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The Crash Heard ‘Round the NHL

New York Rangers v Montreal Canadiens - Game One

The NHL playoffs coincide nicely with the end of the spring semester, giving me two reasons to tear out my hair and wonder why no one has learned anything. For their last essay of the year, my students research a controversy; instead of simply picking a side, they ask bigger questions. Why are we arguing about whatever this is? What’s at stake? Why does it matter?

The controversy itself has to be a Yes/No question:

DID CHRIS KREIDER INTEND TO TAKE OUT CAREY PRICE IN GAME ONE OF THE 2014 CONFERENCE FINALS?

There have to be at least two clearly-defined sides.

MONTREAL FANS: YES! HE IS AN EVIL GOALIE KILLER WITH A HISTORY OF GOALIE KILLING, AND BASICALLY HE STOLE OUR CUP!

RANGER FANS: HE WAS TRIPPED BY ALEXEI EMELIN AND ALSO YOU LOST SO GET OVER IT ALREADY!

The controversies should feature interesting sideline stories, or, as my students sometimes call them, “collateral damage.”

REMEMBER THAT DUSTIN TOKARSKI KID WHO ALMOST PULLED IT OUT? ANYONE KNOW WHERE HE IS RIGHT NOW?

ALSO, DEREK STEPAN’S FACE.

The controversy must raise larger questions.

ARE COLLISIONS INEVITABLE WHEN MONSTER FORWARDS GO HARD TO THE NET?

IF THE HABS HAD WON, WOULD HOCKEY FANS STILL BE TALKING ABOUT THIS?

DO SPORTS FANS EVER FORGET?

So, what actually happened? If it’s not already branded on your brain, you can watch it here.

Remember, our goal (HAHA) here isn’t to pick a side, even if we have one (cough), but to understand them.

From the Habs site Eyes on the Prize, the next day:

Much has been made about Kreider's intentions on the play, and he clearly made zero effort to avoid contact, but there was nothing more malicious in that play than any run of the mill goalie crash that happens multiple times every game, it's just an unlucky, unfortunate, disastrous result.

Some of the “Much” being “Made:”

“I don’t think Kreider ran him, but he didn’t do anything to avoid him,” former Ranger Brandon Prust said Sunday after practice in the Montreal suburb of Brossard. “He went skates up first and he didn’t do anything to turn his body or minimize (the contact). Whether it’s on purpose or accidental, he ran him pretty hard. Everybody thinks it was accidental, but we call it accidentally on purpose.”

(Remember those “sideline stories” I mentioned? The collateral damage in this case was Derek Stepan, who thanks to Prust was eating through a straw for weeks.)

The incident spawned such sideline entertainment as this You Tube video, “Chris Kreider’s Goalie Victims.”

Inflammatory title aside, the video shows a definite trend, not only in Kreider’s behavior, but also in the calls against him.

Anderson: Tripped, no call

Rask: Awarded a penalty shot

Price: No call

Fleury: Called for interference

Fasth: Called for interference

Halak: Called for interference

Kreider himself referred to this trend and its continued implications for his game, including last week’s run-in with Jonathan Quick, as reported by Pat Leonard:

“As long as I’m not getting called for those on reputation, I’m OK with it,” Kreider said. “Tom Kowal was the ref who called that one and he also worked the next game in Anaheim. So I asked him about it, he explained it, and it was all good.”

I decided to ask some hockey fans with no strong feelings either way for their thoughts on an incident that, even after three years (or five, if you ask Kreider), is shaping the narrative leading into this series.

From Hannah Bevis, editor of The Ice Garden, after reviewing video:

“I don't see him start losing his balance when the stick hits him. If anything, if I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt, he loses his balance because he's going too fast and can't throw the brakes on fast enough. Although it does look like it alters his right foot- at first I thought he was kicking it back to shoot but now I'm wondering if it goes up because it got hit. It does look like it buckles a little ... it’s mostly on the skater to stop.”

From Mike Blinn, NHL writer for Sports Illustrated:

“Two of Chris Kreider's calling cards are his speed and his leg strength. Early on in his NHL career, he had a little trouble keeping them both under control-see an unfortunate history of running into goalies and bad-looking hits. I never thought there was intent, just a kid who was too young and powerful to keep his handles, and this was the case with the Carey Price incident. Nothing malicious, just a guy trying to outrun a pair of defenders and then losing an edge at a bad moment that had an unfortunate ending.”

It seems only fair to ask Carey Price for his thoughts, no?

I see. Thank you, Mr. Price!

Maybe the most thoughtful commentary came from Nick Mercandante, a guy who knows a lot about goalies and is also, perhaps tangentially, a Rangers fan ...

“It was a hockey play, made too recklessly by a big and fast player bearing down on the puck and the net at full speed. It doesn't negate the dangerousness of the play, but he was trying to score a goal, not injure Carey Price. These types of plays happen. Kreider is a player that owes a large part of his success to his physical attributes. To be most effective, he has to go hard to the net. He shouldn't change how he plays because of what happened, and he hasn't. The stage, the goaltender, and the alarmist tendencies of the two fanbases probably all contributed to giving this thing more of a shelf life than it would normally have gotten.”

And are Rangers fans the only ones who remember Dustin Tokarski, the backup who managed a .916 save percentage for the series, but is now playing for the San Diego Gulls? (WHO? Exactly.) But remember this? WITH THE KNOB OF THE STICK?

Ultimately, Habs fans still hold a grudge; Rangers fans are still smug. And I didn’t even mention all the other sideline stories — Martin St. Louis’ mom, the Carcillo suspension ... AND ALL IN ONE SERIES.

So, no, sports fans never forget. (Had that hit been on Hank, Rangers fans, we’d have been hysterical, and we know it.) But we’ve got at least four games full of new stuff to remember, starting tonight. What will we be reflecting on and bickering about three years from now (or five, if you’re Kreider, who should maybe get that checked out)?

Remember, as much as sports fans want reasons, sometimes we have to just have faith. We call our heroes gods not only because they seem super-human, but also because, sometimes, their choices make no sense. So make your guesses about the narratives of the future in the comments. But we can’t know. And that’s part of the faith, er, fun, remember?