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Mike Harrington: Housley, Botterill have players' backs when NHL doesn't

TORONTO -- The players are confused. Meanwhile, Phil Housley and Jason Botterill are outraged and that's a good thing. The guys in the locker room should at least feel secure that the coach and general manager have their back even if the NHL doesn't.

The league's Department of Player Safety surely had its reasons but it still seems inconceivable that Scott Hartnell didn't even get fined for his season-ending crushing of Victor Antipin Saturday night in Nashville. Antipin has a concussion, a broken nose, missing teeth and facial lacerations. That's not a hockey play gone bad. That's borderline assault and Hartnell got away with it.

Botterill is still spitting nails over the incident. The first-year GM reportedly had some pointed conversations with league officials Sunday over the situation. He issued a terse statement expressing his dissent but didn't feel he could stay sane when questioned further, and his wallet probably thanks him for that.

When I asked Housley here Monday for his reaction to Hartnell escaping the long arm of NHL law, he paused for a few seconds. You could see the steam escaping from his ears -- more than any single moment about any subject all season.

"I do know that our player was taken off on a stretcher, has a broken nose, facial lacerations and missing teeth," Housley said a few hours prior to the stinker against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Air Canada Centre. "So in that respect, I strongly disagree with the NHL decision. It's unfortunate for Victor because I thought he had a solid game and I don't believe he'll be playing the rest of the year. We feel for him ... I just felt with that situation, it wasn't handled the right way."

This is a brutal situation for Antipin and the Sabres. The onus should be on the player delivering the hit, especially when he can see the numbers on the back of an opponent. But two sources say the league clearly transferred some of the onus here to Antipin, and you can infer by the ruling the NHL feels Antipin left himself vulnerable when he reversed the puck behind the net.

It sure looks like Hartnell hit Antipin right beteween the "9" and the "3" on his back. But the league has some liberty here to say the hit was more in the upper shoulder than square in the back.

On Twitter, former Sabres pest Matthew Barnaby quickly made the case it was not going to be a suspension right after the game. You would imagine that's the reason why. After the game, Hartnell said his hit was a play you'd see 10 or 15 times a game. While that might be an exaggeration, there's no question it is a play you see. The issue from this view is that there was no need for Hartnell to finish the check and drive through Antipin. That is easily the Sabres' No. 1 contention.

Almost nobody really saw the play live. Antipin reversed the puck to Casey Mittelstadt and off the Sabres went breaking out of their zone. By the time anyone looked back, Antipin was down on the ice face-first. Goalie Chad Johnson was closest to him and immediately called for trainers.

Out of respect for Antipin, a replay was not shown on the jumbotron in Bridgestone Arena. But that caused the Internet in the building to crash, ostensibly as everyone in the building jumped on their phones to try to see what happened.

When people finally started to see what happened, the picture wasn't good. Then came the league's ruling and things got even worse.

Part of me says Housley and Botterill should have howled long and hard, especially Monday when they would have had the full attention of the ravenous Toronto media corps. Botterill was trying to enjoy a family Easter function on Sunday but it had to be difficult. The word is he chewed the ear off Player Safety officials regarding the decision.

Still, there's a fine line in dealing with the league. A first-year GM and first-year coach, especially of a last-place team, gets no extra rope. Darcy Regier and especially Tim Murray were overly vocal at times with the NHL and the sense was that human nature set in among league officials and the Sabres thus took it on the chin even more because there were a lower -echelon team with an active gripe switch.

The Hartnell penalty played allowed the Sabres to score three power-play goals off the same major for the first time in their history. It produced a huge win over the Predators, the league's best team. But the Sabres simply aren't capable of putting together consecutive games on the road against the NHL's elite. They got schooled for three goals in the second period here Monday and Auston Matthews was a man possessed.

The good feeling of perhaps their most surprising win of the season lasted all of one day. It's the league's fault.

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