Pittsburgh Penguins winger James Neal has been suspended five games by the NHL for kneeing Boston Bruins winger Brad Marchand's head in Boston's 3-2 win on Saturday night, the league announced on Monday.
Neal had a phone hearing with the NHL's disciplinary committee early in the day, at which point he was handed the maximum allowable penalty. The league's collective bargaining agreement requires an in-person hearing when the league is considering suspending a player for six or more games.
While Neal's infraction didn't quite warrant a meeting with Brendan Shanahan, Hockey Central notes that the Penguins star's history of similar hits played a part in the five-game ban:
Penguins' repeat offender James Neal suspended 5 games, the maximum for a phone hearing.— Hockey Central (@SNHockeyCentral) December 9, 2013
Neal spoke about the suspension on Tuesday (via Dave Molinari of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette):
Neal: Kneeing Marchand "not the smartest decision I've ever made."— Dave Molinari (@MolinariPG) December 10, 2013
Neal: "There's really no excuses for it."— Dave Molinari (@MolinariPG) December 10, 2013
Neal: I "had no intent to injure" anyone.— Dave Molinari (@MolinariPG) December 10, 2013
Neal: “Am I sorry for it? Yeah. I hurt my team, I hurt myself. It’s not something I want to be talked about for.”— Dave Molinari (@MolinariPG) December 10, 2013
Head coach Dan Bylsma also spoke about the suspension (via the Penguins on Twitter):
"There needs to be an education & learning on how he plays the game and needs to play the game." -Bylsma on Neal #Pens— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 10, 2013
Neal has caught the ire of the NHL offices multiple times. He was fined in 2011 for a high-sticking violation on P.K. Subban, and the league suspended him for one game during Pittsburgh's 2012 playoff series with the Philadelphia Flyers for a hit on Claude Giroux.
Neal's most severe punishment yet came after he kneed Marchand in the head at the 11:06 mark in the first period. Marchand was down on the ice and Neal seemed to go out of his way to make contact on his head with his knee. Neal was assessed a two-minute penalty, and Marchand stayed in the game.
It was one of many incidents in a scrappy game between the two Eastern Conference contenders. The Penguins and Bruins combined for 40 minutes in penalties, highlighted by a 10-minute match penalty for Shawn Thornton, who grabbed Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik after a play and punched him in the face.
Thornton will likely face a lengthy ban. Bob McKenzie of TSN reported that the NHL is requesting an in-person hearing for the Bruins forward, which would indicate a ban of at least six games and probably more considering the nature of Orpik's injury and that Thornton's attack came well after the play.
Marchand needed tending to by Bruins trainers and was on the ice for a lengthy period after Neal's hit, but he told Joe McDonald of ESPN that he felt fine after the game.
Neal's absence will leave the Pens without one of their most vital forwards. The 26-year-old Ontario native is fourth on the team with 20 points and had either a goal or an assist in four straight games prior to the suspension. It will also force Pittsburgh to move Chris Kunitz, who has thrived on the second line, up to the first line alongside Sidney Crosby and Craig Adams.
Pittsburgh is currently tied for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with 41 points, just one point behind the Bruins.
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