Heroes and Heels is a weekly NHL column highlighting the heroes and villains of the last week of hockey. You’ll get a real kick out of this week’s if you like suspensions.
The NHL, and the hockey world, waited with bated breath for Alex Ovechkin to score his 700th goal over the last week, but to no avail. Ovechkin got close, putting up 17 shot attempts in a 3-1 loss to the Arizona Coyotes over the weekend, but remains short of the record by two goals.
Ovechkin will hit the No. 700 mark sooner or later, but it is a bit of a letdown after he netted a hat trick against the Los Angeles King and since went completely cold. ESPN even shifted the Capitals’ four most recent games onto ESPN+ for a bigger audience to get a glimpse of history, which panned out into absolutely nothing. Nada. Bupkis.
Alas, Ovechkin’s quest for 700 will continue on into the week and the Earth will continue spinning on its axis. Gotta love hockey!
Hero: Jack Eichel
If you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, look away now. For the rest of you still sticking around, hello! Jack Eichel had perhaps the best goal celebration of the season — Ilya Kovalchuk’s shush aside — over the weekend against the Maple Leafs.
Eichel’s third period power play tally not only broke open the game for the Buffalo Sabres — who won the contest 5-2 on Sunday — but the forward also gave his best Taylor Swift impression, miming for Maple Leafs fans in the front row to sit down after his tie-breaking goal.
After the game, Eichel’s only answer to the media on if he really did motion for Toronto fans to sit down was this:
“I don’t know, I’ll let you guys make your own assumptions on it.”
Ice cold! Perhaps heel-worthy if you’re a Toronto fan, but that’s the type of fire quote you want if you’re a hockey fan.
On Monday, Eichel elaborated on his goal celebration to the Buffalo media, speaking candidly to The Athletic about the moment.
“Spur of the moment, just happens, don’t even think about it,” Eichel said. “Obviously, big game. We’re in our home building, but it didn’t seem like there were too many Sabres fans here, so it was a spur of the moment thing.”
“Obviously, people are very critical when you do that. People either love it or hate it, but whatever. I don’t really care. I’m an emotional guy. I’m a competitor. I like to win, so at times my personality shows.”
Given the canned responses hockey players often regurgitate to the media in post-game interviews, Eichel’s comments — from taking a subtle dig at his own fanbase (?) to not caring about the reception of his celebration — are a breath of fresh air. Hockey is better as a sport when there’s some drama involved, manufactured or not, and Eichel’s comments stirred up quite the cocktail of spectacle over the weekend.
“People either love it or hate it, but whatever. I don’t really care.”
Of course, Eichel’s comments matter very little in the grand scheme of things in the NHL. Money Puck has Buffalo’s odds of making the playoffs sitting in the single digits at 5.8 percent, as the Sabres are nine points out of a wild card spot with four teams ahead of them. Toronto, on the other hand, is competing for a playoff spot in the Atlantic Division and have favorable odds to make it to boot.
It’s still great to see some fire from Eichel nonetheless. The Sabres may be missing the playoffs for the ninth straight season this year, but Eichel’s taunting celebration — and care-free comments after the fact — made for an entertaining moment in the doldrums of the long NHL season.
Heel: Zack Kassian
Oh, Zack Kassian. In hot water again for the second time in about a month for on-ice antics. Kassian’s feud with Matthew Tkachuk and the Calgary Flames made for great television back in January, but was ultimately harmless in the player safety department.
Kassian’s recent escapades, however, could have landed on the harmful side after kicking Tampa Bay Lightning defenseman Erik Cernak in the chest during a pile up on Thursday night’s game.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety suspended Kassian seven games for the kick, on the basis of being a repeat offender and his carelessness of using his skates to disentangle himself from the pileup.
In the Department of Player Safety’s video, the NHL comes down on the side of believing Kassian’s actions were not “malicious,” but ruled that “any player who intentionally and carelessly uses the blade of his skate to contact an opponent, no matter the amount of force used, engages in kicking, and is putting his opponent in immediate risk of serious injury.”
As for Kassian’s side of the story, the forward spoke to media after the game and told reporters that his kick was “reactionary” based in the moment.
“He was holding my leg, it was reactionary, I was just trying to get him off me, kick him off me. I was just trying to get my foot loose,” Kassian said. “If I kicked him hard, I think he would have flew back or the ref would have called a penalty.”
“If I kicked him hard, I think he would have flew back or the ref would have called a penalty.”
The kick made waves on social media Thursday night as the clip circulated around Twitter, with anger the swift response from the hockey world at large. The response to the Department of Player Safety’s suspension the following day was also brutal, with fans clamoring for a longer suspension.
Kassian’s stunts against the Flames a few weeks back was the right amount of spice the NHL needed to keep a rivalry against two Canadian teams going. This kick, however, no doubt crossed the line, and likely should have been a suspension of 10-plus games, given the skate injuries we’ve seen this season.
Still, the Department of Player Safety is not a paragon of discipline, to say the least. San Jose Sharks forward Evander Kane had harsh words for George Parros‘ team after a three-game suspension was levied on him for elbowing over the weekend. The NHL’s player safety department has been inconsistent for years, and arguably has never laid down the proper punishment for any player they’ve suspended during their time, depending on who you ask.
Kassian’s actions, however, were no doubt suspension-worthy. The Oilers will get him back by the end of February, but his kick to the chest of Cernak made him Public Enemy No. 1 over the last week in the NHL.
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