NHL cleans it up for the playoffs

The National Hockey League’s 2010-11 season could be remembered as one of the most brutal in recent memory.

Although the league introduced a rule last summer designed to crack down on blindside hits targeting the head, the number of concussion-related injuries remained high.

Fighting, especially brawls involving multiple players, is no longer as frequent as it once was, yet there were several instances this season where such brawling broke out, reminding some observers of hockey’s wilder days in the 1970s.

With the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs approaching, it’s only natural to wonder if there will continue to be a significant number of head injuries, dirty hits and fights in the postseason.

That’s unlikely to happen. As a rule the players, particularly those with reputations for dirty play, tend to dial those tactics down in the postseason, when there is considerably more on the line than during the regular season.

That doesn’t mean cheap shots and dirty play disappear entirely in the heat of playoff action, but the tactics tend to become sneakier, not so much to injure but rather to draw retaliatory penalties.

Injuries as a result of questionable hits also don’t disappear in postseason play, but the number of such incidents tend to decline, especially in the championship round, as most players wish to avoid drawing a serious penalty or suspension that could potentially jeopardize their team’s chances of winning the Cup.

Fights are even rarer come playoff time. Most of the players whose sole purpose for being in the NHL is their pugilistic ability lack the skills to contribute elsewhere, and as a result either see very limited ice time or end up as healthy scratches.

While less frequent, instances of dirty play and injuries resulting from the same still occur in postseason play.

In the opening round of the 1993 playoffs, Washington Capitals forward Dale Hunter drew a 20-game suspension for a blindside hit on New York Islanders center Pierre Turgeon after the latter scored a late goal to seal an Islanders victory. Turgeon suffered a shoulder injury that significantly hampered his performance for the remainder of the playoffs.

Claude Lemieux was considered one of the best clutch scorers in playoff history, earning playoff MVP honors in 1995 helping the New Jersey Devils win the Stanley Cup.

He’s also remembered as one of the dirtiest players in league history, a reputation cemented in the 1996 Western Conference Final, rearranging the face of Detroit Red Wings forward Kris Draper with a check from behind that drove the unsuspecting Draper face first into the boards, earning a mere two-game suspension for that cheap shot.

Most recently, Chris Pronger earned one-game suspensions in the 2007 playoffs when, as a member of the Anaheim Ducks, he laid out Detroit Red Wings forward Tomas Holmstrom in the Western Conference Final and then-Ottawa Senators forward Dean McAmmond in the Stanley Cup Final with elbows to the head.

Head injuries, dirty hits and fighting will never entirely disappear from the NHL postseason, but it’s interesting to note how less frequently such instances occur in the intense pressure cooker of playoff hockey compared to the regular season.