Matt Cooke's skull-jarring hit on Marc Savard earlier this month may ultimately prove to be the tipping point for how the NHL deals with hits to the head. How Pittsburgh and Boston deal with the aftermath of that hit is anyone's guess.
Those teams will meet Thursday night for the first time since Cooke's shoulder-to-head hit on Savard left one of the Bruins' better players out indefinitely while the Penguins' forward escaped without any punishment.
The Penguins (41-24-5) defeated the Bruins 2-1 on March 8 in Pittsburgh. Late in the third period, Savard released a shot from above the circles only to be struck in the head from behind by Cooke's raised left arm and shoulder. Savard briefly lost consciousness while Cooke wasn't penalized.
Savard, who has just 33 points in an injury-plagued campaign after averaging 87 over the previous three seasons with Boston, was diagnosed with a grade 2 concussion. There is no timetable for his return. A grade 2 concussion can feature brief loss of memory, headaches and confusion.
"It's pretty obvious that was definitely a dirty hit," said Bruins coach Claude Julien, who called for Cooke to be suspended. "That's probably the classic blind-side hit to the head."
Surprisingly, and in spite of his recent history, Cooke was not suspended by the NHL.
He drew a two-game ban in November for a hit to the head of Rangers rookie Artem Anisimov. Cooke garnered a two-game suspension for hitting Carolina's Scott Walker in the head in January 2009. Cooke wasn't suspended for a knee-to-knee hit on the Hurricanes' Erik Cole during last season's Eastern Conference finals.
Even one of Cooke's teammates thought a ban was deserved.
"If a guy gets hurt like that with a shot to the head, there's got to be something," Bill Guerin said March 11. "Actions happen. Guys don't mean to hurt each other, but they do. You got to pay a price for that."
Since Cooke's hit, two-time Hart Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin was suspended two games for driving Chicago's Brian Campbell into the end boards during Washington's come-from-behind win Sunday. Campbell is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season with a broken collarbone and fractured rib.
The hits by Cooke and Ovechkin have shined a spotlight on what's become a hot-button issue throughout the league. The NHL wants to fast-track a new rule against blindside hits to the head before the end of this season, according to reports.
"It's a process that has never been done before in the season," NHL senior vice-president of hockey operations Colin Campbell told the Toronto Globe and Mail in a story published online early Wednesday. "But this is so important an issue that if we can possibly avoid just one concussion, we should do this."
There are hurdles. To get the new rule in place, the NHL needs to get the players, coaches, management and officials involved. Also, the board of governors would have the final say on any change.
Since losing Savard, the Bruins have gone 2-2-1, wrapping up a season-high seven-game swing with a 5-2 win over Carolina on Wednesday. Mark Recchi, Michael Ryder and David Krejci scored in the third period, and Tuukka Rask made 30 saves.
Boston (31-26-12) is eighth in the Eastern Conference, three points behind seventh-place Philadelphia and three points ahead of the ninth-place Rangers.
"We were a desperate hockey club ... We do that for 13 more games, we'll control our own destiny and get in the playoffs," said Recchi, who scored his 560th goal and needs one more to move past Guy LaFleur into sole possession of 22nd place all-time.
Boston is 3-0-1 in its last four home meetings with the Penguins, including a 3-0 victory Nov. 10 behind 27 saves from Tim Thomas.
Pittsburgh fell to 1-3-0 on its five-game road trip after losing 5-2 to New Jersey on Thursday. Chris Kunitz and Ruslan Fedotenko scored for the Penguins, who may have gotten a taste of what to expect against the Bruins.
Late in the contest, Penguins defenseman Alex Goligoski was shaken up after being sent face-first into the boards by Rod Pelley, who received a major penalty.
Pittsburgh, which lost all six games to New Jersey this season, dropped from second to fourth in the East. Each team has 87 points, though the Penguins have played one more game.
"We didn't do a lot of terrible things. The things that we made mistakes on ended up really hurting us. They were big mistakes," captain Sidney Crosby said.
The Penguins played without forward Evgeni Malkin, who was injured after taking a shot off his foot in a win over Tampa Bay on Sunday. It's not immediately known if Malkin, second on the team with 69 points, will be available Thursday.