GLENDALE, Ariz. – The hockey handshake line might be the most surreal thing in sports, men missing teeth congratulating other men missing teeth for knocking the ever-living hell out of each other for a series. It's also a custom that metes out justice in the form of respect, or lack thereof.
So as the Phoenix Coyotes skated by Dustin Brown after the Los Angeles Kings eliminated them 4-1 in the Western Conference final, they did so without so much as a nod of congratulations. He was going to the Stanley Cup final; they were going home, which hurt all the more because of what Brown had done barely five minutes earlier.
Locked in a fierce 3-3 tie that had worked its way to overtime, the Kings and Coyotes spent nearly 80 minutes trading punch after punch – one trying to knock the other out, the other trying to stay alive. With just 2:30 to go in the extra period, Coyotes defenseman Michal Rozsival streaked across the blue line heading toward the Kings zone when
Rozsival's teammates immediately pounced on Brown, the crowd inside Jobing.com Arena screamed for a penalty and the referees did nothing.
Twelve seconds later, Dustin Penner deposited a rebound into the back of the Coyotes net, and just like that it was over. The Kings mobbed Penner, the stunned Coyotes barked at the referees and the fans pelted the ice with debris.
"When Brown gets away with a hit like that after the whistle, knee on knee – if Raffi Torres gets 25 games, this guy should be done forever," said Phoenix goalie Mike Smith, referring to the Coyotes winger who was suspended for a head shot on Chicago star Marian Hossa earlier in the playoffs.
Brown, of course, saw things differently.
"Rozsival is cutting through the middle and I cut across and made contact," he said. "Obviously they thought it was kneeing, it happened at high speed. I felt like I got him with my shoulder – my left side, his right side all made contact from toe to shoulder, so …"
So … what will Brendan Shanahan do now?
The NHL's disciplinarian faces a tough call: Does he suspend Brown, the Kings captain and best player in these playoffs, for part or all of the Stanley Cup final, or does he let it go as a clean, hard hit?
The Brown hit all but erases from the discussion what, to that point, had been the very reason sport is worth watching – real drama, not scripted, played out in a second-by-second ebb and flow of emotion that hinged on the result of every single shot. And in this game there were 92 of them.
Three times the game was tied; four times the lead changed. The longest either team trailed was seven minutes.
There was the shocker, courtesy of Taylor Pyatt's goal four minutes in that had the Kings starting to wonder if that 3-0 series lead could really slip away.
There was the savior, a shorthanded goal from Anze Kopitar on a Coyotes power play that, moments earlier, had Jonathan Quick standing on his head – literally.
There was the go-ahead from L.A.'s Mike Richards late in the second period and the equalizer from Phoenix defenseman Keith Yandle less than two minutes later.
The final 23 minutes of regulation and all 17-plus minutes of overtime provided the argument to end all arguments (if there even is one) that the NHL playoffs are the best postseason going. From one end of the ice to the other was flurry of action and opportunity. There was the 5-on-3 early in the third the Kings somehow managed to survive, the Lauri Korpikoski shot that bounced off Quick's mask with barely five minutes to play, Richards' doink off Smith's face three minutes later, Jeff Carter's blast with a second left in regulation that buried itself into Smith's gut, all of which prompted a collective sigh of relief inside Jobing – for a brief 15-minute intermission anyway.
Breath in, breath out, depending on who you're rooting for and where the puck is. This is how it is when one play will determine the fate of your season, and why the hit Brown laid on Rozsival was so pivotal.
There the Coyotes were, arguing with the referees, feeling cheated as they watched their teammate being helped off the ice. Moments later, the puck dropped, Carter raced toward the net, fired on Smith, rebound, Penner goal. Game over. Series over. Coyotes season over in the blink of an eye.
"I think so," said Yandle when asked if the hit on Rozsival distracted them on the play that followed. "Obviously, we probably let it get in our heads a little more. But you worry about your teammate, you worry about your friend, and Rosie got a bad hit and you're worried for him. It's hard not to think about it. It's a guy's career, a guy's life. It's tough to swallow right now."
But they did, because that's the tradition in hockey. They lined up, shook hands with their ousters and wished all of them luck – except for one.
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