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Three Periods: Don't blame Matt Cooke for Erik Karlsson's devastating injury

Nicholas J. Cotsonika's weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week's topics include Matt Cooke’s culpability on Erik Karlsson’s devastating injury; the latest on NHL realignment and Olympic participation; Blues’ goalie watch; and Ryan O’Reilly vs. the Avs.

FIRST PERIOD: It’s tempting to blame Matt Cooke, but it was an accident

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The NHL reviewed Matt Cooke's hit on Erik Karlsson and concluded no action was necessary. (AP)

“It’s Matt Cooke,” said Bryan Murray, the general manager of the Ottawa Senators. “What would I say? Look at the replay.”

OK. Let’s look. In slow motion, it’s sickening. Cooke, the Pittsburgh Penguins pest reputed to be the dirtiest player in the NHL, comes up behind Erik Karlsson, the reigning winner of the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman. Cooke lifts his left leg as they battle in the corner for the puck. He brings his skate blade down on the back of Karlsson’s left leg. He draws it across and down.

Karlsson suffered a lacerated Achilles tendon. He howled in pain and hobbled off the ice, headed for surgery and what is sure to be a long, awful rehab.

But let’s consider that Murray was speaking to reporters in the emotional aftermath of Wednesday night’s game, that this was a devastating blow for a team already without star center Jason Spezza and that blaming Cooke is both reflexive and easy.

And let’s look at the replay at normal speed, the way it actually happened. It looks like a routine hit. No one notices anything wrong until Karlsson doesn’t get up. Cooke isn’t malicious or even reckless. He lifts his leg for leverage as they head into the boards and ends up stepping on the wrong spot as they hit the boards.

It is clearly an accident.

The NHL department of player safety reviewed the incident in New York, as it reviews all such plays. League disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan spoke to Murray and Penguins GM Ray Shero. He did not speak to Cooke. No hearing. No discipline. Right call.

Cooke does not deserve the benefit of the doubt because of his long history of illegal and reckless play, even though he has cleaned up his act for more than a season now. But he deserves a fair and objective evaluation if he is involved in something, like every player does, and it should be noted that he has cleaned up his act.

Look at the replay once more:

Had Cooke wanted to injure Karlsson badly, he didn’t need to calculate how to slice his blade across Karlsson’s Achilles at high speed. All he had to do was throw an elbow to the head or cream Karlsson from behind – the kind of thing of which he has been guilty in the past.

But since being suspended for the final 10 games of the regular season and the first round of the playoffs in 2010-11 for an elbow to the head of the New York Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh, Cooke has been scared straight, knowing his next suspension could be much longer. He has spoken with Shanahan. He has gone over video with coaches. He has relearned how to hit. Frankly, he has been a shining example of how the supplemental discipline system can change behavior for the better.

Here, Cooke actually hits Karlsson the way he should. He approaches Karlsson from the side, not from behind. His left elbow comes up near Karlsson’s head, but that’s because it’s tangled with Karlsson’s right arm, which also comes up. He lifts his left knee to pin Karlsson against the boards, but that supports both players as they hit the boards. That his blade comes down like that is just brutal.

None of this will console the Senators. Even if Murray can make a move now, Karlsson cannot be replaced. He might have been on his way to another Norris at 22 years old. Maybe Karlsson should have been wearing a Kevlar sock. Maybe all players should wear them now. Even if it wouldn’t necessarily prevent something like this, it seems like a simple precaution.

But this is a dangerous game, and what’s done is done, and sometimes there just isn’t anyone to blame.

SECOND PERIOD: NHL realignment and Olympic participation

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The NHL was set to discuss its participation in the 2014 Olympics with the IOC and IIHF. (Getty)

The NHL is working on realignment and Olympic participation this week, but realignment is a more pressing priority. “Realignment has to be wrapped up, worst case, I would think two weeks,” said deputy commissioner Bill Daly.

The league needs realignment settled soon, because it needs to get started on scheduling for next season and realignment affects the entire structure. The league can schedule with either/or scenarios for the Olympics.

The board of governors approved a realignment plan in December 2011, featuring four time zone-based conferences and a balanced schedule, plus intra-conference play for the first two rounds of the playoffs. (The third round remained an open issue.) It was supposed to take effect this season, but it was scrapped when the NHL Players’ Association raised objections.

The union’s main concerns: the effect on travel and the imbalanced odds of making the playoffs, with the top four teams advancing in two seven-team conferences and two eight-team conferences.

The NHL has made a new proposal. It has been talking to the union over the past couple of weeks, and the sides met face-to-face Tuesday.

“It’s not the exact same proposal,” Daly said. “We’ve tried to make some changes that attempt to address some of the concerns the union raised with us last year, and we’re working it through. It’s the same general structure, the same general idea, but there have been tweaks made to what was approved by the board.”

Are some teams in different conferences than they were under the previous proposal? Has the league proposed some sort of wild-card format to address the playoff issue? Daly declined to provide details.

The union wanted a mock schedule to see how travel would be affected. Has the league provided one?

“Our position on it remains the same,” Daly said. “I think even last time we were able to give them kind of a sample schedule for a team that we worked through. So ultimately I think we were able to produce what they were looking for.

“We weren’t able to give them a comprehensive schedule. It would be hypothetical at this point based on building availabilities, in some part hypothetical based on what we end up doing with the Olympics, et cetera, et cetera. Look, they’ve asked for certain information since we’ve reengaged, and we’ve provided what we could.”

The NHL was scheduled to meet with the International Olympic Committee and International Ice Hockey Federation on Thursday and Friday to discuss the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

The league has several issues with Olympic participation – from shutting down the business mid-season and risking prized assets, to the access to Olympic venues and the ability to use Olympic content on NHL Network and NHL.com.

“I don’t want to get into a specific laundry list of things we’ll be talking about,” Daly said. “All I would say is, everything we’ll talk about over the next couple days will be consistent with what we’ve discussed with them to this point.

“Don’t really have an idea of what the timeframe is there. Obviously my guess is they want to know sooner rather than later. It’s important for us in terms of making the schedule, but it’s probably less critical than realignment.”

THIRD PERIOD: Blues hold breath on goaltending

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Blues goalie Brian Elliott has floundered after a breakout year last season. (Getty)

The St. Louis Blues’ recent five-game losing streak (0-4-1) should be good for them in the long run. They racked up all those points last season with grit and two-way play. But this team has more skill, with rookie Vladimir Tarasenko coming from the KHL and Andy McDonald, Alex Steen and David Perron coming back from injuries.

“When you add skill and you add finesse, there’s a different feel,” said coach Ken Hitchcock. “It was easy to sell last year because we had injuries. We were scared straight. This is a different team. We’re just learning about each other right now – about what makes us tick and what we need – and so I think the bump gets their attention.”

After falling into a 2-0 hole Wednesday night at Detroit, the Blues shut down the Red Wings and came back to win in overtime, 4-3. They allowed only seven shots after the first period – only one shot in the third period. That’s Blues hockey.

“Finally,” said captain David Backes, who had called out his teammates earlier this week, “guys in here had enough.”

Hitchcock called it a “real boost,” a game that showed “we can check and play the way we played last year and have success.”

Still, their goaltending needs to be better. Defense and goaltending went hand-and-hand last year, as Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak shared the Jennings Trophy for the league’s lowest goals-against average. But Elliott has not been the same this season, with a 3.57 GAA and .849 save percentage, and Halak has a groin injury. Jake Allen won his first NHL start in Detroit, and Hitchcock said afterward it was a “no-brainer” to stick with him.

“Brian’s got to catch his breath here and reset and get back to what he was,” Hitchcock said. “We’ve got to get him calmed down and playing the position, because we don’t know where Jaro’s at. … We need our two starters back playing again, or it doesn’t matter what we do up front. We can’t keep giving up the goals we’re giving up right now and expect to win hockey games.”

OVERTIME: On the Coyotes and ‘relocation alternatives’

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The NHL says it "needs to find out what we’re doing with Phoenix." (USA Today)

Status quo on the sale of the Phoenix Coyotes.

“There’s a number of individuals and groups of individuals who have expressed and/or re-expressed an interest in acquiring Phoenix, and I would say they’re in the process of exploring that opportunity,” Daly said. “I don’t really have anything more to say about it than that. But obviously it’s something we’re spending a lot of our time on right now because the time is such that we need to find out what we’re doing with Phoenix.”

The Coyotes don’t have a ready-made relocation option, like the Atlanta Thrashers did when they were sold and moved to Winnipeg before last season and became the Jets. Winnipeg had an NHL-quality organization and arena already in place, because the new owners were running the AHL’s Manitoba Moose out of the MTS Centre.

“There’s not another Winnipeg out there,” Daly said. “But I’m not going to preclude that there’s relocation alternatives. I think there are relocation alternatives.”

Are Quebec City, Seattle and suburban Toronto better options for relocation than they were a year ago, because of progress toward new arenas?

“How we evaluate the markets might be a little bit differently today than it was a year ago, but I don’t think there’s anything new or different than there was a year ago,” Daly said.

SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL

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    It might be best for everyone involved if the Avs trade Ryan O'Reilly. (AP)

    If the Colorado Avalanche were going to cave, it would have done so already. If a team were going to sign restricted free agent Ryan O’Reilly to an offer sheet, it would have done so already. So it comes down to this: a trade that benefits both sides, or a continuing stalemate that hurts both.
  • This hurts O’Reilly more than the Avs, though. He is losing a year of his NHL career. What are the Avs losing? Frankly, just more games. O’Reilly is an excellent, two-way, second-line center, but not the kind of difference-maker that would turn Colorado into a playoff team, let alone a Stanley Cup contender. Unless O’Reilly ends up in a better situation via trade, it’s hard to see the benefit for him. The Avs have the leverage. They can hold the line on money, not wanting to set a bad precedent, and they don’t have to give him up unless they receive a fair return.
  • If O’Reilly is upset because the Avs didn’t name him captain, is he the kind of guy that should have been named captain?
  • The move to right wing might be starting to work. Alex Ovechkin entered Thursday night having scored in three straight games for the Washington Capitals, including the tying power-play goal in a 6-5 comeback victory Tuesday night at Florida. He had seven points in five games.
  • Look who entered Thursday night tied with Chicago’s Patrick Kane for second in NHL scoring with 20 points: Sidney Crosby. He just picked up his 400th career assist, too. Imagine if he hadn’t missed almost two full years because of concussions and a lockout.

Devils proving they are for realNew Jersey is showing that last year's Stanley Cup appearance was no fluke.

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