First of all, if any Flyers fans are reading this, let me apologize as a Pens fan of 3 decades for their acts yesterday. It's hard to think of something that hasn't already been said in the past 24 hours about the Pens' dismal performance in this series and their disgraceful behavior in game 3, but here goes:
1. Why are people saying that Neal's hits "have no place in hockey"? I don't ask this to excuse Neal (or Asham) for what they did, but why are we all pretending that what they did is some sort of novel, shocking occurrence? In other words, can someone point me to a period of time in which there were no dirty hits or attempts to injure in the NHL? You might say that the 80s and early 90s were like that, but trust me, the game was uglier than you might gather from watching Oilers highlights.
More to the point, I can't believe it's an accident that Neal went after Couturier and Giroux on the same shift. GIven that they both had hat tricks the game before, it's very, very likely that they were "on the board" for this game. Yes, bounties on players have a rich history outside New Orleans football, and many, many violent attacks in the sport have been pre-planned by coaches. The Bertuzzi-Moore incident is the obvious example, but I've seen it in playoff games as well. I remember a Flames-Red Wings series from 2007, in which Jamie McLennan was brought into goal late in a blowout loss; he played for 18 seconds before slashing Johan Franzen across the chest and earning a 5-game suspension. Given McLennan's disposition, it's hard to believe he came up with that on his own.
The point isn't to dwell on how this reflects on the Pens and their coaching staff, but to remind everyone that hockey is a violent, ugly sport. Hockey rewards physicality and intimidation, and crossing the line into deliberately hurting people is part of that. I didn't play the sport much past high school, but I played it long enough to understand that. As I get older, I do find myself enjoying the NHL much less than I used to. I'm much less comfortable with the brutality, and if nothing else, I will never encourage my children to get into the sport. And yes, I believe that the NHL remains a niche league for exactly this reason.
2. I think I know what the problem in the Pens locker room is. Around the trade deadline every season, if there's a big name on the block, you can count on an article about how adding a star player late in the year can disrupt the chemistry in the locker room. And I think that's what we're seeing right now, except that the player in question is Sidney Crosby. Back in the winter, of course, there were rumblings that no one knew his status and some were questioning his injury, and since he re-entered the lineup late in the year, we've seen the team's defensive effort completely vanish. Aside from the Flyers series, there was an 8-4 waxing by the Senators and back-to-back losses to the Isles before the season ended. Do we have a defensively-sound veteran team completely forgetting how to play defense, or is there a connection to Crosby's return?
Regardless of what you think of Sid's decision to stay off the ice until completely symptom-free, I have to wonder if it hasn't turned into a problem for the team. Remember, professional sports are fiercely competitive, and the vast majority of hockey players will play through concussions because they'll usually be out of a job if they don't. Given the demands of the NHL season, it's not hard for me to imagine other Pens feeling some resentment at the time Sid was able to take.
I have no idea what this means for the future of the team, but any team that comes unglued like Pittsburgh did yesterday has a serious deficit of leadership, and a serious problem in its locker room.