By Matt Popchock

Don’t worry, Sid will be okay.

I shudder at the thought of ever having to write such a thing.  But if I must, I must.

In the meantime, my question is, will David Steckel ultimately be okay?

Penguin fans are probably not okay with the NHL looking the other way on the Washington left winger’s questionable blindside hit to the head of Sidney Crosby at the tail end of the second period in the Winter Classic.  Yes, I said hit to the head.  With apologies to Steckel, to Capitals fans, and to the usual fence-straddlers who work in the league offices, I’m calling the play as it was.

Pardon the verbage, but don’t lose your heads, Penguin fans.  I’m sure Steckel will be a marked man when the Pens and Caps reunite at the Verizon Center on Super Bowl Sunday, especially considering resident tough guys Brooks Orpik and Mike Rupp, who already had one fight in the Classic, admitted they would have defended their captain had they originally seen the play.  Furthermore, as I read between the lines of Pascal Dupuis’ remarks on “Seibel & Starkey” Friday, it’s clear he and his mates have seen enough abuse taken by Crosby.

I am not saying the Penguins should do in that Feb. 6 game what Reggie Dunlop encouraged his players to do to Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken.  Unfortunately, though, the NHL is not vigilant enough when it comes to cracking down on plays of the aforementioned nature, otherwise we wouldn’t have to accept vigilante justice as a necessary evil in the sport.

The fan in me wants to see Matt Cooke, Deryk Engelland, or the like drop the mittens with Mr. Steckel and give him what-for next time, and is slightly disappointed it didn’t happen last weekend.  Having said that, I’d prefer the NHL bend over backwards to protect guys like Crosby the way the NFL has to protect guys like Brady, for example, so guys would feel less obligated to put each other in the third row.  That’s what’s best for the national perception of the sport.

But by not reprimanding Steckel in any form, not even with a minor penalty at the time–on a play that happened right in front of an official, no less–I can’t help but think the NHL is opening the door to more uncomfortable moments while falling on the same moral sword it unsheathed when Cooke crippled Boston’s Marc Savard last season.  To me, the Steckel hit represents an age-old problem with the league; they know how and when to change the rules, but they don’t always enforce the ones that are in the book.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your listening pleasure, NHL Rule No. 48.1.  And I quote…

“A lateral or blind side hit to an opponent where the head is targeted and/or the principal point of contact is not permitted.”

The full text of the rule calls for severe in-game and, if deemed necessary, post-game discipline for any who break it.

During the latest edition of “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm” (Saturdays at 7 a.m. on 93-7 The Fan) a gentleman claiming to have coached Steckel in juniors years ago called the show to defend the play and the player.  Sorry, but I won’t be fooled, not even by someone presumably with far more intimate knowledge of the game than I.

The caller contended it is unclear that Steckel hit Crosby in the head.  Watching multiple television angles, however, suggests the opposite.  Secondly, the caller did not believe Steckel’s intent was malicious, because, from at least one angle, he and Crosby never seemed to make full eye contact.  I don’t believe Steckel is a dirty player either, but that’s immaterial.  The bottom line is, regardless of intent, he made principal contact with Crosby’s head when Crosby’s head was turned.  It is a textbook violation of the rule.

But in the meantime, don’t lose your head over the absence of a punishment.  I certainly won’t.  If you’re a longtime NHL fan like I am, you know such inconsistency when it comes to the league’s standard of enforcement comes with the territory.  You also know that, as karma goes in the Penguins-Capitals rivalry, the Penguins have traditionally come out on the positive side.  Again, not advocating any hundred-dollar bounties, but Steckel will probably get his comeuppance, one way or the other.

Also, don’t lose your head over Sid’s current state, either.  He’s in very capable hands.  Since admitting he didn’t feel 100 percent prior to Wednesday’s game, he said he won’t rush his return, and Dan Bylsma has echoed those words.  Knowing Sid’s youth, knowing he made it through a full game after sustaining not one, but two heavy blows in consecutive contests, and knowing that organization, I’d say the one-week timetable is accurate.  Besides, Pittsburgh isn’t a world leader in medicine for nothing.

Furthermore, the Penguins already fought valiantly once without Crosby in Montreal Thursday, and as I watch them take on the Minnesota Wild (another team that has had their number lately), I see no reason such an effort without the heart-and-soul of the team can’t continue for another few days, not unlike when Crosby missed much more time due to a high ankle sprain three seasons ago.

How do I know?  I’m just using my head.

For more news and views on the Penguins, be sure to tune into “The Penalty Box with Tom Grimm,” Saturday mornings on SportsRadio 93-7 The Fan, and to check out the “Puck Talk with Popchock” video blog on!

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