The Graves incident not only deeply injured Pittsburgh's chances of repeating as Stanley Cup champions, it furthered the NHL's image as a league of mayhem, and it tainted the playoffs, which resume tonight at the Civic Arena with the Rangers leading the best-of-seven series two games to one.
In announcing the suspension, Brian O'Neill, NHL executive vice president, said he did not think Graves' slash was intended to injure, but said it was reckless and careless. Graves got a two-minute minor penalty for the
"Graves did not attempt to play the puck," O'Neill said in a statement. ''He swung his stick high and appeared to go directly for the hands."
That conclusion was little consolation to Pittsburgh.
"A suspension doesn't even it out," Penguin winger Phil Bourque said yesterday. "The frustrating thing is there's nothing we can do to even it out. You want revenge. You want an eye for an eye, as the old saying goes. And you want the league to do something about it. Our best revenge is to beat them in the series.
"No doubt, though, we're the ones who got punished," Bourque continued. ''We lost a player who can't be replaced for something that was very illegal. So you can throw fairness out the window in this case. A tainted series? That's a good way of putting it."
Pens' coach Scott Bowman said of the suspension: "It's not going to bring Mario back, and it's probably not going to stop another guy from doing the same thing down the line."
The Penguins, also without 42-goal scorer Joe Mullen - because of a collision with the Rangers' Kris King and Paul Broten in Game 2 that left Mullen with a knee injury - conceded that Lemieux's absence drove them to dig deeper for Game 3. Indeed, their 50-shot effort in Thursday's 6-5 loss was inspired. Twice, the Pens came back from two-goal deficits.
Still, some numbers predict a grim outcome for Pittsburgh in this series. The Pens were 39-26-7 with Lemieux this season and 5-10-2 without him. Before he was injured, Lemieux was at the top of his magical game in the playoffs, having scored 19 points in seven games. He almost singlehandedly beat Washington in the opening round with his seven goals and 10 assists.
Also, it's unlikely the Penguins would have gone 1 for 10 on power plays on Thursday night if they'd had Lemieux, who was whacked 5 minutes, 5 seconds into Tuesday's game while setting up a power play. Since then, the Pens are 1 for 15 on power plays after going a remarkable 12 for 38 in their first eight playoff games.
Bob Errey, a gritty Pittsburgh winger, paused long and hard when asked if the Penguins can beat the regular season's top team without Lemieux.
"Well, I think so, but it'll definitely be a lot tougher," he said.
As if they needed any, the Penguins got more bad news yesterday: Mark Messier, the Rangers' fearless leader, skated for the first time since back spasms kept him out of the last two games, and he might play tonight. He said he felt 100 percent better. With a 2-1 lead and the home-ice advantage, the Rangers can afford to give Messier further rest.
"If he's healthy enough to make a contribution, you've got to go for it," Rangers coach Roger Neilson said yesterday.
Neilson, of course, dismissed suggestions that a Ranger victory in this series would be tainted because of Graves' slash. He said the Rangers' loss of Messier and Darren Turcotte (wrist) was equivalent to the loss of Lemieux and Mullen.
But Neilson's equation doesn't square. Lemieux and Mullen combined for 86 goals and 132 assists this season; Messier and Turcotte had 65 goals, 95 assists.
In any event, the NHL must do something to prevent the kind of senseless act Graves committed. Bowman thinks the two linesmen should be given authority to call penalties along with the referee.
"So much of this stuff is going on, and the fans pick up on it," Bowman said. "I think the league is running up against some problems. Yes, there has to be some dramatic changes. I mean, that was a helluva whack. One of the biggest I've ever seen."
As Lemieux hurried through a corridor of the team's office yesterday with the cast covering his left hand riding halfway up his forearm, Bowman paused in mid-sentence.
"Geez," Bowman said, shaking his head, "would you look at that."