Kris Letang quietly returned last evening to the Pittsburgh lineup and earned a power play assist on the game-winning goal during the Penguins’ 4-1 win over New Jersey. He logged a game-high 23:35 of ice time and fired four shots on goal. It was the defenceman’s first game since last Monday night in Winnipeg when after receiving a boarding minor at 13:08 of the third period, he was subsequently slapped with a two-game suspension by the NHL, causing him to miss Pittsburgh victories in Minnesota on Tuesday and at home on Thursday against Montreal.
The play in question against the Jets occurred moments after Letang’s shot from centre point inside the Winnipeg zone was blocked by the stick of Blake Wheeler. The puck caromed to the near boards just inside the blue line leading Letang and Winnipeg forward Alexander Burmistrov to chase it. Letang was approximately two strides behind Burmistrov and just as the Jet collected the puck facing away from the Penguin, Letang finished his check by hitting Burmistrov into the boards.
In his explanation, Brendan Shanahan from the NHL Department of Safety said, in part:
Letang recognizes that Burmistrov will get to the puck first and Letang gets into an athletic defensive position. At this point, this is no longer a puck that is up for grabs and Letang is going to play the man.
In our opinion, Burmistrov’s path to the puck is predictable. There are no sudden movements just prior to, or simultaneous with the hit. In spite of the fact that Letang is looking at Burmistrov in the numbers, he finishes his check hard and with authority and fails to minimize the check.
Letang was assessed a minor penalty for boarding. We’ve also taken into consideration that Letang was fined in April 2011 for a similar hit.
Shanahan’s explanation is fair and reasonable in consideration of the NHL’s paramount priority this season to increase player safety and to crack down on reckless and intentional hits that lead to potential or actual serious injuries especially those that cause concussions or head and back trauma.
At the final GM meetings of 2010-11 in March, a recommendation was made to referees to strictly enforce boarding and charging penalties as some studies showed that 70% of concussions occur near the boards and not due to sensational open-ice hits as may be commonly believed. It could be argued that Letang was not at fault as he appears to commit to his check a split second before Burmistrov leaned down to scoop up the puck making himself vulnerable to a dangerous hit. While that may be true, one important aspect of the play that Shanahan stressed in his “Key Points” at the end of his explanatory video was that “the onus is on Letang to avoid the hit entirely or at the very least, to minimize the contact”.
In real time, there is little doubt that Letang could not avoid the hit, but a six-year NHL defenceman should be well aware of his speed and cognizant of his opponent’s position in close proximity to the boards. Thus the onus rested on Letang delivering the check and he should have reduced his speed before making contact. This was textbook boarding according to Rule 41. Letang pushed his opponent in a manner that caused Burmistrov to impact the boards violently or dangerously. Fortunately, Burmistrov was not injured on the play (a factor that Shanahan weighed in his decision) but the act – not the end result – must be primarily considered and a two-game suspension was fitting.
Ironically, Letang was cited as a positive example by Shanahan two times in a video (below) demonstrating sane, safe, clean hits culled from tape of pre-season games. In the first case during an exhibition game in Chicago, (0:25 of the video) Letang slows down and avoids boarding a Blackhawk player, who had just passed the puck. In a second example (3:16), Letang delivers a clean, open ice shoulder to shoulder check on Valtteri Filppula of Detroit.
“I had my hearing today and we were talking about it,” an irritated Letang said after the Pens won in Minnesota last Tuesday. ”The league is trying to avoid those hits. I think I need to be a bit more careful along the boards and learn from that.” He went on to say that Shanahan gave him a chance to explain the play, whether he could have let up, slowed down or approached the situation differently.
For a franchise that called for improved safety but came under fire last winter due to the actions of Matt Cooke, it is a positive step that at least publicly, the Penguins are accepting punishment, taking responsibility and adapting their game to current trends in safety promotion and rule enforcement.
About the Author: Adrian Fung (@PenguinsMarch) contributes game reports, opinions, analysis and features, mostly about the Pittsburgh Penguins. He has covered the World Hockey Summit, Kraft Hockeyville, World Junior Championship exhibition games, CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game, MasterCard Memorial Cup and NHL Rookie Tournament for Hockey Independent. twitter.com/PenguinsMarch