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Rossi: Plenty of 'hockey plays', but NHL needs to protect players

| Tuesday, May 16, 2017, 12:27 p.m.

Sidney Crosby should go to the Olympics next season. Especially if going means getting away from the NHL for a season.

And, noted Penguins homer than I've been (especially when it comes to Crosby), I've gone and drafted a response for when somebody criticizes the Face of the NHL for leaving it behind.

Crosby can simply say he went in search of "hockey plays."

To be clear, I do not expect Crosby would even consider abandoning the planet's finest hockey league. And despite its faults, the NHL remains the worldwide leader when it comes to the world's greatest game.

To doubt as much would be to ignore the great hockey happening in these Stanley Cup playoffs.

In Nashville, the Predators have run what amounts to a speed-skating clinic. In Ottawa, the Senators have revealed a beautiful precision and perseverance that often accompanies an expertly executed trap. Here in Pittsburgh, that the Penguins remain involved in the postseason is a testament to something rarely seen by the oft-spoiled citizenry.

General manager Jim Rutherford has constructed and coach Mike Sullivan presides over a deep, skilled assemblage of hockey talent. Yet, much more than their plethora of skill, these Penguins impress with fortitude to rival that of any team in the franchise's 50-year history.

Challenged by Sullivan many, many, many months ago to "just play," the Penguins now seem intent on never stopping.

Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final marked Game No. 202 over the past 20 months.

That is silly.

That the Penguins might need to play 214 games in 21 months to claim and retain the Cup should be daunting, but instead it appears to fuel these players.

That says a lot about why our City of Champions should remember these Penguins fondly no matter how this spring finishes. It also says all anybody needs to know about why a couple of decades have passed since an NHL club repeated as the champion.

No league taxes its players as the NHL does, which is why nobody should doubt commissioner Gary Bettman the next time he calls Lord Stanley's silver chalice "the hardest trophy to win in sports."

A cliché is a cliché because it's true, and Bettman isn't a liar when it comes to the Cup conquest.

He is the fortunate commissioner to work where the big prize does seem to change (and regrettably justify) everything. He is no less fortunate that each of the NHL's conference finals had become best-of-five series after the first couple of contests.

Whatever the hockey has looked like, close can sold by the NHL as compelling to even the style police who bemoan the Senators' trap and the traditionalists who would rather all the fun come in cities such as New York, Toronto, Chicago, Montreal and Boston.

If you're the type of tune-in-this-time-of-year fan who doesn't quite "get" hockey, do yourself a favor and re-watch the match between the Penguins and Senators at PPG Paints Arena on Monday night.

It had everything. It also had too much.

The defending champions, having already overcome opponents that finished first and third overall in the regular season, faced the real prospect of dropping both homes games to open their Round 3. Phil Kessel's goal late in the third period of Game 2 staked the Penguins their first series lead.

Had Kessel's initial shot not hit the Senators' Jean-Gabriel Pageau and directed back to Kessel, Ottawa's excellent goalie Craig Anderson probably would have been in position to make the save. (He has made almost all of the others.) For Kessel, that goal might have been all that prevented a complete public meltdown. He had spent much of Game 2 seemingly screaming at somebody — if not himself, then possibly invisible friends, ghosts or maybe Russian spies — because the Senators' stifling congestion had flummoxed his unique ability to come up big in the postseason.

Agitated. Animated. Anxious. Hey Phil, we've all been there.

Heck, most Pittsburghers were there at half-past-10 on Monday night. Around then, the MVP of this Penguins' run, Marc-Andre Fleury, was scrambling to make Kessel's goal hold up.

The Senators had gone longer without a shot than President Trump usually does without Tweeting… until all of a sudden they were firing away upon Fleury in the final minutes like, well, President Trump does on Twitter.

Kessel's goal was a hockey play.

Fleury's saves were hockey plays.

Sadly, a hockey play is also what Dion Phaneuf's open-ice walloping of Bryan Rust must be considered. It was "clean" in that it was within the rules that are drawn up by league general managers.

The NHL will be better — or, at the very least, closer in resemblance to hockey as it should be played — when its rulebook is drafted by a group of former skilled players, a group to which GMs rarely have belonged. Also, the NHL will be better — or, at the very least, not laughable — when its on- and off-ice officials begin taking seriously the issue of head safety.

The NHL does not.

Instead, at all levels associated with the NHL, there continues to be disgusting victim shaming ("Rust was skating with his head down" was a common comment during Game 2) along with shameful attempts to brainwash the general public into believing that all is well.

Players' heads may no longer be hunted, but they're certainly not protected. So, nope, all is not well.

Which is no way a suggestion that all is wrong. There remains a lot to like about the hockey being staged into May in the National Hockey League.

But it's not good enough to pass off the hits this postseason that have taken out Crosby and Rust as "hockey plays." And that's entirely because those plays need not have a place in hockey.

The problem with the NHL is it hasn't figured out that the Stanley Cup playoffs are always best when "hockey" is actually being played.

Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his game winning goal against the Senators in the third period during game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals Monday, May 15, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) blisters his game winning goal against the Senators in the third period during game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals Monday, May 15, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his game winning goal against the Senators in the third period during game 2 of the Eastern Conference Finals Monday, May 15, 2017 at PPG Paints Arena.
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