James Neal, Sidney Crosby & Pittsburgh Penguins: An Embarrassing Debacle For NHL

Allow me a moment, if you will, for a rant.

Even if the NHL comes down with a 10-game suspension for Arron Asham and separate 5-game suspensions for James Neal for each of his transgressions on Sunday, it won't be nearly enough. What's ironic is that those suspensions would be justified by the actions of the Pittsburgh Penguins players yet are actually probably a bit too harsh -- and still it would not be enough to atone for the issues that plague the first-round playoff series between the Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers.

If you've been under a hockey rock the past two days, here's all the fun from Sunday's game:

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See, this is the bed that the NHL has made for itself. This is what the league has sown and now it is doing the reaping, suffering the consequences for botched supplementary discipline procedures that have made the NHL into an absolute joke when it comes to these issues.

What's frustrating is that the series itself is still very fun to watch, but it has been intensely frustrating and angering to see the officials and the league lose control like they have. What should be an incredibly entertaining first-round series between the Flyers and the Penguins has devolved into a tragic comedy defined by cheap shots, dirty hits, an overabundance of penalties and the NHL's Golden Franchise effectively embarrassing the rest of us who still love this sport.

And therein lies the crux of this issue.

Let me lay at your feet a quote that I think speaks saliently about these very issues. I've removed hints from the quote that would give away who it is.

"Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened [redacted] wasn't hockey. It was a travesty. It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.

"The N.H.L. had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed.

"We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action. If the events relating to [redacted] reflect the state of the league, I need to rethink whether I want to be a part of it."

I couldn't agree more, Mystery NHL Man!

The words above perfectly echo my thoughts and sentiments following that joke of a performance by the Pittsburgh Penguins on Sunday. Sidney Crosby, James Neal, Aaron Asham and others on that team should be ashamed of how they represented the NHL -- especially Crosby, who has been the shining example used by the NHL and others as why there needs to be drastic reform when it comes to headshots, concussions and illegal checks to the head.

Sidney Crosby, who has missed most of the past two seasons with a concussion suffered by a drive-by elbow, was the clear instigator of a number of scrums on Sunday and for the most part has truly exposed himself to be the whiny superstar that many across the NHL have hated him for since he first came into the NHL. Personally, I respect and admire his incredible talent but it's a shame to see the NHL's poster boy succumb to such childish behavior.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, however. If nothing else, we should have expected this to come -- especially from the Penguins.

The NHL changed their supplementary discipline process last summer, hiring Brenden Shanahan to take over for discipline measures when it comes to player safety. Immediately he brought down the hammer on the NHL, letting it be known that he would not stand for any sort of flagrant penalty -- especially when it comes to hits to the head. He was commended for his consistency and the NHL was applauded for its new-found transparency; even the most cynical of us here at DBD enjoyed seeing the job he was doing.

As the season progressed, however, that track record diminished. It is speculated that heavy pressure from GMs across the NHL forced Shanahan and the NHL to cool down on the suspensions, especially with star players getting lengthy sentences -- something the NHL can absolutely not afford to have happen, right? What has since happened is that the NHL supplementary discipline procedures -- the "wheel of justice -- is perhaps a bigger joke than ever before.

Forget everything that happened the last few months of the season. There's just too many examples to count. Instead, we have enough examples of this issue from the past WEEK.

Example 1:

Shea Weber goes WWE on Henrik Zetterberg

Apparently all this deserves is a $2500 fine and another slap on the wrist. Forget the fact that Weber is a repeat offender or that he CRACKED ZETTERBERG'S HELMET, the Detroit forward was relatively uninjured on the play and therefore deserves nothing more than a wagging of the finger and a "don't do that again, Shea."

Example 2:

Carl Hagelin gets an elbow up high on Daniel Alfredsson

This is certainly a dangerous hit and one that the NHL is supposedly trying to crack down on. It's not one of the most dangerous or egregious elbows we've seen this season (or this month) and while it was dangerous, nothing about this hit says to me "Hagelin was trying to end Alfredsson's game" -- it was just a high check that Hagelin crossed the line with. Should be a 1 game suspension, right?

Nope. Three games.

Example 3:

Matt Carkner decides to destroy Brian Boyle's face

This one is fun. Boyle, who had punched superstar Erik Karlsson during a scrum in Game 1 (the horror!!) obviously deserved retaliation from the Senators. Carkner was happy to oblige, even if Boyle wanted no part of it. Boyle was jumped and then pounded into the ice, an unwilling participant in "The Code" that says players should make others pay when they go after Star players. Usually, it's an agreed-upon fight that serves to answer the bell for a past transgression. This might have been taking it too far. Actually, it was taken way too far.

One game suspension.

What ties these together is the completely subjective and arbitrary nature of the punishments, something we've ranted about before here at Defending Big D. The inherent issue here is "injury". Alfredsson was injured on the play, while Zetterberg and Boyle were relatively unscathed. Therefore, it's obvious that Hagelin deserved the worst punishment, right?

The joke here is that there is no lesson being taught. The same exact hit on Zetterberg by Weber could have just as easily broken a bone in his face or head or caused a neck issue or a concussion. Does that make the exact same hit in one instance worse than the other? What about the fact that the act itself was heinous, calculated, premeditated and done specifically to injure? You won't ever convince me that Weber slamming Zetterberg's head into the glass like that was a "hockey play."

So how does this tie into the Penguins and Flyers debacle? Simple. This is the league that the GM's and the NHL have created and now they are paying the ultimate price for a series that has gotten completely out of hand and prohibits the league from growing and continuing to gain new fans. This isn't what hockey is about and it's a disgrace that this is what is getting so much attention right now when so many other teams and players deserve it.

Which brings me back to that quote from above. Seems like it fits perfectly in this situation, right?

As most of you probably know, that quote is from Mario Lemieux after that fight-filled game between the Penguins and the New York Islanders. Lemieux went public with his outrage over how an NHL team like the Islanders would dare to attack his precious Penguins team and he challenged the NHL to go hard after players and teams that behaved in this manner.

If the conspiracy didn't exist already, one certainly exists now about how the NHL favors the Pittsburgh Penguins and it's superstars. We've seen several times this season where a hit on a Penguins player is met with national outrage and disdain (Nystrom on Letang) while any controversial hit by a Penguins player (Malkin) is generally overlooked. In the league's defense they ignored the Nystrom hit, yet there have been other examples of teams going against the Penguins getting treated unfavorably by the officials and the NHL. Especially by the on-ice officials.

While the conspiracy theorists will no doubt have a field day with this story, the fact remains that the NHL set itself up for this situation. The Penguins have been the Golden Child of the NHL for half a decade now and get most of the attention of the NHL media -- for may reasons, legitimate or not. While the NHL was also going about setting bad precedents across the rest of the league, the Penguins were being put on a pedestal and practically being set up for the situation they are in right now.

There's no doubt in my mind that Neal and Asham deserve lengthy suspensions. Whether the NHL follows through or not is irrelevant at this point, because the damage has already been done. This series has devolved into such a joke that there's no turning around from where they are now; there's no reparations or backtracking, the NHL is already dealing with an absolute absurd situation that could have been avoided from the start.

The players and old-school pundits say we should allow the players to police themselves. This is the result of such a system. There's no respect anymore and "The Code" is just a joke compared to what it used to represent. Sure, illegal and dangerous hits have always existed, but not in a paradigm where superstar players can ignite on-ice riots and then hide behind the curtain of "I'm Crosby and I have a concussion!"

We all love big hits, physicality and intense playoff hockey. When it devolves into the farce we witnessed on Sunday, it no longer resembles anything fun and frankly becomes quite embarrassing to watch. That this situation was in the making for so long and could have been avoided is all the more disconcerting and frustrating.

I want to be talking about how the Penguins are falling apart and choking. I want to be talking about how impressive the turnaround by the Flyers this season has been. How good it is to see Grossmann finally playing like a man on the ice. How satisfying it is to see the Penguins blue line crumble.

Instead, I had to write about this mess. Infuriating.

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