There were a wide array of responses around the NHL to Michael Matheson violently slamming Elias Pettersson to the ice during Saturday’s game between the Vancouver Canucks and Florida Panthers. Several former NHLers weighed in with disbelief that a suspension was even being considered.
Brad May suggested that Canucks fans were “out of their minds” to think it was a bad hit; he didn’t even think it should have been a penalty. He suggested that “this is a good lesson for the rookie” and bemoaned the uproar as an indication that “you can’t hit the star player anymore.”
Other old-school hockey types echoed May’s thoughts, which seem to aggressively miss the point. Few people took issue with Matheson hitting Pettersson; the problem was Matheson violently throwing Pettersson to the ice afterwards.
The NHL’s Department of Player Safety (DoPS) saw it the same way, viewing the initial hit and the subsequent slam as two separate plays.
“What causes this incident to rise to the level of supplemental discipline, is that it encompasses two separate and distinct acts," claims the DoPS in the suspension video. "First, Matheson pins Pettersson to the boards in a legal and effective defensive maneuver. Then with the puck long separated from the area, and Pettersson unable to defend himself, Matheson drives him directly downward and into the ice with force, causing an injury.”
The key phrase from the DoPS’s video is, “This is not a hockey play.”
This isn’t an attempted body check gone wrong. Players frequently get hit legally and fall to the ice in a way that could cause an injury. The difference in this case is the way Matheson throws Pettersson to the ice with the puck long gone.
While my initial instinct was to view this as roughing, the DoPS viewed it instead as interference and unsportsmanlike conduct. The fact that the puck was long gone is a key element of their argument. They also point out what Canucks fans and media spotted: Matheson putting his stick between Pettersson's legs, can-openering him and preventing him from being able to protect himself.
Intriguingly, the DoPS also included Pettersson’s deke on Matheson as part of the video, if not explicitly part of their argument for a suspension. There’s an implication in its inclusion that they did view Matheson’s play as retribution for Pettersson embarrassing him on the ice, even if they didn’t outright say so.
In any case, perhaps the inclusion of Pettersson undressing Matheson is also supplemental discipline, making sure that the entire NHL sees how the 19-year-old broke Matheson’s ankles.
While some might quibble with the length of the suspension, it’s an understandable length for someone with no prior history with the DoPS. Matheson has never been suspended or fined before and doesn’t have a reputation for dirty plays. He just seemed to let the moment get the better of him.
Hopefully the two-game suspension will help him think twice in the future.