Horton got a shoulder, Rome got the shaft

Paul Kariya wasn't expecting to get hit by Scott Stevens in 2003, and we all know what happened to him. You'd think Nathan Horton would have remembered to keep his head up coming over the middle in the Stanley Cup Finals. Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Here’s the dirty little secret about Aaron Rome’s hit on Nathan Horton that no one wants to acknowledge: it wasn’t that bad.

It was a little bit late. That’s all. People need to chill out. Rome didn’t go head hunting and he didn’t hit Horton from his blindside like people keep saying — it was from directly in front of him. Horton makes a pass, takes two steps, and gets rocked. Rome didn’t charge him; he was turned and stood up at the blue line. The hit came 1-2 seconds after he made the pass, which isn’t that late. Pause the video on the pass and the hit and see for yourself. 

I’m thinking people are more concerned with the result of the hit than the hit itself, but that is a horrible way to judge things. You can’t base punishment and accusations of dirty play based on whether or not the guy gets injured. If something is bad, it’s bad no matter what the result.

If Horton maybe looks around him instead of watching his pass, he probably wouldn’t be concussed right now. If he only got knocked off his balance or fell down and got right up, this hit isn’t that big of a deal. It’s maybe two minutes for interference, but who knows in the playoffs.

The form of the check was fine. There was no additional malice, not more than you would use for any other check. You aim for the chest and explode through the man. That’s what Rome did. His elbow was tucked at the time impact and he led with the shoulder. It’s just a little late. That’s all.

There’s a referee in front of the play who doesn’t put his arm up. Even if he turned to watch the pass, he would have looked back for a hit that big. There’s no saying he didn’t see it; it was straight in front of him, and he didn’t have a call.

The referee following the play from behind puts his arm up, three seconds after the check and long after Horton had hit the ice.  There’s some internal debate that runs through your mind as a referee when you see something you think might be a penalty, and the back ref made up his mind in an appropriate amount of time. He did fine, but if you watch him, you can see he went over it in his head before making the call. It wasn’t something he saw and immediately shot his arm up for.

There’s something to be said about Horton expecting a hit, too. Defensemen salivate daydreaming about forwards coming over the line with their head down like that. Some people say a forward deserves anything that happens to him if he has his head down. I’ll give Horton a pass because it was a little late, but he clearly was not expecting to be hit, at all.

That part is inexcusable. This is the Stanley Cup Finals. It’s physical. It’s intense. Your guys are getting in the other team’s face in a not-so-polite manner. They’re going to want a piece of you any chance they get. You better look both ways before you come out of the dressing room, let alone attempt to cross the blue line.

I’m not trying to take all the blame off Rome. His timing was not great, but that doesn’t make it some barbaric act like people are making it out to be, and Horton needs to be held accountable for some of it, too. Rome doesn’t have a history of playing dirty and he shouldn’t get one for this hit. If it came half a second sooner or if Horton braced for it, no one even remembers the play.

Vancouver contends it was a clean hit. I don’t know about that, but I do know it wasn’t as bad as everyone’s making it out to be. I feel bad that someone had to be taken out on a stretcher, even if he does play for Boston. That doesn’t change the facts. You can’t dish out punishment because you feel bad. That’s like saying Nathan Horton is more valuable to the league than Tim Connolly. Even if you believe that, you can’t say that and you certainly can’t rule like that.

You also can’t dole out discipline based on how long the other person is out for. That’s not how the league works. There’s too many other factors that go in to injuries. Identical hits on Connolly and Drew Stafford likely would produce different outcomes. You penalize the action, not the results (game misconducts are slightly different). When we hear that the league took heavily into account the fact that Horton will not come back, that’s a red flag.

I’m going to contend the hit was not that bad. It’s unfortunate Horton was hurt. Rome got a penalty for interference, not roughing or elbowing or a head shot or anything else. You can’t blame someone for hitting hard. You can for hitting late. That’s two minutes. If you want to give him five and a game, that’s within the rules. That’s fine.

A four-game suspension is harsh. You can guarantee Rome is paying for Burrows’ biting incident that the league dropped the ball on. That’s retribution for Bruins fans, but that doesn’t make it fair to Rome. He and his agent are considering appealing the suspension, which makes sense when you consider it is longer than every other suspension in Cup Finals history added together.

There have been three other suspensions, and they were all one game. For a four-gamer that removes him from the rest of the finals, you would have thought Rome murdered someone. Nope, he just stepped up a fraction of a second too late.

Barry Melrose said that Rome “is an easier player to suspend” basically because he’s not a star. It’s true that it’d be harder for the NHL to say Kevin Bieksa is out for the rest of the series, but that’s so wrong to say. The punishment needs to fit the crime, regardless of who it is. If something is worthy of a suspension, it’s equally as worthy, regardless of who the offender is (as long as he has a clean record, like Rome). Go up to Rome and tell him, “too bad you weren’t a Sedin, because then it would only be one game,” and see what he says.

There’s no good way to handle this, besides don’t mess up in the first place. Burrows should have been suspended one game, but the precedent the league is setting is that minor players are going to have to pay for the actions of stars.

No one on either side is ever going to think it’s fair. They need people in the middle to nudge them and say it’s really not that bad. Aaron Rome is getting robbed of what will likely be the greatest memory of his life, and all you can do is hope his replacement plays well.

Ryan Miller ought to be furious

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

I have about six thousand different thoughts right now about Game Seven that I’ll get to tomorrow, but right now I just want to make a brief mention about Ryan Miller.

Nobody should be more pissed off right now than Miller. I’m usually harder on him than most, but after Danny Briere, I think he was the best player in the series. (Have you ever seen so many 1-on-0’s from point-blank range? And he stopped almost ever single one.)

Ryan Miller single-handedly kept the Sabres afloat for a large portion of this series, and Game Seven especially. The first period was an absolute atrocity, but Miller was there every time for the first 19 and a half minutes. He let his team down once. They let him down half a dozen times.

Miller rarely got to play with the lead in this series, a huge advantage for goalies, and as soon as the Sabres built one up for him, they let their guard down shortly after.

Every Buffalo win in this series was by one goal — two 1-0 games and an overtime win. How often does a goalie steal a game for his team in the playoffs with a shutout, not once, but twice, and then still lose the series?

That has to be maddening for a goalie. I’d imagine this scenario has happened a few times in NHL history, but it can’t be very often.

To his credit, I can’t remember Miller being very vocal about it. If CC Sabathia threw two no-hitters in the same series for the Yankees and they still managed to lose, I’m sure he’d have a few choice words for the hitters after the fact.

Looking at Miller’s play might show just how bad the rest of the team was. The two shutout wins were basically gifts to the offense. What did they do besides that? Not much. The pooped out after a hot start a few times and disappeared completely not long after.

Ryan Miller was even credited with an assist in the series. He had the same amount of points as Brad Boyes, Mike Grier, Mike Weber, Chris Butler, Steve Montador and Jordan Leopold, all of whom played at least five games in the series. Try as he might, Ryan Miller can’t be counted on to provide the offense, too.

Miller faced more shots than any goalie in the playoffs, and finished with a 2.93 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, respectable numbers that should have been more than enough to win given the poor goaltending Buffalo was going up against.

Every Buffalo Sabre not named Tyler Ennis, Drew Stafford or Rob Neidermayer (the only players with positive plus-minuses) better chip in and take Miller out for a nice dinner after this is all said and done (Chris Butler can leave the tip, too). If anybody should be mad about the loss, it’s Miller, and I respect him for not saying anything about it.

NHL Playoff picks

The greatest playoffs in all of sports, for the best trophy in all of sports, begin tonight.

I’ve spent most of this week coordinating a full-page preview for this week’s Griffin Newspaper, which can be found here as well as in this week’s issue.

Those picks were done by my sports writing team. Here are my selections:

Eastern Conference

1-Washington Capitals over 8-New York Rangers in five games.
7-Buffalo Sabres over 2-Philadelphia Flyers in seven games.
3-Boston Bruins over 6-Montreal Canadiens in seven games.
4-Pittsburgh Penguins over 5-Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.

Western Conference

1-Vancouver Canucks over 8-Chicago Blackhawks in four games.
2-San Jose Sharks over 7-Los Angeles Kings in five games.
6-Phoenix Coyotes over 3-Detroit Red Wings in seven games.
4-Anaheim Ducks over 5-Nashville Predators in six games.

Two upsets, one sweep. Wanted one lower seed to advance on each side, and I thought Phoenix has the best shot in the West after taking Detroit to Game Seven last year.

Chicago limped into the playoffs, losing win-and-in game number 82 and only getting in because Dallas lost too. If you can’t get up for that game and grind out a W, you deserve to get swept.

I’m really not worried for the Sabres. It’s an interesting feeling that I want to write more about tomorrow, but there’s a weird sense of “we got this” in town. We were a seven-seed when we went to the finals in 1999…..

Meet Jordan Leopold, the newest member of the Buffalo Sabres

On the first day of free agency, the Buffalo Sabres signed defenseman Jordan Leopold.

Around 5:30 p.m., news came across the wire that the Sabres had inked the 7-year vet to a 3-year deal. The AP reports that “Monetary terms of the deal were not immediately available, but it’s expected that Leopold will get about $3 million a season.” 

Leopold put up 26 points last year (11 goals, 15 assists) in 81 games played, numbers similar to Daniel Paille and Jochen Hecht (both 12g and 15a). Leopold spent the first 61 games with the Florida Panthers, and finished out the last 20 with the Pittsburgh Penguins after being traded during the Olympic break.

He totaled 28 penalty minutes last year and finished with a minus-2 rating, numbers that put him right in the middle of the pack on the Sabres roster. If you look closely, you can chalk his negative rating up to being a good player on a bad team: 75 percent of his season was spent with Florida where he was a minus-7, but in the quarter of his year spent with Pittsburg, he went plus-5.

His ice time per game with Florida was 22:25, which would have led all Buffalo players not named Tyler Myers.

Through 436 career games, the former second round draft pick (Anaheim, 1999) has tallied 45 goals and 95 assists. He also has 54 playoff games under his belt–including a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals with Calgary in 2004–and has appeared in each of the last three post-seasons.

Although he was once labeled as injury prone (missed time for the following ailments, 2006-‘08:  hernia surgery (25 games), groin injury (17), fractured wrist (remainder of season), hip problem and lacerated leg (35 games), pneumonia, and concussion), he played in 164 regular season games over the last two years.

Leopold played four years at the University of Minnesota (missed Vanek by one year), and is a former member of the U.S. National Team Developmental Program.

Defensemen Toni Lydman and Henrik Tallinder both signed deals with new teams earlier today (the Ducks and Devils, respectively), but Leopold will fill the void. He is not known for his physical play (less than a hit per game last season), but he scored more goals last year than Lydman and Tallinder combined.  He may not be the “power play quarterback” people want Darcy to bring in, but he did see nearly 100 minutes of PP time last year, which would put him fourth among Buffalo defensemen.

Stay tuned for more free agency news and reactions.

Other info:
Age: 29
Birthday: August 3, 1980
Height: 6’1”
Weight: 200 lbs
Birth place: Golden Valley, Minn.
Shoots: Left

Pro Niemi for the Conn Smythe

It’s a day of mixed emotions. On one hand, we could see the Stanley Cup awarded tonight; but on the other, tonight could be the last NHL game until the fall. If the cup is won tonight, that means one more award will be given out as well, the trophy for playoff MVP.

The Conn Smythe Trophy almost always goes to a member of the winning team, and if it’s awarded tonight, it will be kissed by a Blackhawk. If you ask me, the winner is obvious. It has to go to Antti Niemi.

Niemi has been solid in net for Chicago all throughout the playoffs and has been everything they could have asked for. While Michael Leighton was the hottest of goalies at one point in the post-season, Neimi has been the most consistent, start to finish.

He boasts a .911 save percentage through 21 games, and owns a GAA of 2.62. While those numbers are only (only) 5th and 6th, respectively, Neimi has done enough to win games for his team—a category he ranks first in.

 

Some will argue that the award should go to Jonathan Toews, the playoff points leader with 28. But 21 of those are assists, only seven of them are goals. Don’t get me wrong, assists are important, but come playoff time it’s all about goals—or in this case, stopping them. Toews’ production has also slumped in the finals: no goals, two assists, and a minus-4 rating.

Toews has three game-winning goals in the playoffs, but you have to believe Neimi has won more games for Chicago than that.

Other players on Chicago that have a shot (a long one, but a shot nonetheless) are, in my opinion, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Dustin Byfuglien.

Sharp has been playing out of his mind and is a bona-fide sniper. Keith is quickly becoming one of the most talented and feared defensemen in the game, and Byfuglien leads the league with five game-winners.

I doubt the award would go to a Flyer if they lose the series, but worthy candidates include Danny Briere and Chris Pronger. Michael Leighton gets an honorable mention, but he has been too shaky in the finals to warrant the award. Claude Giroux and Ville Leino have also been very impressive in the playoffs, but they’re not quite at Conn Smythe Award level.