Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Tampa Bay Lightning was filled with questionable hits and significant injuries. One player of many who bought himself a ticket on the controversy train was Penguin Chris Kunitz.
Late in the first period he went knee on knee with Tampa’s Tyler Johnson, who took an extended break before later returning to finish the game.
Kunitz had Johnson lined up right shoulder to right shoulder, front on. This would have been a perfectly acceptable and actually not very punishing hit for Johnson.
Instead, the Lightning forward tried to escape the hit, twisting himself around and pulling his upper body out of the way. Kunitz was coming too quickly though and Johnson didn’t have time to pull his leg out of the way, leaving it exposed as the only body part Kunitz could possibly hit.
Johnson created the danger of the situation with a sudden unpredictable and unexpected movement. If he had just taken the hit, none of this would have happened and we might not be talking about it.
I do wish Penguins fans would keep an open mind on a couple of things though.
First, please don’t send hate to Johnson with the mentality that he needs to grow up and take the hit. This playoffs so far has been an exhibition in lack of respect and disregard for safety, particularly on the stars. So far, the NHL hasn’t done enough to have players consider suspensions too long to be worth the toruble of taking out a top opponent. Also, Pittsburgh was already on edge after Kris Letang was run at and injured by Ryan Callahan earlier in the period and wasn’t ejected. Conditions were ripe for sometime to happen, and Johnson was probably thinking it would have been just as unsafe to trust Kunitz at that point not to get his elbow or stick up and attack the head. As a smaller player and goal scorer myself, you do think about these things.
Second, Kunitz did seem to justify this thought process. He went into that hit with one goal: to make any contact possible. When Johnson tried to escape and it was clear Kunitz couldn’t catch his body, Kunitz made the decision to reach out with his leg to create something out of nothing. I don’t believe he intentionally went for the knee and I wouldn’t suspend simply because of the result.
His thought process, the hit at all costs mentality, is what needs to be addressed. That’s why I think a fine is a good idea in this case.