TAMPA BAY - The shaky scales of NHL justice eventually balanced for the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday.
But players on both teams are still wondering about the mixed messages of the suspensions meted out by Colin Campbell's office.
On one hand, forwards Steve Downie and Chris Kunitz should be grateful that separate, but dangerous, incidents in Game 3 will only result in a one-night hiatus from the playoffs.
The Pens are certainly breathing easier, as Kunitz is more valuable to their plans as a second-liner with 48 points in the wake of injuries to Sidney Crosby and Evegni Malkin. But his elbow to the head of Simon Gagne seemed more blatant than Downie leaving his feet to hit Ben Lovejoy of the Pens in the upper chest.
"Pavel Kubina got three games for us for the same thing (Kunitz did) earlier in the year," Gagne said. "(Kubina) didn't intend to hit the guy in the head, but he's a tall guy.
"Kunitz is a good player for them and it's a big loss, but on the other side, we lose Downie."
Downie lined up Lovejoy behind his net while going full tilt and went airborne for added oomph. It was similar but not as devastating as the notorious 2007 pre-season hit, when Downie came from nowhere to flatten Ottawa's Dean McAmmond and sent him off on a stretcher with a concussion. That hit resulted in a 20-game suspension for Downie.
Lovejoy didn't miss a shift and said afterward he didn't believe Downie had targeted his head, though NHL senior vice-president Campbell diagreed.
"I've got a lot of respect for Lovejoy saying it was a hockey play," Downie said. "(Tuesday's league hearing) didn't get into justifying what it was. I was going hard on the forecheck and it ended up the way it did. My momentum carried me forward. I'm disappointed (in the ruling). I feel like I let the team down. I'm not going to compare the two (his hit and Kunitz's)."
Kunitz did seem to be aiming for Gagne's head, which has suffered at least one serious injury in his time, followed by a pinched nerve in his neck this season.
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said the rogue elbow was not in Kunitz's nature.
"He plays hard and physical, but a straight-up game," Bylsma said. "This is the first time he has had a hearing in a long time.
"He plays well defensively, he has a net presence, he creates room. He adds speed and straight lines to our game.-
When it was put to Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher why a head shot, whether it fully connected or not, would be given the same sentence as an over-zealous bodycheck, he laughed nervously and tried not to get himself in hot water.
"There's a question," he agreed. "But, fair or not, we'll both be missing players for (Wednesday)."
Both hits were deemed worthy of minor penalties.
"My arm was in a bad spot," Kunitz admitted. "(Gagne) stretched out, I went to brush him in the shoulder and got him in the head. Not very responsible on my part. I pride myself on playing hard, but within the rules. You don't want to leave your team short a man."
Gagne wasn't sure what to think of Tuesday's ruling, happy that he escaped injury and that Kunitz was punished, but upset at the ongoing inconsistency of these decisions. In the case of Downie, it didn't look too different than Raffi Torres clobbering Brent Seabrook in the Vancouver-Chicago series.
"It's hard to know what's illegal and what's not," Gagne said. "Look at the whole season. I've never seen so many cheap shots. It's getting worse and worse and (there's more intensity) in playoffs."