From Comcast SportsNetNHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's vision of a bigger footprint for hockey is finally coming into focus.But it's not just the skyrocketing TV ratings for these playoffs in markets both traditional, like Philly, Boston and Chicago, and those traditionally slow to come around, like Los Angeles, Miami and Phoenix. It's the tire marks on the backs of the jerseys of some of the league's best players. The game has never been more popular, nor seemed so out of control.The latest to get run over was the Blackhawks' Marian Hossa, who was taken off the ice in Chicago on a stretcher and briefly hospitalized after absorbing a blow to the head from a shoulder hit launched by Phoenix's Raffi Torres. Everybody in the building saw it -- including apparently Bettman himself, who was in attendance -- except the four officials whose job it is to police that kind of mayhem. And because they didn't see it, according to a league statement issued after the game, they didn't call a penalty, despite the fact that Torres left his skates to deliver the blow."First off, I hope he's all right," Torres, a serial offender as cheap shots go, said after the game. "But as far as the hit goes, I felt like it was a hockey play. I was just trying to finish my hit out there, and, as I said, I hope he's all right."Chicago coach Joel Quenneville was so mad after the game that he was sputtering."It was a brutal hit. You can have a multiple-choice question, it's All of the above.' I saw exactly what happened, it was right in front of me, and all four guys missed it."The refereeing tonight," he added, "was a disgrace."It was. But even the best officiating crews are helpless against the tide of fights, cross-checks, hits to the head and sneak attacks that is overwhelming some otherwise very entertaining hockey. They aren't getting much help, either, from league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan, whose decisions grow more bizarre with each incident that reaches his desk. Shanahan began by letting Nashville's Shea Weber off with a 2,500 fine -- roughly the cost of one shift -- after the All-Star purposely smashed the head of Detroit forward Henrik Zetterberg into the glass at the end of Game 1 of their series. Then he suspended Chicago's Andrew Shaw and New York's Carl Hagelin for three games each after both hit opponents without obvious intent during the run of play.Cross-checking, hair-pulling, instigating fights -- Shanahan has handed out punishments for all those violations, too, with differing results. As a former player of some stature, he took the job determined to bring some predictability to the punishment his office doles out and even explained his decisions with accompanying video evidence. But lately those explanations have been all over the map. Players no longer know whether the line is being drawn at intent or result -- injuring another player -- or even the star power of the violator who winds up in the dock. So everybody, from Sidney Crosby to repeat offenders like Torres are getting in on the action.After winning 3-2 in overtime Tuesday night, Phoenix goalie Mike Smith was asked about the different sentences being handed out and whether he trusted the NHL front office to get each one right. In Game 2, the Blackhawks' Shaw ran over Smith, who has a history of concussions, behind his net and got the three-game sentence, even though the goalkeeper hasn't missed a minute of playing time. Even more maddening -- as far as the Blackhawks were concerned -- was that the length of Shaw's suspension wasn't announced until Tuesday afternoon, once it was determined Smith would play in Game 3. Had he been unable to go, presumably Shaw's suspension would have been even longer."I don't know if it's a trust factor. It's a tough job. Whether it's blatant, on purpose, or not. It's tough to get that read up there," Smith said. "Obviously, the head hits have to be cut down. It's people's livelihoods, not hockey ... people have families and kids at home and wives, and when we're getting into head and concussion issues around the whole league, I think we need to put a stop to it."But the NHL's commitment to limit concussions is either full-time, as it has been for the past few seasons and most of this one, or it's not. The league knows the difference, but it also knows that pandemonium on the ice is a lot easier for plenty of viewers to follow than a puck. Sold-out arenas and through-the-roof TV ratings across the board, including towns like Phoenix -- whose Coyotes may well be playing in another city next season -- are a testament to that.Back in January, even as the league was touting the fact that fights-per-game had dropped to low levels not seen since the mid-70s, Toronto general manager Brian Burke groused out loud about having to send his enforcer, Colton Orr, down to the Leafs' American Hockey League affiliate.Burke, who once held Shanahan's job, said his team was barely able to use Orr -- he appeared in just five of Toronto's 39 games -- because hardly anyone wanted to fight him. He predicted that abandoning the code that governed who fought and when would result in more players taking cheap shots and seeking revenge in even more dangerous ways."I wonder where we're going with it, that's the only lament I have on this," he said at the time. "The fear that if we don't have guys looking after each other, that the rats will take this game over."Too late. They already have.
There's one week to go in the Big Ten regular season.
Thing is, though that means just two games apiece for the 14 teams, seemingly nothing has been determined yet. Just a game separates Purdue and Wisconsin at the top of the standings, and a trio of squads — Maryland, Minnesota and Michigan State — are tied for third place a game behind the the Badgers. Mathematically, any one of those five could win at least a share of the Big Ten title.
The picture isn't much clearer when it comes to the NCAA tournament. The teams that were locks a week ago are mired in losing stretches now, and teams that figured to be on the bubble are rising in the standings, creating an entirely new group of bubble teams.
This year has been a mediocre one for the conference, making it hard to peg which groups belong in the field of 68 or not. Seemingly, though, that's a national trend, and ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi had seven Big Teams in his projection on Monday.
With one week left in the regular season, here's a team-by-team look at who it looks like will go dancing, who doesn't have a chance and who still might have some work to do.
Illinois Fighting Illini
In or out: Hard to say
John Groce's team is surging, blowing out Nebraska over the weekend to pick up its fourth win in its last five games. That stretch includes two wins over a stumbling Northwestern team, wins that are unfortunately losing heft as the Wildcats keep piling up late-season losses. But there's no doubting that the Illini are playing a much better brand of basketball lately, with defense powering wins. The last two Illinois opponents have scored fewer than 60 points. Playing better against the likes of Nebraska and Iowa won't mean much without a signature win in there. Wednesday night brings an opportunity against Michigan State. Win that one, and the Illini would suddenly — and miraculously, given a 3-8 start to conference play — be in the conversation for a spot in the Dance.
In or out: Hard to say
For some reason, the Hoosiers have remained in the "will they or won't they" conversation despite a dreadful season. Saturday night's win over Northwestern stopped Indiana's five-game losing streak, but with the Cats mired in their own losing stretch — and blowing that game with a last-second foul — how impressive is that win, exactly? Indiana sticking on the NCAA tournament bubble despite its 6-10 conference record and current 10th-place standing is a little head-scratching, but it's hard also to completely discount the resume, which features those early season non-conference wins over Kansas and North Carolina. A win like those the rest of the way — like in Tuesday night's bout with rival Purdue — could crank the conversation up surrounding the Hoosiers' candidacy for a spot in the Dance.
In or out: Out
It was a brief flirtation with the NCAA tournament bubble for the Hawkeyes, but it looks like Fran McCaffery's young team will have to wait till next year. Maybe things change if Iowa deals yet another loss to Wisconsin on Thursday night. After all, the Hawkeyes already have wins over Purdue, Michigan and Maryland teams all seemingly destined for the Dance. But with a max 18 possible wins in the regular season, would that be enough to even start the conversation? After all, these selection-committee folks have a long memory (as evidenced by the fact that they're still talking about Indiana), and Iowa had that disastrous run during non-conference play where it dropped five of six. It would seem Hawkeyes' fans' eyes should be on next season's tournament.
In or out: In
Mark Turgeon's team is on a three-game losing streak after getting thumped good by Iowa over the weekend. But already with double-digit wins in the conference and a whopping 22 wins overall, it would seem nothing could knock the Terps out of the field of 68. That doesn't mean, of course, that their seed won't take a beating from this losing stretch, which has featured losses in five of their last seven games.
In or out: In
The Wolverines seemingly played their way into the Dance with a big win over Purdue on Saturday. Michigan is one of the hottest teams in the conference right now, a winner in five of its last six games. From flirting with disaster to a surefire lock, Michigan is a No. 8 seed in Lunardi's latest projection, and that number could go even higher if the Wolverines keep things going. The two games that remain on the regular-season schedule come on the road, where Michigan has won only twice this season. But those games are against a struggling Northwestern team and a beatable Nebraska team. If the Wolverines win both games, that's closing the season on a seven-out-of-eight run to produce an even more favorable Big Ten Tournament matchup. Talk about getting hot at the right time.
Michigan State Spartans
In or out: In
Much like their in-state rivals, a big win over the weekend figured to secure a tournament spot for the Spartans, who took care of business against a stumbling Wisconsin team on Sunday in East Lansing. A team that's found itself in that "last four in" discussion this season seems safe with a No. 9 seed in Lunardi's latest projection. A brutal non-conference season that featured five losses will stick in the memory of the committee, but since Sparty has picked up wins over Michigan, Northwestern, Wisconsin and two over currently red-hot Minnesota. Freshmen Nick Ward, Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston are playing real well right now, and Michigan State has won four of its last five. Holding off Illinois on Wednesday night would do the Spartans a lot of good. A win this weekend over Maryland might lock things up.
Minnesota Golden Gophers
In or out: In
There's no Big Ten team hotter than the Gophers, who have won seven straight, a streak that includes wins over tourney-goers Maryland and Michigan. Minnesota's playing great on the offensive end and scoring a lot of points. More importantly it's redeeming a midseason five-game losing streak that had at least this observer questioning what all the fuss was about. Well, there's no questioning that anymore, and the resume looks terrific: a 12-1 non-conference record with a win over Arkansas and the only loss to Florida State, plus a potential top-four finish in the Big Ten with wins over Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan and Maryland. The cherry on top would be a win in the regular-season finale over rival Wisconsin. Oh, and given their current streaking, the Gophers might be the favorite heading into the Big Ten Tournament.
In or out: Out
Conference play started with such promise for the Huskers, who won their first three Big Ten games. But they've won just three Big Ten games since and at 6-10 are tied with three others in the second-to-last spot in the conference standings. Glynn Watson Jr. and Tai Webster have been good this year, but it'll be a third straight year without an NCAA tournament trip. But considering that Tim Miles-led appearance was the program's first since 1998, there's certainly no reason for Nebraska brass to have anything but full confidence in its head coach.
In or out: Hard to say
Maybe I'm being an alarmist, but Northwestern's crash-and-burn finish to the regular season puts into question what was very recently lock status for the Wildcats. Chris Collins' crew was 7-2 in the Big Ten when Scottie Lindsey had to take a four-game absence with mono. Since, the Cats have lost five of seven — including two to Illinois — and can't do a thing at the offensive end. Saturday night's collapse at Indiana was the latest and most painful way Northwestern has lost during this recent stretch. The final two regular-season games come in Evanston, but they're against really good Michigan and Purdue teams. It's not difficult to envision the regular season ending in a four-game losing streak with losses in seven of nine. Would that be enough to kick Northwestern out of the field of 68? It remains to be seen. Lunardi still has the Cats at a No. 10 seed a week after assuring everyone they were a lock. If they keep losing — and what if that includes their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, too? — will he have to change his rosy outlook?
Ohio State Buckeyes
In or out: Out
The worst year of the Thad Matta Era is about to come to a merciful end. A 10-3 non-conference season with losses to UCLA and Virginia set the Buckeyes up for a potential tourney run, but they started league play with a four-game losing streak and never recovered, just last week snapping a three-game losing streak with a win over Wisconsin. There's a chance to end the season on a positive note with two winnable games left against Penn State and Indiana. That could dig Ohio State out of the bottom four and avoid the dreaded Wednesday games in the Big Ten Tournament. But certainly right now, nothing seems possible — short of an unexpected conference-tournament run to a championship — that would vault it into the Big Dance.
Penn State Nittany Lions
In or out: Out
There are a lot of reasons to be excited in Happy Valley, and it looks like 2018 is a real possibility for the program's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2011. It won't be 2017, though, as everyone can tell. But the play of Tony Carr and Lamar Stevens, not to mention plenty of other guys who aren't Philly freshmen, has to have people pleased with the direction Patrick Chambers is taking his program. Winnable games remain against Ohio State and Iowa, plus there's potential noise to be made in the Big Ten Tournament. It could all end up with just the second above-.500 finish of the Chambers Era.
In or out: In
One of the most obvious locks in the conference, the Boilers will likely enter the Big Ten Tournament as the popular pick to win the whole thing, and they'll likely enter the NCAA tournament with the best chance of any Big Ten team to make the deepest run. That being said, not everything is perfect in West Lafayette. Purdue is coming off a weekend loss to Michigan, that after sweating out a midweek overtime win at Penn State. Both those games came away from home, and getting back to Mackey for Tuesday night's showdown with rival Indiana should be a positive for Matt Painter's bunch. The regular-season wraps against a stumbling Northwestern team in Evanston. There's no reason to doubt the Boilers will get an invite to the Big Dance, but already the selection committee's boxing out of the Big Ten from its top 16 a few weeks back looks prophetic.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights
In or out: Out
Yes, Rutgers is still residing in the 14th spot in the Big Ten standings, but in the first year under new head coach Steve Pikiell, the Knights have certainly played better than their record indicates. That doesn't mean they'll upset Maryland or Illinois in this final week or that they won't finish with just two league wins. But if Pikiell's group can get just one more win this week or in the Big Ten Tournament, it will have doubled last season's win total.
In or out: In
The Badgers are a lock, but if they want anything besides a first-round exit, they better figure out what the problem is and fix it fast. If Wisconsin hadn't racked up 21 wins by early February and if the Big Ten wasn't so mediocre this season, this recent stretch of four losses in five games would be looked upon as an epic collapse. Instead, Greg Gard's group is just one game back of first place in the conference standings and could still manage the Big Ten Tournament's No. 1 seed even with this stretch of poor play. Coming off back-to-back road losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, Wisconsin gets its shot at redemption Thursday night against Iowa before a big weekend bout with red-hot Minnesota. The Badgers don't have to worry about their NCAA tournament spot vanishing, but their AP top-25 ranking is about to disappear.
The Blackhawks agreed to one-year contract extensions with defenseman Michal Rozsival and forward Jordin Tootoo, the team announced Tuesday.
Rozsival's deal is worth $650,000 while Tootoo's deal carries a $700,000 cap hit, according to ESPN's Pierre LeBrun.
The move gives the Blackhawks two players eligible to be exposed during this summer's expansion draft.
NHL teams must expose two forwards and one defenseman that have played at least 40 games in 2015-16 or more than 70 in 2016-17, and they must be under contract in 2017-18.
Rozsival and Tootoo meet those requirements, which means the Blackhawks can now protect Ryan Hartman, who is also eligible.
They are allowed to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goaltender or eight skaters (regardless of position) and one goaltender.
Rozsival, 38, has one goal and one assist in 16 games this season, often serving as the team's extra defenseman. Tootoo, 34, has no points in 36 games.