If the Coyotes’ Raffi Torres took matters into his own hands, there’s a significant question now on the table.
As the Phoenix Coyotes and Chicago Blackhawks prepare for Game 4 of their Western Conference quarterfinal round on Thursday night at the United Center, the dilemma facing players and coaches is the degree of aggressiveness.
All would agree the playoffs take the game of hockey to another level, and every play on every shift is magnified. If Torres’ hit on Marian Hossa during game three had taken place on a quiet November night, not much would have been made of it.
Torres might have gotten a slap on the wrist from the league, and likely not missed a beat.
Now, Torres has been summoned to New York on Friday for a widely-publicized hearing before the NHL brass. He likely faces a suspension and possibly more time than the three games the league handed out to the Hawks’ Andrew Shaw for his hit on Phoenix goalie Mike Smith during game two.
“This just to say that’s kind of the way the game is changing and what the league is doing to try to protect players,” said Phoenix forward Ray Whitney after Wednesday‘s practice.
“The game is certainly at a different pace now than it was, so those hits are with a little bit more force. If you watch the Pittsburgh-Philly series and you watch the Rangers-Senators, I think this first round of the playoffs is as nasty as you’ve seen in a long time.”
With a spiraling element of bad blood and the Coyotes' vow to keep this series “physical,” the fuse has been lit. At this point, neither team has the intention to douse the spark and, as the lighted fuse draws closer to the powder keg, officials on the ice have the responsibility to keep the volatile drum from exploding.
That may be easier said than done.
“I don’t think there was a malicious intent on (Torres’) part,” said Dave Tippett, the Phoenix coach.
“He’s a hard hitter, that’s the way he plays the game. He turned coming full speed, caught a guy right in the chest, and unfortunately the player was injured. I don’t think there was a malicious intent like you see some of the cross checks to the face or you saw (the Hawks’ Duncan) Keith’s elbow a few weeks ago on (Vancouver Daniel) Sedin, there was no malicious intent like that.”
That’s not how the Hawks view the proceedings.
“I think retaliations in the best form are trying to win the hockey game,” countered Hawks coach Joel Quenneville. “I think we’re all angry, me included, and I think we wanted a little different from (Tuesday night’s) anger. But I think we want to channel a little positiveness to looking forward to the game and doing something about it.”
If the series turns violent and players drop their gloves frequently, neither team has a true “enforcer.” The days are over when players like the Flyers’ Dave Schultz would rather hammer opponents than skate with the puck.
Save the Coyotes’ Paul Bissonnette, neither team has a player who might drop their gloves at a moment’s notice.
For the regular season, Torres led the Coyotes in penalty minutes with 83 and is out of game four and possibly beyond. The Hawks’ “bad boy” is Jamal Mayers, who topped the team with 91 penalty minutes, but also had a minus four plus/minus rating. Shaw was second with 50 minutes but, like Torres, will sit out game four.
All of which puts an extra burden on the on-ice officials to keep the teams separated and maintain order after nearly every whistle.
“As a hockey club, obviously losing a player of (Hossa’s) skill level and what he means to this hockey team is tough,” said the Hawks‘ Andrew Brunette. “The way that we lost him isn’t, I don’t think, the way the game should be played. I think (Torres’ hit on Hossa) hits all the criteria of what we are told not to do. I don’t know if it’s getting scary, but there’s things that should not be happening.”
Phoenix forward Martin Hanzal, who was injured in Game 1, is a game-time decision for Thursday night.
The same goes for forward Lauri Korpikoski.
“(Hanzal and Korpikoski) are just the same—day-to-day,” Tippett said Wednesday. “We’ll evaluate them (Thursday) morning again. Everybody’s getting treatment today and whatever they have to do (Wednesday).”
After the Torres hit, Hossa was sent immediately to the hospital but released. He is expected to miss Game 4.
During the regular season, the 33-year-old Hossa missed only one game—the Hawks' fourth contest of the season on Oct. 15 at home against Boston.
Should the Coyotes win Thursday in Chicago and again Saturday at jobing.com Arena, this would tie for their shortest playoff series victory in franchise history. Previously, the club took out Calgary 3-1 in a best-of-five series in 1985 when they were still based in Winnipeg.
Quotes used in this story were obtained first-hand and made available by the Phoenix Coyotes after practice on April 18, 2012.