TORONTO – The sense of frustration was clearly simmering just below the surface.
With the regular season drawing closer, Toronto Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf still doesn’t have a handle on exactly what kind of hits are allowed under the new NHL standard. He received a checking to the head penalty—the revised rule 48—during Friday’s 2-1 loss to Buffalo after levelling Michael Ryan midway through the third period.
It was the second time in as many pre-season games where the defenceman was left confused by a penalty call against him.
“(Ryan’s) got his head down and he’s coming through the middle of the ice, I make contact with his body first,” said Phaneuf. “That’s my job as a D-man when the guy’s coming up the middle of the ice, to stand up on him. Like I said, he’s got his head down and I made contact with his body.
“We were talking about it last game, it’s a learning experience for the refs. I was talking to him again out there tonight and it’s going to be a feeling out part.”
During the off-season, the NHL tinkered with the head checking rule it brought in prior to last year. Rather than specifying whether the hit came from the blindside, it was expanded to include any hit where the “head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted.”
Ryan was skating out of his own zone when Phaneuf stepped up and put his shoulder into the Sabres centre.
“He hit him in the shoulder and body and it appears as if his shoulder grazes his head, but the principal point of contact was his shoulder,” said Leafs coach Ron Wilson. “So that’s not a head shot by what’s going to be in the rule book or by the video. Now what happens is it’s so quick for the referees and part of why we have exhibition games, it’s not only for the players to sort out the new rules and their own game.
“The referees have to gradually come to getting used to the new rules.”
While players, coaches and referees all adjust to the new standard, it will be interesting to see what kind of impact it has on the ice. One executive watching Friday’s game at Air Canada Centre expressed concern that the new rules will virtually eliminate hitting from the sport.
For his part, Phaneuf vows not to change his style.
“I was definitely cautious,” he said. “I’ve never been suspended before for going for a guy’s head. I’m still not going to go for a guy’s head. I play the way I play, I make open ice hits like that and I’m not going to be hesitant to make an open ice hit.
“I’m going to make a clean hit and I felt that that was clean.”
After the Leafs and Sabres meet on Saturday night at First Niagara Center, Toronto will have just three pre-season games remaining. The regular season opens Oct. 6.