Shanahan's pivotal postseason role

At the end of the Boston Bruins' win over the Washington Capitals last night, Washington center Nicklas Backstrom took exception to Rich Peverley tripping his captain. He retaliated with a cross check to Peverley's head, earning a match penalty. He now faces an automatic suspension that could be rescinded by the league.

"I think the league will review it and rescind it," Capitals coach Dale Hunter said during his postgame news conference. "It was not that bad."

It was just the latest incident in an NHL postseason that is evolving into one of the most physical and dangerous in recent memory. All in a season in which so much focus was made off the ice by the players, general managers and the league to improve safety and cut down on concussions.

"One of the reasons, it's the emotional playoffs," said Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom. "I also think that when the NHL came in this year to try and go after head shots and emphasize head shots, this is the first playoffs. A new rule is implemented, it's a learning process for the league as well to see how they handle things that have been going on so far."

Those in the heat of the battles certainly don't seem to mind the added physicality and nastiness these playoffs have provided. Last night, Hunter shrugged off the growing chippiness in his team's series, saying the third period resembled a rugby game with all the scrums.

"That happens sometimes," he said.

The Philadelphia Flyers' series with the rival Pittsburgh Penguins is being played like it just arrived from the 1970s, and coach Peter Laviolette told reporters that he heard from friends and colleagues who called Sunday's game the most entertaining they'd seen in a long time.

Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said he enjoyed watching the Penguins and Flyers go at it Sunday.

"I just think it's a bunch of guys having a good time," he said.

For the most part, his team's series against the Nashville Predators has stayed on the right side of hard play versus cheap play line.

"You're fighting for inches on the ice," Nashville coach Barry Trotz said. "A lot of the grind, the battles. There hasn't been the nasty stuff."

Aside, of course, from one incident. It was this series that produced Shea Weber turnbuckling Henrik Zetterberg into the glass in Game 1, a move that resulted in only a $2,500 fine for the Predators captain. That decision by league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan set the tone for these playoffs, with the message clear: Unless a player is injured, there will not be an overreaction from the league office.

The result of that was Sunday's chaotic Game 3 between the Flyers and Penguins, a game that became one of the most talked about first-round games in a long time. The ratings were outstanding, making it the most watched NHL playoff game outside the Stanley Cup finals since 2002, when the Avalanche played the Red Wings in the Western Conference finals. And it's fitting, because the Penguins and Flyers are emerging as the best true rivalry since Colorado and Detroit regularly squared off in hate-fueled showdowns. They were games you couldn't miss. Just like Pittsburgh versus Philadelphia.

It raises the question: Is this surge in physical play and fighting a positive because it's driving interest, even at the risk of decreased player safety?

There's certainly an appetite for it among fans, who watched the weekend games at a 50 percent increase over last year's playoffs.

"I think that this time of year, the good far outweighs the bad," said Predators general manager David Poile. "There are some characteristics of the game I'd like to see us clean up. I can't speak for the majority of the people but it's never going to be 100 percent perfect when you're dealing with physicality. If we want this to be a non-contact sport, then we won't be dealing with any of this. There's nobody who wants that."

It's made Shanahan the most important person in this postseason outside of those on the ice. His decisions have an impact on entire series, and when games are this close, it's not a stretch to say his choices will play a part in who advances and who doesn't.

Shanahan opted not to suspend Weber, and Weber has two goals in the two games following the Zetterberg incident. Nashville has a 2-1 series lead. Shanahan opted to suspend Carl Hagelin three games for elbowing Daniel Alfredsson, a notable decision especially since Shanahan said at the GMs meeting that he's treating each series almost as a seven-game season. The Rangers eeked out a 1-0 win over the Senators last night but clearly missed Hagelin and his aggressive forechecking.

In San Jose, Brent Burns scored a crucial early goal for the Sharks last night, although it wasn't enough to slow the Blues, who were dominant defensively in a 4-3 win. Ask Blues fans, and they'll let you know they think Burns shouldn't have been playing in that game at all because of his elbow to the back of Scott Nichol's head on Saturday. Give Nichol credit, though; he wasn't campaigning.

"My head is still attached to my shoulders, so no problem," Nichol told David Pollak of the San Jose Mercury News. "No one in this room is looking for the league to help us out."

As each game in each series grows in importance and the animosity between teams heightens as they become more familiar with each other, it's only going to get more intense. It makes each Shanahan decision even more important. In March, he presented the general managers with a series of video clips and explained why he suspended a player or in some cases why he didn't. With the playoffs closing in, he wanted to make sure everyone was on board with the decision-making outside the heat of the moment. He was prepared for this, but sometimes there's only so much you can prepare for.

"Just like preparing for a game, no matter what the season series is like ... it's not going to be exactly the same in the playoffs," Poile said. "By observing all these playoff series, there's been a lot of things that are totally unexpected. A lot of it is totally uncharacteristic. It changes everything, no matter how much you prepare, how many topics you think you cover. In this game, something happens different every game that you were never expecting. Then you have to deal with it."