the NHL Department of Player Safety had more power to levy larger fines or inclination to give out long suspensions, we'd see better outcomes.
As it is, the structures in place simply don't do enough to stop players from committing acts of violence at the end of games outside the bounds of the sport.