I've seen Olympic weightlifters' arms pull right out of their sockets, overwhelmed by the weight they're supposed to be bearing. I've watched Lindsey Vonn's knee all but explode and heard her anguished screams carry up the mountain she had just tumbled down. I've seen Clint Malarchuk's jugular pumping out blood — so much that if he'd been in the opposite net, the one farther away from the trainer's room, he probably would have been dead.
Joe Theismann's leg famously broke when I was just 2, but it's impossible to escape that awful footage — it's replayed, usually with warnings to close your eyes if you're easily queasy, all the time. My special man friend in college got injured while playing lacrosse; everyone thought his shoe had fallen off, but it was just that his whole foot had wrenched around backward, not unlike what happened to Willis McGahee's poor knee.
I've seen broken noses and pucks to the eye and kicks to the balls and enough heads snapping back after hitting the field or the ice or the court or the boards to give me a sympathy concussion. And yet, having watched all these things, there's really no injury that affects me on a more visceral level than one that involves an Achilles. Even thinking about it makes me wince in prolonged Peter Griffin–style pain. Maybe it's some deep-seated Greek mythology that I've over-internalized, or maybe it's just that unlike the ligaments in your knee, or the discs in your back, or the depths of your brain, your Achilles is always tangibly there, reminding you, every time you put on your shoes or pull up your socks, of all the work it can and does do.
On Wednesday night 22-year-old Erik Karlsson, last year's Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, went to the boards to retrieve a routine puck.1 The Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Cooke came in behind him and pulled one knee up as he did; as former player turned TSN analyst Aaron Ward would explain, it was a common move intended to drive and pin Karlsson into the boards.
But as Cooke made contact, his skate lowered onto Karlsson's leg instead, right in the space between the back brace of his skate and his ankle. Karlsson went down, wild-eyed and in obvious pain, then gingerly rose. He tried skating away and nearly crumpled. (You have to wonder what kind of additional damage that one attempted stride may have done.) He was rushed off the ice, throwing his stick in frustration, and soon the verdict was rendered: Cooke's skate had lacerated his Achilles, a devastating injury that will require surgery and all but guarantee that the young star defenseman is done for the rest of the season.2
An AP photographer caught the look on Karlsson's face (see above) at the moment the strongest tendon in his body was sliced;3 it's really not far off, I imagine, from the looks on the faces of anyone watching the sequence — Ottawa fans in particular. One headline on a Senators blog summed up the grim situation succinctly: "Senators lose Karlsson, game, and all hope."
A highly mobile puck-moving defenseman, Karlsson also provided an all-important skill for Ottawa: the ability to play quarterback, not just on the power play but on breakouts and neutral zone transitions. This season, the exquisitely talented Karlsson had been averaging more than 27 minutes of ice time per game, fifth in the NHL; at even strength he was second in the league.
Last season he put up 78 points off the strength of 19 goals and 59 assists; this year, he was showing no signs of a swoon. He led the league in total shots and had already scored six goals and added four assists in 14 games. According to Behind the Net, he had the Senators' best CorsiRel — in other words, that he provided the biggest boost in the number of pucks directed at the opposing net when he was on the ice versus on the bench than anyone else on the team.
His injury, needless to say, leaves a gaping hole in an already-depleted Senators roster. Jason Spezza, the team's top forward, underwent back surgery a few weeks ago and is out indefinitely, while Milan Michalek suffered a lower-body injury in Wednesday night's warm-ups and his status remains unknown. The Senators are sitting in sixth place in the Eastern Conference for now with a 7-5-2 record thanks in large part to the Vezina Trophy–worthy early play of goaltender Craig Anderson. But without Karlsson in the lineup, there are far fewer answers than questions. Seeing one of the league's top young stars in such agony is difficult to handle not just for Ottawans, but for NHL fans in general. There really aren't too many things that are as excruciatingly painful.
Tuesday night featured four games in which teams climbed back from tough deficits to force overtime or a shootout, so we devote this section to those matchups. The first was Bruins-Rangers: New York held a pretty commanding 3-0 lead with just more than 11 minutes to play in a game that also boasted one of the best assists of this NHL season: Rick Nash's pass to Carl Hagelin for the first goal.
The Bruins came back with a goal 8:44 into the third and a pair of scores with goalie Tuukka Rask pulled for an extra skater, but lost in the shootout (which featured another sweet Nash move). For Northeast Division–leading Boston, the loss was its second in overtime this season; it still has just one regulation loss.
Also clawing their way into the game after a 3-0 third-period deficit but ultimately falling short were the Tampa Bay Lightning, who rallied to a tie against Montreal but couldn't score in the shootout. The game-evening goal wasn't quite as pretty as the Lightning's second goal, but I'm including it here because the woman at the 13-second mark is my spirit animal and I can't pass her up.
The Anaheim-Chicago game pitted two of the Western Conference's top teams against each other, and while the Blackhawks have been the better squad this season, the Ducks were able to come back from being down 2-1 and win in a shootout. (The loss was the league-best Blackhawks' third of the season, but zero of those have come in regulation.) The best goal of this game was probably Nick Leddy's slap shot from 58 feet.
And finally in Florida, the Panthers took a 5-3 lead on the beleaguered Capitals, who rallied back to tie the game off Alex Ovechkin's fifth goal of the season and ultimately won in overtime. Nick Backstrom earned assists on the game-tying and overtime game-winning goals; if Ovi and Backstrom keep it up in such a vintage manner, they might be able to pull Washington out of the Eastern Conference cellar.
The Ryan O'Reilly saga drags on horribly in Colorado, where according to the Denver Post's Adrian Dater, there has been "absolutely no negotiating going on anymore" with the 22-year-old restricted free agent, who had a breakout season last year, leading the Avs with 55 points.4 (With P.K. Subban and Jamie Benn signed, O'Reilly is the last remaining RFA to have come to terms with his team.) This week, Darren Dreger announced that things have devolved to the point where the Avalanche are now seeking to trade the talented young two-way forward, hopefully to an Eastern Conference team for a package that would include "a roster player and a top prospect."
There are numerous facets to O'Reilly's situation. The Avalanche are no longer the belle of the NHL ball that they were in the '90s; at one point they were among the league's highest spenders, but they've grown far more frugal since then. And then there's teammate Matt Duchene's two-year, $7 million contract, which has become a bit of a benchmark: O'Reilly may have outscored Duchene last year, the argument goes, but the two players came into the league at the same time and in those three years Duchene has put up more points. So the Avs have reportedly offered two things: a contract equal in terms to Duchene's, or another for five years at $17 million, which averages out to a $3.4 million cap hit per year. O'Reilly, meanwhile, has requested a contract with an average annual salary closer to $5 million. Things have been stalled ever since.
The problem with using Duchene as a comparable, though, is that much of O'Reilly's worth comes in ways that don't manifest themselves on a postgame stat sheet. He took more faceoffs than anyone else on the team last year, and won more than half of them. He led the league in takeaways. Not only does he play against much tougher competition than Duchene, according to last season's Player Usage Chart [PDF], he's also more frequently deployed in the defensive zone. And yet in spite of these "tough minutes," last season he still managed to have an offensively sparkling campaign.
The other big question is why has no other team attempted to give O'Reilly an offer sheet?5 It seems like the perfect situation: a team in Colorado that apparently isn't keen on big spending and would thus be unwilling to match, an opportunity to get O'Reilly for draft picks rather than a high trade price, and an excellent (and increasingly alienated) player who would ostensibly be game to relocate. NHL GMs are notorious for avoiding offer sheets for fear of retribution or salary escalation — what goes around comes around — but in this case it's starting to feel almost collusive and silly. Either way, it's a shame that one of the league's most interesting young players still remains on the sideline — especially as Colorado deals with a host of injuries and sits out of playoff contention. It's a pain in the ass to fans who have to hear about it nonstop. "The horse is beyond dead," wrote Mile High Hockey's Cheryl Bradley, "it's a mess of bloody roadkill."
Pekka Rinne's pad save on the San Jose Sharks' Tim Kennedy on Tuesday night was indicative of how things have gone for the Predators this season. The save was the first of 25 he made in his second shutout in the last three games, but the Predators needed overtime to get their only goal. Nashville has scored just 25 goals in 13 games, yet has a 6-3-4 record thanks in large part to Rinne, who has stopped all but five shots in February. Three of those came in a 3-0 loss to surging Chicago, which led Rinne to remark that it was the third time in 11 games that the team got shut out. "It's tough to win when you don't score goals," he said — but for the most part, he's mostly been ensuring that it's the opposition who comes away from a game saying pretty much the exact thing.
The heading of this section has been slightly modified this week in honor of the Toronto Maple Leafs' Mikhail Grabovski, who (allegedly! maybe! perhaps!) became the latest NHL player to chow down on an opponent. Near the end of the Maple Leafs' 6-0 victory in a Saturday-night showdown with the Montreal Canadians, Grabovski became entangled with Max Pacioretty in a scrum; Pacioretty wrapped his arm around Grabovski's head and face from behind before pulling back and screaming "He bit me! He fuckin' bit me!" and showing his forearm to the official.
According to Pacioretty, who was given antibiotics and a tetanus shot after the game, the chomp drew blood; the Canadiens are said to have provided photos of his arm and hand to the league. But on Monday, the Department of Player Safety declined to punish Grabovski beyond the penalties he had been assessed on the ice, citing a lack of conclusive evidence that Pacioretty had actually been gnawed upon. (As you might imagine, both Maple Leafs and Habs fans handled this whole situation calmly and amicably.)
Regardless of what (teeth) may have gone down between Grabbo and Patches, the two became just the latest in a long and distinguished list of NHL cannibals. We all remember Alex Burrows biting Patrice Bergeron (he wasn't punished either) but SB Nation's Dominik Jansky wrote an outstanding post delving into the, well, deeper cuts. Did you know that CBC declared 2005-10 a "golden era of NHL biting"?9 Or that once "The Washington Post produced a photo … that appeared to show [Sean] Avery with the jersey of Matt Hendricks in his mouth"? Aw, I kinda miss that guy. But my favorite taste of NHL history is this:
1989-90: Dave Manson and Scott Stevens were embroiled in an ugly encounter in 1990 that saw both get three-game suspensions: Manson for biting, Stevens for eye gouging. Both claimed self-defense. (This wasn't the first time biting was claimed as self-defense … Chris Chelios admitted to biting Tomas Sandstrom 15 years after the fact, claiming Sandstrom gouged his eyes first.)
Honestly, that is just a beautiful paragraph. Hockey is the best.
An Achilles torn
But take heart, Senators fans
There is still a God.
Actually, maybe it wasn't quite that routine: the puck had hit the mesh netting above the glass, the officials failed to whistle the play dead, and a butterfly flapped its wings.
There are those who, based on Cooke's checkered past as one of the league's dirtier players, immediately assumed the play had been intentional. "It's Matt Cooke. What else should I say?" asked Senators GM Bryan Murray. But not only did Cooke spend last season rehabilitating his game (or risk getting the boot from the Penguins), the play also really didn't appear to be premeditated. Senators tough guy Chris Neil attempted to engage Cooke later in the contest, and while Cooke failed to take the bait, he was ultimately assessed a game misconduct by the officials (ostensibly just to make sure nothing got out of hand).
Time to buy stock in Kevlar.
"There is a lot more to this story," Dater added, "but until O'Reilly is traded, I'm kind of bound by an agreement not to report anything until then. Sorry." So cryptic!
Of course, there's always the possibility that teams have tried and O'Reilly hasn't been interested — either because he doesn't want to leave Colorado, or because he wants to leave Colorado so much that he's frightened they'd match.
In fifth grade, I wrote a song about condors for class set to the tune of "A Whole New World." Sample lyrics: I'm an endangered bird / called the California condor / through the skies I gracefully soar / but my life isn't all just free / There's a price I must pay / for doing nothing but living / I thought humans were giving / but all they do is take away." Truly some of my best work.
Except: It really should be at least a misdemeanor to record videos in portrait mode like that. I've never forgiven Jay-Z for not turning his damn phone 90 degrees that time he taped Beyoncé. (Don't get too excited, pervs.)
The other two were the New York Islanders' John Tavares and now 17-year-old defenseman Aaron Ekblad.
The article even includes a table matching the "ALLEGED BITER" with the "AGGRIEVED BITEEE," (spelling theirs) which is so going to be the name of my fantasy team next season.