Irreplaceable Wings defenseman Kronwall suspended for Game 7

The Red Wings will have to play their biggest game of the season without their most important player.

Defenseman Niklas Kronwall will serve a one-game suspension for charging Tampa Bay’s Nikita Kuchorov and miss the series-deciding Game 7 Wednesday in Tampa. It is the first time Kronwall has been suspended, though he has a well-established reputation as one of the league’s fiercest hitters.

Kronwall leads all players in this series in ice time. He played a game-high 24:16 in Game 6. He plays in all situations — killing penalties, quarterbacking the power play and drawing the assignment with defense partner Jonathan Ericsson against the opposing team’s top players.

With no appeal process available, Detroit’s options are limited.

"Our options are (Jakub) Kindl or (Alexey) Marchenko," General Manager Ken Holland said.

Kucherov was skating up ice and had his head down when Kronwall leveled him just inside the Tampa Bay blue line near the Detroit bench late in the second period. No penalty was called on the play.

Kucherov was not injured and played the rest of the game. The score was 3-1 at the time, and Kucherov had assists on all three goals.

"I thought it was a clean hit at the time," Kronwall said after the game, adding at that he hadn’t yet seen the replay so he couldn’t say much about it.

Kucherov called the hit "just part of the game. . . Those things happen."

They do, but the league has intensified its enforcement of blows around the head in the wake of an epidemic of concussions that have shortened the careers of some of its best players. That said, however, its disciplinary record is inconsistent at best.

Indeed, the hit on Kucherov, when Kronwall appeared to leave his feet, looked bad.

But hardly worse than the cheap shot by Winnpeg’s Dustin Byfuglien on Anaheim’s Corey Perry — after a goal. And Byfuglien had been suspended four games just a few weeks earlier after a crosscheck on New York Rangers forward J.T. Miller.

And no worse than the hit from behind on Justin Abdelkader just a game earlier in this series. Abdelkader was defenseless and falling forward into the end boards and he was hit by two Tampa Bay players, Jason Garrison and captain Steven Stamkos, who was penalized for an elbow to Abdelkader’s head.

Heading into the game, Tampa Bay coach Jon Cooper and Stamkos were complaining about the referees swallowing their whistles in this series, especially when it came to all the alleged interference the Wings were committing. Yet Detroit is the most penalized team in the playoffs this spring, averaging almost six penalties per game.

Replacing Kronwall, arguably Detroit’s MVP this season for all he does for his team, is virtually impossible. He had just one assist and two penalty minutes through six games.

More important, Kronwall is the kind of quiet leader who steadies his teammates by sheer example. He’s the guy they want in the foxhole with them when the bullets are flying — as they will be at Amalie Arena on Wednesday.

Neither Kindl nor Marchenko are the kind of players who can step in and eat up the kind of hard minutes Kronwall plays.

Marchenko played the first two games of the series and was scoreless and minus-3. He had one goal and two points in 13 regular-season games this year. Kindl hasn’t played in these playoffs. He has five goals among 13 points in is post-season. In 18 career post-season games, he has one goal among five points.