Late in last Wednesday's game against the Philadelphia Flyers, Mathieu Perreault had his head down as he tried to weave through several Flyers in the neutral zone at Wells Fargo Center. Flyer's forward Harry Zolnierczyk lined up Perreault for a big open-ice hit hit and laid him out, which many would see as an old school hockey play and served Perreault right for having his head down. Problem #1: Zolnierczyk led with his knee and put his knee on Perreault's thigh. Problem #2: there were 30 seconds left in a game the Flyers were leading 4-1. The referee made the right call by giving Zolnierczyk a 5 minute major for kneeing and a game misconduct, ejecting a reckless player in the final minute of a game that was lost long ago by the visitors. The hit on Perreault, and the short powerplay that resulted from it, had no bearing on the outcome of that game.
After the game, when most coaches take the chance to defend their players, Adam Oates said of the Zolnierczyk hit, “I don’t think it was dirty at all. I think it’s a product of our whole game, quite honestly. Thirty seconds left, the game is over and Matty thought he could stick-handle through the team. It’s not what we do — all of us tonight, you know, guys are sitting there waiting for you, and you get hit.”
While Oates had a point that Perreault was being careless, he made the mistake of saying this to the media instead of to Perreault in private. The fact remained that Zolnierczyk had Perreault lined up for a hit well in advance, Perreault swerved to avoid it, and Zolnierczyk did not adjust to hit Perreault's chest, instead lifting his right skate from the ice and letting his right knee hit Perreault's leg as the primary point of contact. It was a hit dirty enough the referee deemed it worthy of a major penalty and ejection. After the game, Zolnierczyk said "I thought I had him lined up," despite not adjusting after Perreault's swerve.
The National Hockey League, enabled by Oates's blessing, made the decision to rescind the ejection from Zolnierczyk's record, meaning he had a clean slate in the eyes of the league. This gave a player known for his dirty play a free pass to be that careless or reckless again, and he did exactly that in his next game. In the first period of Zolnierczyk's next game against the Ottawa Senators, Zolnierczyk left his skates for a hit to the head of defenseman Mike Lundin on a carbon-copy play, knocking him out of the game with a concussion and earning a 4-game suspension and a loss of almost $13,000.
Photo: Michael Perez, AP
For the record, Harry Zolnierczyk has played a grand total of 43 NHL games. He has scored 4 goals and 7 points in that time to go along with a -11 rating and 71 penalty minutes and averages under 8 minutes of ice time per game. This season, Zolnierczyk has almost as penalty minutes (36) as he does minutes on the ice (43:37). He doesn't play on the penalty kill or the powerplay. Last season, his first career penalty came in the form of a fight against Columbus #1 defenseman James Wisniewski after Wiz took exception to a hit when he led with his knee (with the Flyers already up 8-0 in the second period). His second penalty was an illegal hit to the head on Florida's Brian Campbell, you know, the guy who won the Lady Byng Trophy last year as the most gentlemanly player for leading all skaters in ice time and taking only 1 penalty. In all, Zolniercyk had 35 penalty minutes last season in the form of 3 fights, 4 coincidental minor penalties for roughing or late hits, the hit to the head, 2 penalties on goalies (1 interference, 1 slashing), and just 3 restraining penalties. He was even known for the rough stuff in college, posting 206 PIM in 67 games over his last two seasons in college, where fighting is supposed to be illegal. This is not a player the fans pay to see.
To be fair, Zolnierczyk did not deserve to be suspended for his hit on Perreault (then again, Alex Ovechkin got suspended 2 games for a similar hit). While reckless, the hit was appropriately punished by the officials on the ice. Game misconducts do carry a small fine from the league ($200), and three game misconducts lead to an automatic suspension. Usually when a player gets ejected he treads a little more carefully in his next few games, using the penalty as a learning tool. It serves as a deterrent for the player by the league, allowing the NHL to draw a line in the sand against such behavior without too overtly punishing one player for borderline play. It may only be a slap on the wrist, but it's a reminder that more severe penalties are in store if you keep it up.
During the post-game press conference, Adam Oates made a rookie mistake. Normally coaches will say something non-committal like "They have to have to look at that" or "we all know who's involved" on such hits, though some go even farther. The key is to let the NHL do its job and review the play objectively with the subtle pressure applied by the victim's team. When that team gives the player a free pass, what is left for the league to do but rescind the penalty and dole out no further judgement?
It wasn't Adam Oates's place to say whether it was a dirty hit or not, that's why the NHL has referees and a Department of Player Safety. As cerebral as Oates is, he needs to reel that in before he goes up to the microphone next time. He doesn't speak as a hockey ambassador or a college professor from during a press conference, he speaks as a paid employee of the Washington Capitals, and it is his job to protect the interests of his team and do his job as head coach, not do Brendan Shanahan's job for him. And speaking of Shanahan, hopefully he will learn from this sophomore mistake and not let dirty players off the hook for dirty hits again. There are cases where rescinding a penalty is warranted, but this was obviously not one of those times. By simply doing nothing, perhaps Mike Lundin wouldn't have been concussed by a reckless player enabled by a rookie coach's equally careless comments and a weak justice system that didn't act soon enough to discourage reckless play by this player.