Pacioretty will sit 3 games for his colossal hit on Letang Saturday night, despite no penalty being called on the play (if you haven't seen it, you can watch here perjorative-free). Some call it a cheap shot, some a spectacular hockey hit, and maybe some would kind of agree with both. I'm one.
First of all, let's agree that the hit had to be made. Letang was making a potentially dangerous move while in possession of the puck, and Pacioretty had him lined up perfectly. It was very much in the middle of the play, and a solid defensive move for Pacioretty to use his speed and good positioning to deliver some kind of hit to knock Letang off the puck. Just like—and this is a very deliberate comparison—it was a good defensive move for Chara last March to make some kind of play to rub Pacioretty on the boards to do the same.
Pacioretty put it very well himself on TSN : “It's a quick decision there. He's coming across the middle, he's got the puck and is maybe in a scoring opportunity. If I let him go, he could potentially score on us. I knew I had to hit him but I didn't want the result to be like that.” I don't think Pacioretty meant to hurt Letang, but he sure did mean to surprise him with a killer hit and break up the play.
There wasn't a penalty on the hit. I'm not sure that was the right call, because it looks to me like Pacioretty leaves his feet. More importantly, the hit nails Letang right in the head. For better or worse, the refs are supposed to be calling that, partly because of Chara's hit on Pacioretty. I think someone could try making an argument that Letang's head shouldn't have been where it was, but I don't think it's a very strong one for reasons I'll discuss in a moment.
At the same time, it's not like this is the first time someone left their feet do deliver a classic open-ice hockey hit. You know, the kind that guys like Scott Stevens built a whole career around in the pre-lockout and pre-headshot rule era. There was no illegal stickwork involved, no holding or tripping, no running someone's face into a metal pole at full-speed. In many ways, this was little more than a classic open-ice hit that caught Letang unawares, and it was that surprise factor that made the hit as devastating as it was.
At the same time, shots to the head are what we refer to as a “Big Deal” in the NHL right now. There is essentially a crackdown in effect, with Shanahan cast as the new sheriff in town and hopefully handing down the law in a more even-handed way than his predecessor. The rule against head shots is truly to the benefit of the players, the league, and the fans; and it needs to be enforced even if the refs don't call it on the spot.
Pacioretty had this check lined up for what amounts to an eternity in on-ice time. When Chara talked about the game moving too fast to make smart decisions, I found it to be thoughtless and frankly insulting to him and every other world-class hockey player that consistently makes good split-second decisions every moment they're out there. I'm glad Pacioretty didn't try to say the same thing, and I'm proud that he showed the class of approaching Letang pretty quickly afterwards and apologizing rather than insinuating maybe Letang did something ridiculously stupid he clearly didn't do that made the injury happen. I like that Pacioretty took responsibility for a deliberate action on the ice.
The reason I said “some kind of hit” earlier is precisely because of the time that Pacioretty had to line up this hit. Firstly, there was no reason for him to leave his feet to knock a player off the puck. Scott Stevens delivers his most powerful hits in the above video with his feet planted, because the ice provides more leverage and power than hurling himself through the air would. Secondly, Pacioretty didn't have to deliver a high hit. He could have just as easily delivered a wicked hipcheck that would have been equally effective at disrupting the play and knocking Letang out of it without risking the Big Deal that comes with hits to the head. My opinion is that he really did have some time to think about this one, and he made the wrong choice.
Perhaps most importantly, I think that Pacioretty of all people should know better than to make a high-risk play where someone's head even might be in danger. Sure, he's delivered his share of cheap shots in the past while going through the grand tradition of showing enough “grit” for the NHL by logging physical minutes on the third and fourth lines. These days, however, Pacioretty is our top goal–scorer and doesn't need to make high-risk plays in hopes of winning or keeping a roster spot. He's also suffered the consequences of a questionable hit where an opposing player probably could have shown better judgement.
I love a good hockey hit as much (maybe more) than most. All I'm saying is that there's way to clean a guy's clock without hitting him in the head. In addition to the NHL, the medical and research communities are asserting that hits to the head are, in fact, a Big Deal. Sidney Crosby has done the right thing by saying and demonstrating that concussions are a Big Deal, and I have to wonder if Eric Lindros might not have played a few more seasons if concussions had been a Big Deal back when he was playing.
In my opinion, 3 games for Pacioretty seems pretty reasonable. It's a clear head hit, intentional or not, and I'm glad to see the NHL doing anything consistent with their rulebook or stated policies on head hits. Let us know how you feel in the comments.