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Inside the NHL: Crosby incidents leave no doubt about star standards

Yes, Sidney Crosby gets away with things. Yes, there's a double standard in the NHL halls of justice. No, nobody really has any idea how suspensions and their penalties are meted out.

It's what we've always known and what's been reinforced the last few days after the Penguins' star walked away scot-free with nary a minor penalty from incidents in back-to-back games. Meanwhile Sabres defenseman Rasmus Ristolainen got an unduly harsh ban for an admittedly bad hit on Crosby's linemate and Senators defenseman Marc Methot had his finger mangled from a Crosby slash.

The consensus in the Sabres' room was that Ristolainen's hit on Jake Guentzel probably deserved a game misconduct, maybe even a suspension of a game. After all, he missed 51 minutes of play Tuesday night already. Three games seemed huge for a first-time offender, especially when Philadelphia's Brandon Manning only got two games last month for interference on Guentzel that included a check that saw him launch into the Penguins winger's head.

"Certain teams in this league get the benefit of the doubt," grumbled always-frank Buffalo goaltender Robin Lehner. "If the jerseys were reversed, I don't think we're standing here talking three games."

Lehner has a point. And Ristolainen, remember, missed 51 minutes from the game after being ejected. Doubt any playoff team would have its top defenseman get hit nearly four games by the Department of Player Safety without utter stupidity on display (Duncan Keith's high stick last year on Charlie Coyle rang the utter stupidity meter). Moreover, would it ever happen to the Penguins?

Easy to hit a guy like Ristolainen on a team going nowhere. The problem going forward is he now has a record. If Ristolainen runs afoul of the NHL law again, does he sit for, say, five games?

"I definitely think that's part of the process we're in, getting respect in the league with how we are as an organization and how we play," said Buffalo coach Dan Bylsma, recalling how many in the league felt the Detroit Red Wings got every call in the late 80s and through the 90s. "I'm not so sure it's a real feeling but playing Detroit you were like, 'They get all the calls and they get favorable treatment.' I think that's one you earn and you can get that respect by how you play and how you are on the ice, not by the color of your jersey."

Crosby's stick to the groin of Ryan O'Reilly was a social media sensation Tuesday night. It was spearing and went unpenalized. It happens a lot in the game undetected but the camera doesn't lie. In this case, Crosby was caught red-handed.

"At the time it hurt and it threw me off guard. I didn't know it was him until he came up to me on the ice and apologized," O'Reilly told this corner after practice Friday. "It was kinda weird having played with him too in the World Cup. It happens. It would have been nice to get a penalty, get a power play off it. It's definitely a penalty but sometimes things get missed.

"He apologized after and said he didn't mean to do it. Once I looked at it, of course, it looked pretty deliberate. After he said, 'Sorry about that, I was going for your stick and I don't know what happened there.'"

Sorry, Sid. You weren't close to O'Reilly's stick. But it's a smart play if you get away with it. You would think referees would be on the lookout more. But as Boston's Brad Marchand often proves, repeated slimy moves caught on replay doesn't make them any more likely to be caught by the stripes.

"He's the best player in the game and he might have a little bit more leeway,"  a smiling O'Reilly said of Crosby. "Not necessarily something referees are doing on purpose but just in general. He's one key guy people are buying tickets to see. I don't know how else to explain it."

Crosby deserved a penalty, and maybe a fine, for the O'Reilly play. The Methot play is totally different. Yes, a slash to the hands is pretty common -- another issue entirely. Why it's not called more is baffling. But this one caused a bloodied, shattered finger that will keep one of Ottawa's top blueliners out for weeks. Methot sits fourth on the Senators in average ice time at just over 20 minutes per game and has a plus-13 rating in 67 games this season.

When it comes to high sticking, severity impacts the penalty. Draw blood and it's a double minor or maybe a major. Evander Kane got a richly deserved four minutes for the dental surgery he performed on Crosby late in Tuesday's game here.  You can hear many jokes in NHL rinks about teams needing more bleeders to earn more penalties. The damage matters.

But you mangle a guy's finger and put him out for weeks -- something that almost never happens with high sticks -- and that doesn't matter?

There have been no slashing suspensions this season. Back in November, the Flames were furious when Johnny Gaudreau was repeatedly whacked during a game against Minnesota, eventually needing surgery for a broken finger on one final slash from Eric Staal. There was no supplemental discipline in that case either.

So the message is sent for the playoffs -- It's open season for slashes. After all, if someone gets a major or a suspension now, isn't the first question asked around the league going to be: What about Crosby?

"It was a terrifying thing to look at those pictures and I don't even want to think about it," Ottawa owner Eugene Melynk said Friday in an interview on TSN Radio in the Canadian capital. "It's that disgusting. So that's the only way you do it. You hammer these guys. You take away their money because they all understand money and you simply say, 'You're done for 10 games and guess what? You guys are not getting even close to a Stanley Cup.' If it's an elite player on the other side, there's no room for it in the NHL.

"We all know who he is. He's just a whiner beyond belief. You do this kind of stuff -- I don't care who you are in the league. I don't care if you're the No. 1 player in the league. You should sit out a long time for this kind of crap."

Again, different standards. Can you imagine if Methot shattered Crosby's finger? What would the suspension hue and cry be, penalty or not? Injury infractions merit supplemental discipline, no matter who commits the offense.

Now, Crosby has certainly been victimized several times in his career himself. You could easily make the case the league doesn't do much to protect him either. Columbus' Brandon Dubinsky has used No. 87 as a punching bag on multiple occasions, only earning a one-game suspension in 2015. Marc Staal of the Rangers repeatedly cross-checked Crosby in the head during the 2014 playoffs and the head shot Crosby took from Washington's David Steckel during the 2011 Winter Classic resulted in a long-term concussion -- but no suspension.

Nevertheless, being a victim of past circumstances is no excuse for future behaviors either. The league can choose to treat Crosby like any other player. If it chooses to look the other way on his obvious and unnecessary malfeasance, then the Penguins and their fans need to zip it when their guy becomes someone's personal pinata.

Sharks losing their bite

It's not hard to figure out what suddenly hit the Sharks since the Sabres left town. After its 4-1 win over Buffalo on March 14, San Jose dropped five straight in regulation -- scoring just five goals in those games and blowing a nine-point lead in the Pacific Division in 10 days.

The Sharks headed into Saturday's game in Nashville trying to snap their first five-game regulation skid since January, 2011. A big issue is that defenseman Brent Burns has stopped scoring. Burns has gone 15 games without a goal and had seven straight without a point until assisting on the only goal in Friday's embarrassing 6-1 clunker in Dallas.

"It's on us as players," captain Joe Pavelski said after that game. "You got to win some battles, you got to create some energy, some speed throughout the team. It's been all of us."

Added coach Peter DeBoer: "You have a handful of those a year where nothing goes right and nobody's got any kind of legs or energy. It was one of those nights. I don't have any explanation for it. We got to figure a way to get out of this, but we worked through 70 games to put ourselves in a good spot."

Around the boards

---Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman, in his weekly must-read "30 Thoughts" column: "If I was running the NHL, I’d be terrified of offside video reviews in the post-season. One of them is going to decide a playoff series, and it’s going to be ugly."

---Caps goalie Braden Holtby continues to be a star in the net even though he too often flies under the radar. Holtby made 29 saves in Tuesday's win over Calgary, the 300th game of his NHL career. He's second in history for wins through 300 games with 186, behind only Ken Dryden's 193. Of course, to step up in class, the Capitals need to finally go deep in the playoffs.

---While participation in the 2018 Olympics in South Korea continues to look bleak, it's good to see the NHL get back into the international business. The league announced Friday a two-game series between Colorado and Ottawa will be played in November in Stockholm, Sweden. The focus will be on Senators defenseman Erik Karlsson and Avalanche captain Gabriel Landeskog. The fanfare around the two games seems to make it less likely the Avs deal Landeskog this summer, and thus even more likely Matt Duchene finds a new address.

The Sabres, remember, opened the 2011-12 season with a win over Anaheim in Helsinki, Finland and another over Los Angeles in Berlin, Germany. Once the lockout hit in 2013, the NHL dropped the Premiere Series and has yet to go back to it.

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