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The Worst Injury in Sports

Plus: Insane comebacks! Killer saves! And the rest of the week in the NHL.

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.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

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.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

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.”

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • A public service announcement: Don’t let anyone tell you that the NHL is at the “quarter pole” of its season. That’s a horse-racing term that refers to the post marking the last quarter-mile of a race, not the beginning; it has nothing to do with anything being 25 percent finished. And yet it’s been co-opted and bastardized over the years to mean just that, and I want it to stop. Tell your friends. Write strongly worded letters to editors or, I dunno, Parliament. Let’s eradicate this plague here and now!
  • They brought a live condor6 to a Bakersfield Condors ECHL game and let’s just say … things flew out of hand. Everything about this video is borderline impossible to watch.

  • The not-always-fleet-of-foot Andrew Brunette won the award for best mini retirement speech, as told to the Star Tribune‘s Michael Russo: “I guess you can say I skated to the decision not to play. That’s why it took me so long. It took awhile to get there, just like everything else I did.”
  • Good-bye, sweet prince: The Columbus Blue Jackets announced Tuesday that they had fired embattled GM Scott Howson, who had been with the team since 2007. On the surface, it was odd timing — you’d think Howson would have gotten the boot during last season’s Rick Nash and Jeff Carter sagas, not the day after his team beat the San Jose Sharks 6-2 — but the move was made by president of hockey operations John Davidson, who was hired by the team this summer and has been looking to shake up a franchise that has appeared only once in the postseason since being founded in 2000. Howson will be replaced with Jarmo Kekäläinen, a Finnish former player who spent time with the Ottawa Senators and St. Louis Blues before returning to Finland to become GM of Jokerit. Kekäläinen will be the first European GM in the NHL and is said to have been selected in part for his scouting talents; he helped select players ranging from Alex Pietrangelo and Vladimir Tarasenko to Marian Hossa and Jason Spezza. With the Blue Jackets currently holding three first-round picks in what is expected to be a deep 2013 draft, he’ll have his work cut out for him. (It’s just too bad the Blue Jackets didn’t take up the Islanders on last year’s bananas offer at the draft!)
  • Boston Bruins play-by-play patriot Jack Edwards got a leeeeeettle excited on Tuesday when the Bruins came back from a 3-0 deficit to tie the New York Rangers in the closing minute, but the best part of the whole thing was how he immediately preempted all criticism. “Oh, he’s such a hooom-ah! He’s such a hooom-ah!” Edwards said, mimicking a Bostonian. “Get over it. You go to hockey games to get excited.” It’s hard to argue with that.

  • ESPN.com’s Pierre LeBrun reported Tuesday that talks have been ongoing between the NHL and NHLPA regarding realignment, after the attempt in 2011 to reconfigure the divisions fell through. As LeBrun explained, the league is due to have talks later this week with the IOC and IIHF to discuss the Sochi Olympics, which would cause a two- to three-week disruption in the NHL season should it decide to send its players; for that reason, everyone wants to have some sense of what the 2013-14 schedule might look like. Teams with most at stake include Dallas, Columbus, Detroit (all squads that frequently have to play several time zones away), and Winnipeg (which has been playing in the Southeast Division since being relocated from Atlanta). The likely outcome is a four-conference alignment — two with seven teams, two with eight, which kind of perfectly sets up for a two-team expansion down the road — that will seek to minimize travel and inter–time zone rivalries.
  • One player behind the New Jersey Devils’ early-season success? David Clarkson, who has nine goals and six assists in 13 games despite starting only 60 percent of his even-strength shifts in the defensive zone, according to Behind the Net. “His offensive role has increased, but he’s earned it,” said head coach Peter DeBoer, who also coached Clarkson back in their OHL days. “He earned that promotion and the ability to be the next guy after Zach [Parise] left.”
  • St. Louis Blues captain David Backes had some strong words for and about his teammates after the Blues finished a four-game home stand winless on Monday. And while St. Louis seemed to respond with a Wednesday-night 4-3 overtime win over rival Detroit, I couldn’t help but laugh when I read his rant: “It’s time to put the boots on and go do it or else pack your bags and go home because it’s slowly slipping, but there’s time left where we can right the ship and play our hockey,” Backes said, sounding a little bit like the character on SNL‘s “Weekend Update” who only speaks in clichés.
  • A Minnesota high school goalie apparently sought revenge on his coaches for cutting his playing time by nonchalantly slipping the puck in his own net, flipping the bird to his coaches, and then giving a Jagr-style salute. I realize this is a completely dickish thing to do and yet I really could not have enjoyed this video more.7

  • FUN FACT, via noted Ryanologist Tyler Dellow: 7.3 percent of players named Ryan in the NHL’s entire history are currently on the Edmonton Oilers roster — meaning that 3.6 percent of players named Ryan in the NHL’s entire history were healthy scratches on Tuesday night. These are the kinds of advanced statistics that really matter.
  • He’s barely 16 years old, but chances are you may have already heard of Connor McDavid. In March he was just the third player in Ontario Hockey League history to be granted “exceptional player” status,8 which allowed him to compete as a 15-year-old, and this fall he received an endorsement deal with Reebok for what was reported to be “the most significant deal Reebok has signed with a young hockey player since 2005, when it signed Sidney Crosby, 17 years old at the time.” McDavid and Crosby, who compared the young player to himself last fall, finally met this past Sunday after McDavid attended a Penguins game (and sat in Mario Lemieux’s private box, no less). “When the conversation began to wrap up,” the Tribune-Review‘s Josh Yohe wrote, “Crosby suggested McDavid could come see the Penguins play again.” And then he kicked at the dirt and asked him if he wanted to go see a movie sometime. I look forward to more of this beautiful relationship.
  • Speaking of Crosby, The Sporting News‘s Jesse Spector made an interesting observation: That game was his 82nd (including playoffs) since the start of his concussion-truncated 2010-11 campaign, and in that synthetic season he’s amassed 128 points off 48 goals and 80 assists. Those numbers are bolstered by the scoring streak he went on pre–head injury in the fall of 2010, of course, but they’re still impressive, and have increased steadily and quietly.
  • A few games to watch tonight: The Washington Capitals seek to capitalize off the momentum of their 6-5 comeback overtime win against Florida, while the Tampa Bay Lightning will try to turn around from a 0-4-1 stretch … Toronto looks for its fifth straight win against the Hurricanes, who lately have been gathering strength … and the Islanders and Rangers battle again for the second time in a week, with the Islanders hoping to avoid another outcome like this one.

And a Beauty! The Week’s Best in Net

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.

Chomping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

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.

Hockey Haiku

An Achilles torn
But take heart, Senators fans
There is still a God.

Filed Under: Hockey, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, Sports

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes

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