Caps’ Steckel can’t duck Crosby hit

FIRST PERIOD

It has been almost three weeks since Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby(notes) curled into Washington Capitals center David Steckel, smacking his head into Steckel’s right shoulder.

And now that the NHL’s leading scorer has missed six games – and will miss more, almost certainly including the All-Star Game on Jan. 30 in Raleigh, N.C. – the Steckel play has been dissected even more than the hit Crosby took from Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Victor Hedman(notes) four days later.

David Steckel's collision with Sidney Crosby in the Winter Classic has re-ignited the NHL's head-shot debate.
(Mitchell Layton/NHLI via Getty Images)

It has renewed the debate about head shots and concussions, which is all well and good. But some of the talk has been unfair to Steckel, and some of the conclusions drawn have been overblown.

“The reaction, I didn’t think it was going to be this big of a deal, but it is,” Steckel said this week. “So I’ve just got to deal with it.”

If the Steckel play was sneaky, it was really sneaky. Call me naive, but I didn’t see a hit. I saw a collision. Steckel was skating up ice, and Crosby turned into him, head cocked to the right, not watching where he was going. Should Steckel have avoided him? Should he have shown more respect for the game’s golden goose? How?

“Contrary to popular belief, I feel like it was incidental,” Steckel said. “I didn’t see him. I didn’t look. That’s a tough instance. To look back now and be like, ‘Well, I’m going to get suspended for a head hit when I had no idea …’ ”

Rule 48, instituted last March, bans “a lateral or blind-side hit” in which “the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact.” There is a growing movement to ban all hits to the head, not just those from the side, regardless of intent.

Banning all hits to the head would be an appropriate evolution of the rule, as long as a distinction is made between hits to the head and collisions in which the head is hit. The NHL should ban plays defined as “checks to the head” – the deliberate act of one player checking another – in which “the head is targeted and/or the principle point of contact.”

Whether a player intended to hit his opponent’s head should not matter. But whether he intended to hit his opponent at all should. You have to leave room for judgment, even if it is difficult to judge intent, even if the results aren’t always clean, consistent and sans controversy.

While researching a concussion piece that was written earlier this season, I spoke to Chris Nowinski, a former Harvard football player and pro wrestler, who became a leading concussion researcher and activist after concussions ended his athletic career. He said he will always push leagues to do more to protect their players.

But he also said: “The rule changes are complicated in terms of whose responsibility is it to avoid the hit. I understand it’s complicated, and I’m not a hockey guy.”

High-sticking is a poor comparison. Players are always responsible for their sticks, but they can keep their sticks down. They can’t necessarily keep their shoulders down when they’re simply skating.

Football can be a poor comparison, too. You can outlaw head shots, like the NFL has, or make the rules so a player can’t hit an opponent once he has released the puck, the way a defender can’t drill a quarterback once he has released the ball. But you have to realize football is a game of long pauses and brief bursts of action, with scripted offensive plays and defenders trained to react in deliberate ways, while hockey is a free-flowing game with much more randomness.

Accidents happen, and you have to allow for that.

“If it’s incidental contact, how are you going to avoid it if you don’t see it coming?” Steckel said. “I don’t think you can. I mean, I understand where they’re coming from in trying to protect the player, but I don’t think that’s a very viable option, to be honest with you.”

SECOND PERIOD

In a league where injuries have become an epidemic – from St. Louis to Detroit to Montreal – no one has been decimated more than the New York Rangers. Six forwards are on the shelf, hurting an already questionable offensive attack.

The Rangers' plan of giving Henrik Lundqvist more rest is paying off.
(Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

The temptation must be to ride brilliant goaltender Henrik Lundqvist(notes) once again, but the Rangers wisely are resisting it, at least so far. Lundqvist could carry the team into the playoffs, but it won’t do much good if he’s wiped out once they get there. If they can hold onto their position and keep Lundqvist fresh, he could steal a series or two like Jaroslav Halak(notes) did for the Montreal Canadiens last year.

Lundqvist played at least 70 games in each of the past four regular seasons, but he has never escaped the second round of the playoffs. The Rangers signed Martin Biron(notes) to back him up and assume some of the workload this season, and the plan is working. Lundqvist has played 37 games thus far, putting him on pace to play 63.

The Boston BruinsTim Thomas(notes) leads NHL goaltenders in the main statistical categories. But Lundqvist is tied with Thomas for first in shutouts (seven). He’s tied with the Nashville PredatorsPekka Rinne(notes) for second in save percentage (.928) and ranks fifth in goals-against average (2.21).

“The last eight years of my career, I’ve been playing a lot, even in Sweden, so it’s a little different,” said Lundqvist, who felt a little tense when returning to the net after a break earlier this season. “But I can tell it helps my game, especially back-to-backs. When you don’t play the second game, you save a lot of energy there. Hopefully I can feel great all year and it’s going to pay off in April, May and June.”

It goes beyond playing fewer games, though. Lundqvist said he has made an effort to take better care of himself this season – improved nutrition, more rest away from the rink. Three times, he has been a finalist for the Vezina Trophy as the NHL’s best goaltender. But he has never won it, let alone the Stanley Cup.

“I want to try to take my game to the next level now and try to progress more,” Lundqvist said. “This game is all about details, and I’m trying to improve everything to get better. I think the last couple seasons, I’ve been steady, but I want to try to be better. I know every detail in my game and off the ice, I need to be better. I feel good right now.”

THIRD PERIOD

I feel like I’m on Loch Ness. Where is the Monster? Is he just a myth? The Toronto Maple LeafsJonas Gustavsson(notes) has not lived up to his nickname in his past 10 starts, going 3-7-0 with a 4.14 goals-against average, .861 save percentage and immeasurable confidence issues.

Toronto goalie J-S Giguere said he's willing to waive his no-movement clause.
(Abelimages / Getty Images)

What do the Leafs do now? They continue to cling to some slim hope of making the playoffs, but that doesn’t seem realistic, especially in light of Wednesday night’s 7-0 loss in New York. More important is figuring out Gustavsson’s problems and finding out whether he can be their goaltender of the future.

Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes) has a groin problem, shouldn’t play back-to-back and has an expiring contract. Gustavsson, signed for one more season, would have to pass through waivers to go to the minors for seasoning. The Leafs could recall rookie James Reimer(notes), who came up and played well in a recent stretch, but would have to carry three goalies to do it.

Unless they can trade Giguere. Which they probably can’t right now.

“I think first thing’s first for me is to be healthy and win some games, because nothing can happen if I don’t play well or I’m not healthy,” said Giguere, who would be willing to discuss waiving his no-trade clause if the Leafs asked. “So at the end of the day, these two things need to happen before we can even start talking and considering anything else.”

The Leafs need to showcase Giguere as much as they can before the Feb. 28 trade deadline and find a way to get Gustavsson back on his game. Coach Ron Wilson said Gustavsson had looked nervous – and that was before he allowed six goals on 25 shots against the Rangers.

“I’m a calm guy naturally,” Gustavsson said. “I don’t think I’m bad at that. I’ve been through some things in my life. You just go out and play a hockey game. That’s the most fun I know. So I just go out there with a positive attitude and try to have some fun and try to show that to the team that I’m ready.”

OVERTIME

In the third period Tuesday night against the Philadelphia Flyers, Capitals star Alex Ovechkin(notes) took a baseball swing at a fluttering puck and sent it straight into the goaltender’s left pad. A few minutes later, he scored on sort of a swinging bunt, knocking down the puck with his glove and barely getting enough of it with his stick to nudge it across the line.

Alex Ovechkin leads the NHL in shots, but goals have been hard to come by.
(Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

That was appropriate, because after all the analysis and theories concerning Ovechkin’s scoring slump, now we’re on to baseball analogies. “We’ve looked at every angle, seen every play,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We’ve cut up all his shifts. If this was a baseball player, he’s hitting line drives but he’s hitting them at everybody, so he’s still batting .210. One year, they’re all falling in. One year, they’re not falling in. So far, they haven’t fallen in for him.”

Ovechkin leads the league in shots with 211, but he has only 15 goals – four in his last 18 games. His shooting percentage is 7.6; it has been between 10.6 and 14.6 every year of his career.

He isn’t alone. Linemate Nicklas Backstrom’s(notes) shooting percentage is 9.4, when it was 14.9 last season and 12.6 in 2008-09. Backstrom has gone 21 games without a goal. Even Mike Knuble’s(notes) shooting percentage is down to 10.2, when it is usually relatively high – 19.2 last season – because so many of his shots are in close.

“Just like a baseball player, you look at their batting average, look at our shooting percentage,” Knuble said. “The proof is in the numbers there. It’s not that we’re not getting the shots or getting the opportunities. (Stuff’s) happening, I guess.”

And it’s no consolation to Boudreau that stuff is happening to Capitals other than Ovechkin. Another baseball reference.

“He’s the straw that stirs the drink,” Boudreau said, recalling Reggie Jackson. “When he’s scoring, then other people are getting points off of it.”

SHOOTOUT

Leafs winger Kris Versteeg(notes) is well aware of GM Brian Burke’s reputation for swinging trades. He was part of one last summer that brought him to Toronto from the Chicago Blackhawks. And he’s well aware that his name is being bandied about. “Obviously, there’s no hiding it when everything’s on Hockey Night in Canada,” Versteeg said with a little laugh. “You just keep your head down and shut your mouth and play hockey.”

Chris Drury(notes), the Rangers captain, once a consistent goal-scorer, has accepted a fourth line role at age 34. He’s under contract for $7 million this season and next. “He’s a good man,” coach John Tortorella said. “It’s a bit of a transition for him. It’s tough, and he’s handled himself very well.”

Flyers general manager Paul Holmgren sports a crew cut and comes off as super-serious to his players. “I had one ask me, ‘Does he ever smile?’ ” Flyers president Peter Luukko said. Still, Luukko called Holmgren “a player’s GM.” “The players appreciate his honesty,” Luukko said. “You know where you stand. But even when he may call somebody in and the situation is not the best – they have told me this – they know that he’s with them. I think that’s so important. That’s a good leader.”

The amazing turnaround of Andrej Meszaros(notes) continues – from a minus-14 last season with the Tampa Bay Lightning to a league-leading plus-29 this season with the Flyers. “It just clicked, and I’m really happy about it,” Meszaros said Tuesday night after scoring an overtime winner against the Caps. “It’s always when you come to a new team, it’s tough to learn everything, but it was actually pretty easy for me. Fortunately for me, it’s been great so far.”

Big game on Sunday, a rematch of the 2010 Stanley Cup final between the Flyers and champion ’Hawks in Chicago on U.S. national television. “It’s still fresh in your mind how the season ended for us,” Flyers defenseman Chris Pronger(notes) said. “Obviously they were ecstatic, and we were disappointed. Of course that’s going to come back in. I’m sure that’s why NBC has that as their opening game.”

Nicholas J. Cotsonika is a hockey writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Nicholas a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Jan 20, 2011