Bruins vs. Penguins: ‘Frontier justice’ for Matt Cooke hit?

Will the Boston Bruins retaliate for Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke's season-ending hit to star forward Marc Savard? The controversy comes as the NHL tries to limit injuries to top players.

Keith Srakocic/AP
Boston Bruins players gather around teammate Marc Savard after he was injured by a hit from Matt Cooke of the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 7. The Bruins and Penguins play again tonight.

Boston hockey fans marked this day on their calendar more than two weeks ago.

When the Boston Bruins' star center, Marc Savard, was felled for the season by a shoulder to the head from Pittsburgh Penguin Matt Cooke on March 7, fans sensed what must come: a bench-clearing brawl. By the code that governs the game of hockey, it was the only conceivable outcome: An opponent cannot be allowed to injure your best player without retribution.

Instead, something remarkable happened. The Bruins hardly reacted at all.

Since that day, Bruins fans have been in a perpetual state of outrage. For one, National Hockey League disciplinarian Colin Campbell refused to mete out a punishment against Cooke, calling the hit clean. But fans' anger is, in many ways, directed at the Bruins, too. Hockey commentators like Barry Melrose called the Bruins' lack of response to Cooke’s hit “embarrasing.”

Tonight, the two teams face each other or the first time since the incident – this time, in Boston.

What will the Bruins do?

Expectations are high around the hockey world to see what the Bruins will do. They’re caught between desperately needing to win the game to stay in playoff contention and reestablishing some hockey dignity by teaching Cooke, who is no stranger to allegations of cheap shots, a lesson.

What's more, the Garden showdown comes as the NHL has seen a steady march of top players being carted from the ice on stretchers after being hit around the head. The NHL's inability to protect its top players contrasts sharply with the National Football League, which has made quarterbacks all but untouchable.

In an effort to resolve the problem, general managers met in November and again this month to debate how to discourage dangerous hits while retaining the intensity of the game. A potential answer, said Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli recently, is to single out repeat offenders.

Whatever the case, there must be some clarity, said star Sidney Crosby – Cooke's teammate and a potential target for retribution – after Cooke’s hit on March 7. "At some point, there's going to have to be a clear-cut rule or clear-cut direction," he told reporters.

There is no easy answer. The NHL has already attempted to cut violence by outlawing "staged fights" last year. These fights, however, were how players policed themselves on the ice. If the Bruins could freely send out their goon to pummel Cooke, he would think twice about taking a run at the Bruins' top player, the thinking goes.

NHL's push to outlaw dangerous hits

But NHL officials have to try to finesse the rules to limit high hits, writes National Post hockey columnist Bruce Arthur.

“Removing head shots doesn't mean removing hitting, and if it does, keep changing the rule until you find a balance,” Mr. Arthur writes. “Players can be legislated into making different choices. If the NFL can change the decision-making of a safety flying like a missile towards a defenseless receiver, or of a defensive lineman careening towards the knees of a quarterback, then the NHL's tall foreheads can fix this, can't they?”

Tonight, NHL disciplinarian Campbell will be on hand to remind players to keep their emotions in check. Bruins coach Claude Julien reminded his players that legal issues are still around from the hit that then-Vancouver Canuck Todd Bertuzzi laid on the Colorado Avalanche's Steve Moore in 2004.

In the first Canuck-Avalanche game after Moore injured the Canucks' top player with what the Canucks thought was a dirty hit, Bertuzzi jumped on Moore's back and drove his head into the ice, breaking Moore's neck and ending his career.

In Boston, though, fans expect something to happen tonight. The Boston Herald’s Ron Borges urged the team to mete out "frontier justice" by targeting the Penguins' best players – Crosby and Evgeni Malkin – with hard, legal hits.

The pre-game media meet-up had the air of a playoff game. For a Bruins team teetering on the brink, it basically is. But for Boston fans, it seems, it is much more than that.

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