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Punishment for hits to head prevalent early in NHL playoffs

Zdeno Chara, Tommy Wingels, Nazem Kadri, Mitchell Marner
The Associated Press

George Parros is a busy man early in the Stanley Cup playoffs thanks to a rash of questionable hits around the NHL.

The vice president of player safety’s department has already suspended Los Angeles Kings defenseman Drew Doughty for an illegal check to the head on Vegas forward William Carrier. He will likely dole out further discipline to Toronto center Nazem Kadri for boarding Boston’s Tommy Wingels.

With two misconduct ejections for boarding that resulted in injuries, and Capitals winger Tom Wilson’s hit to the head that knocked Columbus center Alexander Wennberg out of the game, it has been a rough start to the playoffs — and there have only been eight games played. In 1,271 regular-season games, there were a total of 37 game misconducts and 22 suspensions.

The NHL has made a concerted effort to rid its game of fighting and questionable hits, wanting to keep skilled players on the ice and boost scoring. In the postseason, goals are usually harder to come by and the adrenaline of the moment brings hard hits that cross the line; a year ago, Penguins star Sidney Crosby missed a game with a concussion after a cross-check to the head from the Capitals’ Matt Niskanen.

Kadri was tossed from Toronto’s Game 1 loss at Boston for boarding Wingels, and Blue Jackets winger Josh Anderson was thrown out of their overtime victory at Washington for a hit from behind that injured Capitals defenseman Michal Kempny.

A game misconduct will likely suffice for Anderson, but Kadri probably won’t be so fortunate and could miss Game 2 on Saturday.

“I certainly wasn’t trying to hit him when he was down like that,” Kadri said after Thursday night’s game. “Obviously, if he’s still standing up, I think there’s nothing wrong with that, but he ended up falling and reaching for the puck, and I’m not sure what happened after that.”

What happened was another Bruins goal on the ensuing power play that made it 5-1 in the first game between the bitter rivals. Down the East Coast, Wilson’s hit on Wennberg allowed the Blue Jackets to tie the score in a game they won in overtime. Wilson blamed himself for costing Washington Game 1 by taking a bad penalty at a critical moment.

“I’ve got to be better and maybe pass up on that hit,” Wilson said. “We’ve got the lead there so maybe a big hit’s not needed. It’s the playoffs. Trying to finish your checks, and unfortunately I took a penalty.”

Wilson was suspended two preseason games for interference and then for the first four regular-season games for boarding but had cleaned up his game since. Part of that stemmed from meeting with Parros in Calgary in the fall and educating himself on what’s acceptable and what the NHL looks for.

“We had a meeting, me, him and Parros, and went over videos and just what they were looking at when he was being considered for suspensions and fines and other examples throughout the league,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said.

Parros spent almost a decade as an NHL enforcer and finished his career with 159 fights and 1,127 penalty minutes. When he took over the league’s player safety department last September, he said he intended to crack down on “non-hockey plays” that have nothing to do with affecting the course of the game.

Some of the hits may alter series because of the resulting injuries.

Carrier, Kempny and Wennberg are all day-to-day with “upper-body” injuries — the customarily vague description in the NHL — with their statuses legitimately uncertain moving forward. Columbus general manager Jermo Kekalainen called Wennberg “doubtful” for Game 2 Sunday at Washington and considered it a “dangerous hit” by Wilson that the league deemed wasn’t worthy of further punishment.

Doughty, a Norris Trophy contender and Los Angeles’ top defender, was suspended for Friday night’s Game 2 against Vegas for what the league called an avoidable hit to Carrier’s head. Kadri’s hit came after Wingels crushed Toronto forward Mitch Marner, but the timing and force of the hit made it worse.

“The bottom line is, you always have to be disciplined at all times and emotions are a part of the game, but it’s got to be controlled,” Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock said.

Kekalainen disagreed with officials giving Anderson a five-minute major and a game misconduct for his hit on Kempny, which was definitely a minor penalty but seemed less egregious than Wilson’s later. That didn’t stop Capitals coach Barry Trotz from voicing his displeasure with Anderson’s play.

“I thought there’s clearly numbers there,” Trotz said. “Trying to get that out of the game.”

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Follow Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

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