There were plenty of frustrating about Wednesday's Dallas Stars overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens. The team’s performance in overtime. Al Montoya’s horseshoe in the second period. Dallas’ relatively slow start.
But for me, the most frustrating thing was a non-call of blatant safety violation, as Alexei Emelin delivered an elbow to the head of Antoine Roussel behind the net in the third period.
This hit is inexcusable in almost every way. As the GIF shows, Roussel’s head is lowered and he is in a fairly tucked position the entire play, meaning there is no last-second movement that Emelin could point to as exculpatory. He brings his elbow down to Roussel’s head level and leaves it out rather than tucking it further into his chest. Then he follows through by throwing the elbow forward through Roussel’s head rather than letting “accidental” contact spin his body toward the boards.
And all that, which is illegal under rule 45 in and of itself, wasn’t the end of this, as there is no other body contact to speak of, which makes this also a rule 48 violation where both the first and main point of contact was Roussel’s head, which was “picked” by itself rather than contacted in the course of an otherwise full-body hit.
It’s the elbow swing that makes this so blatant. If Emelin had his arm tucked into his body and it stayed there throughout the hit, it’d be a rule 48 violation but a less severe one. But both angles show the true swing of the elbow, a useless, malicious play that has no purpose in hockey other than to potentially injure the other player.
And that’s what makes this play so frustrating. There were other eyebrow-raising calls and no-calls for both teams, but those generally dealt with obstruction-type penalties where the foul was committed in pursuit of a tactical advantage. While calls there affect the outcome of a game, a miss doesn’t put a player’s safety in jeopardy. A referee’s job is primarily to protect the safety of the participants in any contest, and missing calls this blatant puts that primary job at risk.
All that said, perhaps the back referee (who you can see looking at the play in the first GIF replay) was screened out by Emelin’s back. Perhaps he just saw Roussel fall and thought Roussel initiated the contact and lost. Bad angles and split-second decisions will lead to such things occasionally, and maybe he’ll be less gun-shy the next time about keeping a tight lid on player safety.
But for this incident, the league needs to step in. This is a play that cannot be allowed to be tacitly endorsed as a “hockey play” by allowing it to stand. Emelin is a repeat offender for purposes of deciding whether or not he needs supplementary discipline (though not in terms of the money he would lose, as his prior illegal check to the head happened in 2014), and this is a two-fer - a hit that is both a rule 48 violation and an otherwise illegal elbow.
How much faith do I have that that will happen? Not very much. The NHL suspends to the outrage, and this hit won’t generate much for a relatively late Wednesday night contest on a player who doesn’t garner much affection. But I would love to be happily surprised. This is the type of hit that doesn’t belong in the NHL, and they have a chance to prove that, even if the player hit is a noted agitator who has a legion of enemies, that doesn’t mean obvious lines can be crossed.