Chicago Blackhawks: Connor Murphy’s penalty, right call, bad guidelines?

Connor Murphy #5, Chicago Blackhawks (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
Connor Murphy #5, Chicago Blackhawks (Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images) /

The third game in a row between the Lightning and the Blackhawks ended up a bit chippy. Chicago lost the game after a disastrous second period which saw an awful hit that resulted in a match penalty. After that, the game turned entirely in Tampa Bay’s favor, but that wasn’t the most important issue. The hit and the subsequent match penalty show that the NHL needs to take a different approach to make the game safer.

I have watched that hit that Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy put on Erik Cernak many times, and I believe that the call on the ice was the right one. The officials need to enforce the rules to protect players. However, I kept wondering, “what could Murphy have done differently to deliver the hit, but not get the match penalty?”

Hits to the head are a no-no, as they should be. Yet, when I go back and look at a clip of that hit, it’s hard to pinpoint what he could have done differently. He keeps his arms down, his shoulder isn’t raised to strike the head, and he keeps his feet on the ice. Don’t forget, Murphy is 6′ 4″.

You can check out the Chicago Sun-Times article by Ben Pope, but as soon as Murphy received the match penalty, social media erupted and people instantly took sides. There was the “it was a bad hit camp and this is the right call ” (it was the correct call, and was in line with the rules designed to keep players safe), and then there was the “it was a hockey play, and Cernak needs to keep his head up camp”. Regardless of where you stand, a player was injured and had to leave the game. No one wants to see that happen.

Here’s the video made available by SportsNet of Blackhawks defenseman Connor Murphy hit on Erik Cernak:

Now, compare Murphy’s check to this clip from SportsNet of the Washington Capitals’ Tom Wilson’s hit on the Boston Bruins’ Brandom Carlo:

NBC and others reported on Wilson’s seven-game suspension for that bit of head-hunting. These two hits don’t look at all the same, and while Murphy deserved the match penalty, Wilson 100% deserves his suspension. You can see Wilson’s hands go up, and he’s clearly aiming high when he goes in on Carlo.

The question remains, how can the league manage this stuff better? Is a suspension or a match penalty going to really make that much of a difference? I’d argue no.

Stick penalties in hockey are plentiful and tightly called. Even if someone gets a stick in the face by accident and no damage is done, it’s a penalty. Hook a player even a tiny bit, and it’s a penalty. A player can accidentally step on an opponent’s stick, and yes, even that can be a penalty as well.

Then there are the non-penalties called for questionable stick use. Stick goes too high to swat down a puck? Face-off. Stick goes too high to knock a puck into a goal, then the goal is likely going to be waived off.

How a player is allowed to use their stick is strictly controlled. When it comes to hitting it seems like the only thing the league has to say is, “it depends.” Mark Lazerus gave a brief explanation on Twitter about Murphy avoiding suspension:

And that’s really the problem here. There’s not enough clarity on what makes a hit a good hit, versus a bad hit. Even having great technology to review things doesn’t help. In the heat of the moment, if someone is injured when the whistle blows then it’s likely there will be a penalty or a player tossed from the game. It often takes a guy to be semi-conscious on the ice before a hit is considered a bad hit.

To make another comparison, consider the ugly hit that the now mostly-retired Blackhawk Brent Seabrook gave to David Backes back in 2014. It resulted in an interference/charging major, and Seabrook was suspended for three games.

This was the right thing to do, and say whatever you want about Backes, no one should have to be on the receiving of a deliberate headshot. That one still looks different than Murphy’s hit on Cernak.

Perhaps the league can sit down and figure out how hitting can be changed so that there will be fewer injuries. Players old and young could collaborate on this because it seems feasible to think that people can be coached to check differently. If sticks can be highly regulated, so can hits. Fines and/or suspensions are nice, but that won’t really change how the game is played.

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Hopefully, Cernak is OK, has a speedy recovery, and there are no lasting effects from the injury. It would be nice to also see a bit more interest in changing how players check one another to keep things safe. Murphy should be back with the team soon, and here’s to a clean hard-hitting Blackhawks game when he returns.