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Phil Sheridan: NHL needs to send stronger message on dirty hits

The Flyers know whom they'll play and where they'll play. The biggest question of the second round has yet to be answered.

Phoenix's Raffi Torres drew a 25-game ban for this hit that flattened Marian Hossa. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)
Phoenix's Raffi Torres drew a 25-game ban for this hit that flattened Marian Hossa. (Nam Y. Huh/AP)Read more

The Flyers know whom they'll play and where they'll play. The biggest question of the second round has yet to be answered.

How will they play?

The story of the first round was the vicious, illegal hits delivered at high-value targets and the NHL's lame attempts to deter them. Finally, after Phoenix's Raffi Torres received a heavy, 25-game suspension for launching himself at the skull of Chicago's Marian Hossa, the ugly hits finally seemed to taper off.

Did that do it? Or was it coincidence? Flyers forward Danny Briere thought it was more of the latter.

"It caught everyone's attention, no doubt," Briere said. "We all know the reason he got so many games is because he's more than a repeat offender."

Torres had been fined or suspended five previous times, a body of dirty work that factored heavily into his penalty. Still, there is little doubt the suspension - tied for third-longest in NHL history - was also spurred by the increasing recklessness displayed throughout the first round.

Seven players were suspended before Torres' Game 3 hit on Hossa. Zero players were suspended for hits afterward.

So did the NHL message get through or was it something else?

"My feeling is, as the [series] move into Game 6 and 7, players don't want to put their team down or miss a game at a crucial time," Briere said. "Early on, I think the adrenaline of being in the playoff is starting. Everybody is gung ho and just wants something to prove. As it starts moving to more crucial games, guys are a lot more wary of getting their teammates into trouble."

Briere didn't go there, but there is another, more sinister reason for early-series misdeeds. The New York Rangers' Carl Hagelin threw an elbow into the skull of Daniel Alfredsson in Game 2 because it deprived Ottawa of its star and captain for much of the series. It was Game 1 when Nashville's Shea Weber dribbled the head of Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg off the glass.

Pittsburgh's James Neal went berserk in Game 3, launching himself at the skulls of Sean Couturier and Claude Giroux on the same shift, because those two had established themselves as vital players for the Flyers. The Penguins' chances of getting back into the series would be vastly improved if either, or both, were knocked out.

It took NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan three days to issue Neal's one-game suspension. The night he announced it, Torres hit Hossa in a near replay of Neal's hit on Couturier. Maybe if Shanahan had acted quickly and handed down a more appropriate suspension (say, five games) on Neal, Torres wouldn't have felt emboldened to hit Hossa the way he did. Maybe if he'd suspended Weber, other incidents would have been preempted.

It is unfortunate but true that the league's weak reaction to the first few cheap shots led to an escalation. This time, it came to a peak with Hossa on a stretcher. Next time, it could be worse.

Hossa was more seriously injured than Couturier, but that doesn't change the intent. The biggest difference on the two hits may simply be that Couturier is taller than Hossa. His head is just an inch or so harder to reach with a solid hit.

Look over at the NBA. The self-anointed Metta World Peace was suspended seven games for throwing an elbow at Oklahoma City's James Harden. The former Ron Artest will miss six Lakers playoff games - three more than Hagelin, five more than Neal - for a regular-season incident.

While players ultimately have to accept responsibility and start respecting their peers, the leagues still have the ability to create deterrents. It has to hurt you and your team more than it hurts the other team, or this stuff will continue.

If Briere is right, if the cheap hits stopped coming because the games grew more meaningful, then the start of the second round could see a return to the thuggery. There will be fresh Games 1 and 2 for teams to send their human missiles at opponents' key players. New grudges will develop and on-ice justice will be meted out.

That's where Shanahan and commissioner Gary Bettman come in. They simply have to take firmer control from the start of the second round. Waiting until the third or fourth or fifth incident just won't be acceptable. The games shouldn't be played with the threat of a career-ending concussion hanging over every player's head on every shift.

If the Torres suspension was a real deterrent, we won't see as much of that as we did in the first round. If not, the league runs the real risk of again having its signature event - a tournament that really deserves better - deteriorate into the WWE-on-skates nonsense that marred the first round.