Duhatschek: Carson Soucy’s cross-check to Connor McDavid’s face was reckless. What will the NHL do?

So, for most of Sunday night’s game between the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers, there were two parallel narratives — one on the ice, one on social media.

On the ice: How Vancouver was badly winning the goalie battle, rookie Arturs Silovs, playing exceptionally well (and much better than his Oilers counterpart Stuart Skinner). Silovs stopped 41 of 44 shots. He was the absolute difference maker in a 4-3 Vancouver win, which gave the Canucks a 2-1 series lead in the NHL’s Western Conference semifinal.

On social media: How referee bias was working against the Oilers, who were not getting their fair share of the calls, from the refereeing tandem of Chris Rooney and Graham Skilliter.

But in the end, the dirtiest play of the night came once the final whistle had blown; and Silovs had made one final stop to win the game in regulation.

Connor McDavid was behind the net, jousting with Carson Soucy. Soucy cross-checked McDavid, and McDavid slashed him back on the pants. It wasn’t much — or until Soucy’s defence partner, Nikita Zadorov joined the fray. As Zadorov cross-checked McDavid from behind, causing his knees to buckle, Soucy cross-checked him in the throat.

That hit definitely crossed the line.

Yes, playoff hockey is intense. Yes, teams generally can’t leave well enough alone once the final whistle blows because these are best-of-seven series, and once Game 3 is over, the posturing for Game 4 begins.

The Canucks will be lucky, however, if they get to Game 4, with Soucy in the lineup.

A cross-check to the face, like the one he delivered, took punishment to another level. In the end, Soucy did get a minor penalty assessed at the buzzer, which is completely inconsequential if the NHL doesn’t follow up with supplementary discipline.

NHL playoff hockey is of course a different animal than the regular season. Some players are just built for it — Zadorov is a case in point. Zadorov — acquired from the Calgary Flames in a trade earlier this season — was added because of his size and willingness to play a physical game. At times, his regular-season play was erratic. But in the playoffs, and especially in this series against the Oilers, he’s been a powerful, intimidating force.

At one point in Sunday’s game, he finished a check on Evander Kane, which knocked Kane into the Edmonton player bench. Not content with simply driving Kane right off the ice surface, Zadorov followed up with two more pushes to ensure he stayed there. That earned him a roughing penalty. Still, it didn’t end up costing the Canucks a thing because the Oilers were themselves dinged for a bench minor, for retaliating from the bench.

The Canucks acquired Zadorov just for these playoff moments — he understands that in playoff hockey, someone needs to play the role of the villain for Vancouver, because if no one does, then the McDavids and Leon Draisaitls will eventually make you pay.

Zadorov can also be crafty about it. Presumably, he understood his blindside postgame cross-check to McDavid was just borderline enough to escape further NHL justice. So thinking strategically.

Soucy, on the other hand, got carried away with the last response. You just can’t cross-check someone across the throat, at any moment in time. The NHL’s player safety department has been eerily quiet thus far in these playoffs, even as officiating controversies rage from game to game and series to series.

The fact that it was McDavid on the receiving end of that double-barreled cross-check adds further fuel to the fire. Remember, less than three years ago, a popular narrative was how McDavid couldn’t get a break from the NHL referees — that statistically, he drew very few penalties, considering his skill level, his ice time and his production.

The controversy came to a head in November of 2021, at a time when McDavid was second in the league in scoring but only 57th when it came to drawing penalties. And this after he’d gone an entire playoff the year before without drawing a penalty call — unimaginable really, considering the way he plays.

When McDavid commented on that finally, he was called out by none other than John Tortorella, who was then between coaching jobs, working as a broadcaster for ESPN. Tortorella advised him to “honestly, just shut up. Stop talking about it.”

It almost seemed as if McDavid, because he had an overdrive that mere mortals couldn’t match, took more punishment than warranted because he was so good.

In time, the moment passed, and the controversy faded.

There is sometimes a perception that the NHL goes out of its way not to protect elite players, because it might show favoritism. This of course is nonsense. Players only ever want one thing from the referees — consistency, as much as possible, from shift to shift and period to period and game to game.

In other words, the same treatment for journeyman players as for the stars of the game. But consistency has to cut both ways too. You can’t ignore what happened here, just because this was McDavid, getting manhandled. What Soucy did was reckless and dangerous. A suspension almost certainly has to be coming. If not, what is already a rowdy Oilers-Canucks series has a real chance of descending into real mayhem.

(Photo: Paul Swanson / NHLI via Getty Images)

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