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Morrissey’s hit on Staal highlights NHL's acceptance of casual cross-checking

The Jets' Josh Morrissey is facing supplemental discipline after a cross-check to the head of the Wild's Eric Staal, but the play would never have happened if the NHL didn't allow players to get away with so much net-front stickwork.

UPDATE (7:45 p.m. ET): The NHL's Department of Player Safety announced Wednesday evening that Morrissey has been suspended for one game. In the video announcing the suspension, Morrissey's cross-check was called a "reckless strike to an opponent's neck with sufficient force to merit supplemental discipline." He will miss Game 5, a potentially series-deciding contest which is slated to take place Friday in Winnipeg.

Not exactly sure what is more disturbing, the fact that two referees didn’t see a blatant cross-check that could ultimately be a deciding factor in the first-round series between the Winnipeg Jets and Minnesota Wild or Jets defenseman Josh Morrissey’s justification for cross-checking Eric Staal in the neck on the play.

But you know what? They’re both actually fathomable, which is what makes it all the more disturbing.

Let’s start with the referees. Both Steve Kozari and Brian Pochmara reportedly told Minnesota Wild coach Bruce Boudreau they didn’t see the infraction. And, on face value, you have to believe them. Nobody in their right mind, let alone a trained NHL referee, would see a play like that and not think it was at least a two-minute minor. (It’s actually a five-minute major and a game misconduct, but let’s say for argument’s sake one of them at least calls a minor on it.) You can see by the replay that the referee behind the Jets’ net, Kozari, has his gaze fixed along on the play along the boards where the puck is, so if he were to see the infraction, it would have at least been in his periphery.

The back referee? Well, we can’t see where Pochmara was looking, but isn’t the whole reason why the NHL clogs up the ice with two referees supposed to be so infractions such as Morrissey’s don’t go missed? It doesn’t really help matters if the both referees are focused on the same part of the ice. Pochmara’s job as the back referee is to focus away from the play.

But both referees missed it and that happens occasionally. But no supplemental discipline that Morrissey receives will make up for the fact that had he been penalized, the Wild would have had a 5-on-3 power play for at least 1:07. (The infraction occurred with exactly 1:20 remaining in Jacob Trouba’s penalty, but the Jets next touched the puck with 1:07 left. Had there been another penalty coming, the Wild may very well have caused the Jets to touch it sooner, which would have given them a slightly longer 5-on-3. And the Wild should have been without Staal for a few minutes. The guy gets nailed, is prone on the ice and takes exactly eight seconds to get to his feet, then is clearly ailing on the bench and doesn’t get sent to the Quiet Room? OK, whatever.)

Had the Wild been able to score on that 5-on-3, at the very least they probably would have been able to get the game to overtime. More importantly, had Morrissey been given the major penalty he deserved, the Jets would have been shorthanded for almost four more minutes and Morrissey would not have assisted on the Jets’ first goal, nor broken up a Nino Niederreiter scoring chance late in the game. And the Jets would have been forced to play two-plus periods with only five defensemen. So Wild coach Bruce Boudreau is absolutely right in claiming that changed the complexion of the game, and perhaps the series.

So now on to Morrissey. Was there intent there? He says there wasn’t, so we’ll believe him on that. And Morrissey’s claim would have been even more convincing had he not slashed Staal’s stick while Staal was trying to get up from the hit. Morrissey claims he was simply attempting to “box out” and gain position on Staal. “They’ve been scoring a lot of goals on their power play from the slot area,” Morrissey told the media after the game. “We were really trying to focus on competing hard in that area tonight. Trying to get them out of there because they’ve had some success with those shot tips. Like I said, trying to make a box out and have position on him. He’s a big guy and my stick just sort of rode up a little bit. It was a complete accident. I wasn’t even looking when I made the initial move, I would never try to do that to anyone on purpose.”

Does that sound in any way familiar? Well, it should. Because that’s the same thing players used to say about “finishing their checks” before the NHL imposed Rule 48 to try to get a handle on headshots. The fact that a play such as Morrissey’s is even considered a hockey play is really, really troubling. But the reality is that it is an accepted form of checking an opposing forward in front of the net. On a play just before the Morrissey hit, Staal goes to the net and has a chance, only to receive a cross-check to the back from Blake Wheeler.

The casual slash and cross-check have become such an ingrained part of playing defense in the NHL that it makes you wonder why they even bother to have it in the rulebook. When Matt Niskanen got his stick up in Sidney Crosby’s face after Alex Ovechkin slashed Crosby twice on the same play during the playoffs last year, he argued that he got his stick up instinctively. And that’s basically what Morrissey is arguing now. If a player’s first instinct when playing defense is to get the shaft of his stick up, something is wrong. Just read what Morrissey said. He’s not admitting that he didn’t cross-check Staal. He’s claiming that things went wrong when the cross-check he was giving Staal went awry when it allegedly “rode up a little bit” and got him in the neck.

Watch any defenseman today battle a forward in front of the net or in the corner and in the vast majority of cases you’re bound to see that forward get cross-checked, probably multiple times. It’s simply been accepted as a hockey play, just like finishing your check used to be accepted as a hockey play.

And that is because, for the most part, the league is run by former players, many of whom made their living playing exactly that way. A lot of these guys see this as simply the price skill players must play to score goals. So Morrissey will likely be suspended, but you could argue the damage has already been irreversibly done because hockey allows that kind of play to continue to flourish.

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