TAMPA, FLA. (AP) - Tampa Bay’s Steve Downie expressed regret. Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz was remorseful, too.
The Lightning and Penguins each will be without a key player for Game 4 of their first round playoff series Wednesday night after the NHL suspended Downie and Kunitz one game apiece for hits delivered in separate incidents during the opening period of Pittsburgh 3-2 victory in Game 3.
Instead of debating the fairness of the discipline, both players said they wished they had been more careful. The Penguins lead the series 2-1.
“I’m very disappoined in myself,” Downie said Tuesday. “I felt like I let the team down.”
The league announced Tuesday that Downie was banned for Game 4 for leaving his feet and launching himself at the head of Pittsburgh’s Ben Lovejoy while the defenseman was making a play behind his own net. The hit drew a loud roar from a sellout crowd that was quickly silenced when the Penguins’ Maxime Talbot raced up ice with the puck and scored the game’s first goal.
“I was going in hard on a forecheck. I finished my hit and unfortunately it ended up the way it did . … Momentum carried me through and I ended up off my feet,” Downie said.
A delayed penalty was going to be assessed on the hit, but the call was nullified when Talbot scored his first goal of the series before the Lightning regained possession of the puck.
Although Lovejoy said he was not hit in the head, NHL senior executive vice president vice president Colin Campbell said in announcing the suspension: “Downie left his feet and launched himself at the head of his opponent and he came from a considerable distance, with speed and force, to deliver the check.”
“He didn’t get me in the head, but, he certainly was off the ice when he got me,” said Lovejoy, who got the lone assist on Talbot’s goal.
“I knew I was going to get hit. I wanted to make the play. I wanted to get the puck out,” Lovejoy added. “Max certainly made them pay for what happened. … Luckily he got me in the chest. He didn’t launch himself and hit me in the head. Thank you for that.”
Kunitz was suspended for elbowing Tampa Bay’s Simon Gagne in the head, drawing a minor penalty about five minutes after Downie leveled Lovejoy.
Although Gagne implied the blow was intentional, Kunitz insisted it wasn’t.
“I had my hearing this morning. Told my side of it. Obviously it looks bad. I never intentionally meant to hurt him. I’m glad that he’s OK and was able to finish the game,” Kunitz said.
“I was coming through the middle, getting ready to finish a check. … I had my arms in a bad spot, up in the air. He kind of spun and turned back towards me and I went to brush him in the shoulder and I got him in the head,” Kunitz added. “Not very responsible on my side. I’ve definitely got to be careful, but I’m glad he’s OK.”
Gagne declined to speculate on whether the league should have imposed a longer suspension on Kunitz.
“The league looked at it and made a decision that it was a one-game suspension,” the Lightning forward said.
“I don’t know if it’s enough, but still it’s for one game. He’s a good player and he’s not going to be able to play for them,” Gagne added. “It’s going to be a big loss for them. He’s a big part of their team.”
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Mike Comrie or Eric Tangradi, both scratches for Game 3 on Monday night, could replace Kunitz for Game 4. Marc-Andre Bergeron is among the options Lightning coach Guy Boucher is considering as a fill-in for Downie.
Meanwhile, there’s been no change in the status of Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who has been out since January because of a concussion.
“He was on the ice today skating with the team,” Bylsma said after practice at the St. Pete Times Forum. “Nothing has changed. His rehab today prescribed by the doctor was back on the ice.”
After regaining home-ice advantage on Monday night, the Penguins will be looking to take a commanding lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference matchup. Game 5 is Saturday in Pittsburgh.
“Obviously we want to get back in our building with a 3-1 lead. They’ll be a desperate hockey club. It should be a great game,” Penguins right wing Pascal Dupuis said.
“It’s huge for both teams, obviously,” Talbot added. “We’re going to keep doing what we’ve doing, but at the same time we know how they’re going to come out. It’s important for them to have a good start and to score the first goal. We know they’re going to do everything they can to get it.”
The Lightning, which has nine players who made their playoff debut in the series opener, said its important they not dwell on losing Game 3.
“We know what we did wrong, the mitsakes we made on the ice,” captain Vincent Lecavalier said. “We’ve just got to rebound, reload and make sure we’re ready.”
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