Bearing The ‘Rath

It was bound to happen. It had to happen. Frontier justice being what it is — “extrajudicial punishment motivated by the non-existence of law and order or dissatisfaction with justice” — the Rangers felt it was absolutely necessary to answer for their fallen captain.

And answer TO the responsible party.

What once was accepted and expected in hockey has now become spotted-owl rare. As the sport has focused on getting faster and far more skilled, a strong body blow has been landed to the notion of fighting as revenge. However, despite evolution and the revolution of modern medicine combining to create a seismic shift in thinking, bare-fisted fighting remains legal in hockey (unless you count that five-minute penalty box breather as punishment for “illegal” activity). And, as proven last Sunday, it actually can be done with “respect” and “effect.”

The schedule makers never could’ve known in July that those two Rangers-Flyers games they booked for February would set the table for frontier justice. They couldn’t have known then that Madison Square Garden would become Town Square in the Old West. But they SHOULD have known by last Sunday that refusing to further discipline Wayne Simmonds — “the dissatisfaction with justice” angle In all this — would foster frontier justice.

And with Ryan McDonagh concussed and still not playing, and Simmonds not suspended and very much playing, the Rangers believed they needed to be the arbiters and distributors of justice.

Enter Dylan McIlrath.

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As the young defenseman continues to develop his game at hockey’s top level, McIlrath has done a terrific job grasping the value of being a good NHL teammate, of learning the ropes. And sometimes that means stepping inside the ropes to send a message. That is precisely what McIlrath did 25 minutes BEFORE the opening faceoff on Sunday, when he calmly and without rancor or theatrics, glided to the center red line and sidled up alongside Simmonds.

Their conversation lasted about 20 seconds.

“We had a little talk. Not too many nice words were said,” McIlrath explained.

You didn’t have to be a master lip-reader to know the context. McIlrath was going to be the one to mete out the justice on behalf of his teammate, and his team, and perhaps on a grander scale, to tell the rest of the Stanley Cup hopefuls. These Rangers weren’t going to let McDonagh go down without a fight.

Credit McIlrath for his guts, for sure, but also for his guile. He didn’t spark an embarrassing, foolish and illegal incident in pregame warmups. And he didn’t put his team at an immediate manpower disadvantage in the game’s first minute when he sought and fought Simmonds. As Simmonds began talking to Chris Kreider before the faceoff, McIlrath shouted to Simmonds to let him know that he — and he alone — would be the combatant.

Seconds later, the puck dropped. The gloves dropped. And frontier justice was underway.

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“I think sometimes if you let those things fester throughout the game, something stupid can happen, ” Marc Staal explained. “Mac stepped up and challenged him right off the bat. We got the animosity into the air and out of the air at the same time..”

“I don’t think there was anyone in the building that didn’t know it was coming, it was something that both teams knew it was going to happen,” Derek Stepan added. “It’s part of our sport.”

Indeed, it is, at least for the moment. And through it all, amid the jarring right that landed right on McIlrath’s jaw and the overhand bomb that cut Simmonds’ eye, somehow what emerged from the particulars was a frontier-era level of respect.

“I wanted to stick up for my teammate, our captain, our best player,” McIlrath said. “I can respect him (Simmonds) for squaring up with me, and I’m just happy how it all worked out…it just so happened that the first shift he obliged and the rest is history.”

And is from Simmonds: “He wanted to fight. I told him to do it on my terms. He said he was going to run around and hit my guys. So I stepped in and stopped it early…I wanted to come in and just play hockey, worry about that later. But obviously, they wanted to do something about that. That’s the way it is, that’s the way hockey goes. I’ve got no problem with that, it’s the way the game is played.”

Did the sideshow impact the game? Depends whom you ask. I say perhaps, although the Rangers simply and ultimately were and are the better team. Were the Rangers instantly emotionally engaged? Absolutely. But on a more primal level, the incident was something that the aggrieved party believe HAD to happen. And given the NHL’s response to Simmonds’ sucker punch, it’s hard to argue that.

In 21st century America, you can and should argue the merits and misgivings of fighting in hockey. It has to be challenging to stand on a platform of player safety and concussion cognizance while knowing you are the only venue in the civilized world where fighting without any protection between fist and face is legal. But unless and until the NHL approves new rules expressly outlawing the practice (and I do believe that will happen), frontier justice will linger.

And much more importantly, unless and until the NHL becomes much soberer and serious about seriously punishing head hunters and head shots, those recidivist actors and acts will continue to play out without fear of being taken out. My two-cent proposal: any head shot that results in a concussion is a minimum five-game suspension. For repeat offenders, it increases by intervals of two, five and 10 games for each subsequent violent act.

If, as some teams would contend, the “concussed” player really wasn’t concussed and returned to active duty in that game or the next game, or if he recovered more quickly than expected, then the suspension can be reduced to three games. But automatic suspensions for head shots absolutely does need to be the law of the land. It’s the only logical step for player safety and for the elimination of frontier justice.

The message is being received from the messengers. The punishment just isn’t fitting the punishing act. And players like Ryan McDonagh, and far too many others, are falling victim to those actions and that inaction. Subsequently, the “law of the land” is being taken into one’s own hands.

Or fists, as it were.

From listening to all involved, last Sunday was one of those times.

RAANT-ING AND RAVING

For all the phony reality shows (is that redundant or an oxymoron?) and fabricated theater in our world, sports can so often provide the stage for some of most fascinating emotional passion plays. Rangers goaltender Antti Raanta commandeered that stage all in the last week.

It has been a long time since a regular season postgame interview has taken me aback, since an athlete’s reaction to his actions left me mostly at a loss for words beyond “wow.”

Henrik Lundqvist did it years ago when he dropped the first and only postgame F-bomb of his career after an OT loss in Toronto. He did it again three years ago when he lamented feeling “as lost and as bad as it’s ever been” after an October to forget.

But I have to admit, Raanta’s reaction after his OT loss to the Kings last Friday was among the most gut-wrenchingly emotional and introspective interviews I’ve ever conducted. It provided an honest, raw and perhaps significant look into the eyes and mind of an athlete in the throes of a confidence crisis.

To recap, Raanta hadn’t started in 14 days. He hadn’t won a game since before Thanksgiving. He placed a massive amount of importance on beating the Kings as the King’s understudy, on contributing to and sustaining the Rangers’ recent resurgence. And Raanta came within 20 seconds of succeeding.

Then came the tying, double-deflection goal off Staal and Kevin Klein. And then the Tanner Pearson 3-on-3 extra-session crusher. And just like that, Raanta’s confidence was crushed as well.

Antti Raanta speaks to MSG Networks' John Giannone after making 29 saves in the Rangers' 5-4 OT Loss to the Kings.

 

“I don’t know what’s wrong right now,” he said in a hushed and somewhat helpless tone, a stark admission from someone who plays his position. “I feel like I’m there, but the reaction isn’t. It’s hard to explain. You just try to make the save but when you don’t have the feeling in your head and in your body it’s pretty hard.

“I was really nervous out there. The first couple of periods I couldn’t play my own game. I wasn’t set any time the shot was coming. It was more about just getting down and hopefully it hit you.”

For his part, as all good coaches should do, Alain Vigneault had his backup’s back that night and a few days later. “I am not overly concerned about the game or the reaction,” AV said. “I want to see how he’s going to pick himself up and dust himself off. What I’ve seen is what I want to see. He’s working real hard.”

Raanta’s redemption tour took him to Toronto six days later. And he made his coach look both prophetic and proud. On a night where the Rangers were outplayed, Raanta was outstanding. He stopped 35 shots – all but one coming AFTER the Leafs scored off a skate on the second shot he faced. Simply put, Raanta was the difference. He was the saver and the savior. And he was the antithesis of that lost soul from a week earlier.

After the game, Raanta wore the Broadway Hat and the trademark smile that befits a fun-loving personality. He laughed and spoke with an air of relief throughout our interview. He praised his dog and his wife (yes, in that order!) for guiding him through the mental malaise. He credited goalie guru Benoit Allaire for finding and fixing his issues in net. He joked about where his thoughts took him after the skate-blade goal against.

And ultimately, Raanta left Toronto feeling rejuvenated and redeemed. And the Rangers crossed off one suddenly significant issue from their list of concerns.

SCENE AND HEARD

*** Within seconds of Mats Zuccarello‘s controversial backhand shot on Thursday night, my erstwhile producer Chris Ebert was speaking into my headset, informing me that the puck clearly hit Jonathan Bernier’s leg pad AFTER it crossed the line. The Rangers had taken the lead, only the on-ice officials ruled the puck hadn’t crossed the line. The play was under review.

In arenas around the NHL, the scoreboard video screen does not show any disputed goals until after the Toronto-based review room renders its decision to the on-ice officials. That leaves me between the benches as the point-man to notify the players of what we see on our monitors  while the coaches communicate with Rangers’ video coach Jerry Dineen. As I watched the replay from the box between the benches, I could see the puck across the line, the most important criteria to rule a goal.

I notified several players that the goal would count, and word was passed to Zuccarello that he need not anguish anymore about not scoring into a 99 percent open net. As the review wore on, the request came to me again. “Definitely a goal?” one player said. “Absolutely,” I said. “The puck is clearly over the line.”

Said one unnamed respondent: “There’s no such thing as clearly in the NHL.”

I can’t remember the last time I laughed that much during a game.

*** Speaking of McIlrath, I’ve chronicled his willingness to stand up and speak up for his teammates. Last month, he verbally jostled repeatedly with the Islanders’ Matt Martin which prompted Derick Brassard to tell Martin, “You want no part of that.” Earlier this year, after a player said he didn’t know who McIlrath was, the rookie shot back: “Fight me, you’ll learn real quick.”

Last Friday, in their OT loss to the Kings, McIlrath took exception to Jordan Nolan bumping into Viktor Stalberg after a whistle in the neutral zone. To his credit, referee Dan O’Halloran was aware of the potentially escalating situation between two tough guys and told McIlrath “Easy big boy. I have my eye on it.” Nothing more materialized,

*** As the season has churned on, I’ve noticed that officials have become increasingly more verbal with both benches about the need for diligence on line changes. In-game warnings such as “NOT YET!” or “WAIT, WAIT” coupled with the more pointed “Guys, be careful of those line changes” signals a definite uptick in diligence among officials and teams regarding such calls. Subsequently, I’ve also noticed that coaching staffs on both benches have become more verbal in trying to draw attention to line changes.

So to me, it was no surprise when the Rangers were called for their first two bench minors for too-many-men on Sunday against the Flyers, and Thursday in Toronto. They were the right calls, at a time when the senses are sharpening to the call itself.