The Week That Was: April 1st-7th

When the final horn was sounded in San Jose just past 1:00 am Eastern Time, the 2011-2012 NHL season officially came to a close. In the final week, the playoff race was officially set. The Washington Capitals and Florida Panthers clinched the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference, while the Dallas Stars played themselves out of the Western Conference following a 4 game losing streak. As a result, next week will have playoff matches with bad blood such as Washington and Boston, and intriguing series such as Vancouver and Los Angeles.

For the past 6 months, every team has gone on a roller coaster ride, seeing highs and lows, success and disappointment. The main theme of the 2011-2012 NHL season was to expect the unexpected. In the West, the Columbus Blue Jackets saw themselves at the bottom of the standings despite the high-profile additions of Wisniewski and Carter. On the other end of things, the St. Louis Blues shocked everybody following a coaching change, en route to a 109 point season, good for third in the entire league. Other surprises included the Panthers who captured the relatively weak Southeast Division, and the Coyotes who earned their first division crown in franchise history.

Individual players this season also turned some heads. Aside from Stamkos and his 60 goal season along with Malkin’s Art Ross worthy campaign, Phil Kessel, Max Pacioretty, and Erik Karlsson reached new career highs in big hockey markets attracting everybody’s attention. Players such as Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, and Marian Gaborik also shocked many by staying healthy for the entire season and being large contributors to their respective teams. This did not go without some disappointments statistically, including a serious drop in Ryan Kesler’s totals or the inconsistent play from Alex Ovechkin.

Nevertheless, many things happened this week that were buried as a result of the intense playoff races. Because the matchups were not set until the final hour, it was difficult to keep track of the different moments that occurred over the last 7 days and keep tabs on the incredibly perplexing playoff scenarios. Between interesting defensive tactics and bad blood, there was no shortage of excitement in the National Hockey League. Here is the week that was from April 1st to 7th:

Using Your Head (In the Wrong Way)

The 2011-2012 NHL season has seen its fair share of game misconducts for a wide variety of different reasons. The crimes can be as predictable as a hit from behind or as dangerous as kneeing. However, a very rare type of game misconduct is the headbutt. The headbutting penalty unfolds exactly as it sounds: to strike another player with their head. In the age of concussions and increasing head-injuries, it never seemed that this penalty would ever be seen. Apparently, Nate Prosser had other ideas.

Nearing the end of the first period of a Thursday night matchup, Minnesota Wild’s blueliner Prosser was involved in an altercation with Blackhawks forward Jamaal Mayers. The end result had Prosser leaning in and striking Mayers with his shield in a vicious “headbutting” manner (watch the video here). Prosser was immediately ejected from the game  and given 5 and a 10. Watching the video multiple times, there’s no question that the hit was dirty and intentional. Helmets and shields are rock solid and is a strong weapon when hitting another player is incredibly dangerous. Prosser will likely have a hearing with the NHL, and an incredibly strong suspension should be handed out to set a precedent for such an unusual offence. Coaches and analysts always say that the best players use their heads, but Nate Prosser apparently didn’t get the memo that they meant using their mind and not their skull.

Where’s the Puck?

Prior to the NHL lockout back in 2005, a play would be whistled dead if it was pinned up against the boards because it slowed the game and referees could not see the puck clearly. After the yearlong work stoppage, hockey returned and longer scrums ensued. Every game has multiple instances where there is a scrum for the puck in a corner or near the net and the whistle is often left silent. However, there are still times that the puck is whistled dead. One of those played should have included Jordan Leopold’s goal, one of the wackiest goals of the year that should not have counted.

On Tuesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs were playing the Buffalo Sabres who were on the brink of elimination. With only minutes to go and the Sabres down by 1, a pileup occurred in front of the Leafs’ net. After a few seconds of absolute chaos where bodies were sprawled everywhere, the puck suddenly appeared in the back of the net courtesy of a Jordan Leopold poke. The Sabres would go on to win the game 6-5 and keep their playoff hopes alive for another day. The question everybody asked about the play following the end of the game was, “Did the referee see the puck?” While it is true that the NHL discourages quick whistles, if a ref cannot see the puck the play should be ruled dead. Considering Ben Scrivens claimed post-game that he did not see the puck once and that he had never been involved in such a large scrum in his playing career, all signs point to the fact that the disc was nowhere to be seen. If this was a November game, would the play have been called dead? Incredibly likely. The fact that this game had dire consequences for the Buffalo Sabres likely prompted the stripes to swallow their whistles in that situation. Nevertheless, it was a fantastic game and effort by the Sabres, who deserve some breaks after the bad luck they’ve had all season.

Too Many Sticks?

In sports, many teams and fans seem to follow by the motto, “If you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t trying.” While the majority of fans do not tolerate serious offences, there are many plays every whistle that are against the rules that fans let slide. Whether that be a cross-check to the back while fighting for position in front of the net or embellishing a hit to get the call, players constantly straddle the line between fair and “cheap” to gain an advantage. Ryane Clowe not only crossed the line, but continued to run past it.

On Thursday, the San Jose Sharks visited the Los Angeles Kings in the first of a two game series, where the winner gains supremacy in the Western Conference. With under 3 minutes to go in a tie game, the Kings were attempting to gain the offensive zone when Clowe stuck out his stick and disrupted the play.  The play was broken up and the Kings were irate. People took major offence to this and there were even outcries for a suspension. This was clearly an illegal play that got missed by the referees as a result of the angle. If anybody saw this, Clowe would’ve been in the box for two minutes. Clowe’s play was fairly idiotic, but incredibly gutsy and tactically smart. The Sharks would go on to win the game.

On Saturday, the Sharks hosted the Kings and were subject to a few questionable checks and tons of chippy play. Surprisingly, there was no retaliation following the little incident on Thursday. While Clowe left the game with an injury, Dan Boyle led his team to a 3-2-overtime victory, despite being down by 2 heading into the final stanza. If the Sharks roll over the Blues and the Kings falter to the Canucks, it appears that there will be a scapegoat in the form of Ryane Clowe.

Playoff Rivalry

In order for a rivalry to be considered one of the best in the National Hockey League, it has to contain certain elements. Among those requirements are close games, action-packed teams, and bad blood between the two teams. This year, there were plenty of great rivalries. Vancouver and Chicago have had one of the most intense rivalries of the year for its recent playoff battles, along with Toronto and Ottawa that renewed the bad blood seen in the past. However, the greatest rivalry of the year has been seen in the state of Pennsylvania where the Penguins and Flyers have duked it out all year. The two teams are built incredibly similar. Each team has definite superstars, players that play the game rough, solid defending, and a lot of players that can score goals. On Sunday, the two teams met in Pittsburgh and the game was ugly. Following an empty-net goal to put the Flyers up by 3, Joe Vitale rocked Daniel Briere in the neutral zone and chaos ensued. With the crescendo being a shouting match between coaches and a Hulk Hogan impersonator known as “Malkinmania” shouting at Scott Hartnell, the game turned into a mess. One week later, these two teams met again and there was more of the same. Fights, dirty hits, and chippy play could not stop Crosby and Malkin from lighting up the Flyers and sending a message.

The best part of this rivalry is that these two teams will meet once again in the first round of the NHL playoffs. From the looks of it, there does not appear to be a better playoff matchup that will occur in the next two months. Multiple players from each squad have been quoted as saying that this will be a “bloodbath”. Between the past matchups, the close proximity between the teams, and the hate that they have for one another, this series will be unbelievable and a must watch, if these past 2 games were any indication.