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Circus comes to town: NHL playoffs quickly descend into 'chaos'

Chaos came quickly to the NHL playoffs.

Not only did the opening five days produce almost twice the number of game misconduct penalties as the entire post-season a year ago, it also resulted in a long queue of those waiting to speak with Brendan Shanahan, the league's dean of discipline.

The list of transgressions included a sucker-punch, blatant elbow to the head, cross-check to the face and numerous other questionable hits.

With the stakes being raised at the most important time of the season, former NHLer Bobby Holik believes the resulting emotions among players created an "explosive" atmosphere on the ice. The results have been all over sports highlight shows.

"Players will push the envelope as far as they can," Holik said Monday in an interview. "Until somebody says `This is not allowed,' they're going to keep pushing. We did it and generations of players before us did it because that's how you think you're going to get the edge."

It's up to Shanahan to try and put the lid back on a boiling pot.

He sent a strong message Sunday in suspending Carl Hagelin three games for his elbow to Daniel Alfredsson's head, which prompted the Rangers to release a statement saying they were "perplexed by inconsistencies" in his rulings.

Presumably, the team was referencing Shanahan's decision last week to fine Predators captain Shea Weber US$2,500—the maximum allowed under the collective bargaining agreement—for smashing the head of Red Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg into the end boards in Game 1 of their series.

Many have pointed to that as the moment when discipline started to go off the rails. It's certainly been a wild few days since.

"I think that's probably a factor to a point—where you think you can get away with more because Shea Weber got away with more," said Kevin Weekes, a former NHLer who now works as a broadcaster for CBC.

"But what guys have to recognize—and I think Carl Hagelin figured it out—he's not Shea Weber."

The numbers paint an interesting picture of the playoffs so far. Heading into play Monday, there had been 11 game misconducts assessed in 19 games—compared with only six during the entire post-season a year ago.

In addition to the Hagelin suspension and Weber fine, Shanahan had given Vancouver forward Byron Bitz a two-game ban, Ottawa defenceman Matt Carkner a one-game ban and handed out fines to the Senators ($10,000) and forward Zenon Konopka ($2,500) after Konopka trash-talked Brian Boyle during a live television interview prior to Game 2.

On Monday night, Shanahan upheld a one-game suspension to Penguins forward Craig Adams for instigating a fight in the final five minutes of Sunday's game and fined coach Dan Bylsma $10,000.

There is more to come as well. Chicago Blackhawks forward Andrew Shaw had a discipline hearing Monday and James Neal and Arron Asham, both of the Pittsburgh Penguins, were scheduled to speak with Shanahan on Tuesday.

In some cases, the ugly incidents go beyond cases involving supplemental discipline. Game 2 of the series between San Jose and St. Louis—never previously considered rivals—ended with a line brawl on Saturday night.

"A lot of the series (are) borderline chaos right now," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told reporters Monday.

He struggled to pinpoint the exact cause of the mayhem.

"I don't know, I don't have an answer for it," said McLellan. "The other series, we're all watching them because we're hockey people and we get excited by the playoffs, but it's amazing what's going on right now. ...

"(There are) high stakes, high emotions, competitive players—many that are crossing the line."

It hasn't exactly been bad for business. The NHL is reporting strong TV ratings, particularly in the U.S., where Sunday afternoon's Flyers-Penguins game recorded the highest overnight rating for a non-Stanley Cup final game since 2002.

Among the "highlights" of that matchup were the incidents that landed Neal and Asham in hot water and a fight between Penguins captain Sidney Crosby and Flyers star Claude Giroux.

Even players not involved in the playoffs are taking notice, with Dallas Stars pest Steve Ott praising the action on his Twitter account: "I usually don't watch a ton of hockey, but these playoffs have got me glued. Great Games, scoring and the physical edge. #MansEvent"

Holik is a three-time Stanley Cup winner who retired in 2009 after playing nearly 1,500 games between the regular season and playoffs.

He believes the constant challenge faced by the NHL is trying to maintain a proper balance between skill and speed and the more physical side of the sport. It's not always easy to do.

"When you constantly walk the line, sometimes you cross over it," said Holik.

In a blog entry posted to his website (www.holikonhockey.com) on Monday, he referred to the "circus-like events" that have marked the opening days of the playoffs. With so much on the line, he doesn't fault the players for what's transpired.

"I would rather see Claude Giroux or Sidney Crosby doing what they do best instead of dropping the gloves," said Holik. "But at the same time I completely understand what position, what situation, they're finding themselves in and their reaction to it."

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