The NHL Department of Player Safety needs to get to the bottom of this quickly. The video evidence against Lightning captain Steven Stamkos allegedly spitting on Alexis Lafrenière appears damning, yet not conclusive. Why else would he cock his head back and lunge forward with his lips puckered at the Rangers left wing?
Stamkos looks to hock a loogie at Lafrenière while being separated by officials on the ice. The two had a rare NHL playoff fight after the final whistle of Tampa Bay’s 3-1 victory over New York on Thursday night, the first game of the Eastern Conference finals where the home team wasn’t victorious.
The duo traded punches while tumbling to the ice and being pulled apart by a pair of referees. After separation, Stamkos does the spitting motion, although no saliva can be unquestionably seen coming from the mouth of the Tampa captain. But why else would you make that motion though? There’s no need to move your head in that direction for just trash talk. It’s a bad look for Stamkos, who’s had a relatively clean career with only a pair of $5,000 fines to his disciplinary record.
The Rangers are 5-0 in elimination games in the 2022 playoffs and will have to improve that mark to seven consecutive wins to qualify for the Stanley Cup. Game 6, with the Lightning up 3-2 in the series, takes place Saturday night in Tampa. If Stamkos did spit on Lafrenière, he’d be lucky to suit up for that one. An investigation from DoPS needs to be swift considering how vital Stamkos has been for the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions.
Seeing no discharge from Stamkos hitting Lafrenière isn’t enough to clear his name, nor is it concrete proof that a Bret Hart monster phlegm-job at Survivor Series 1997 didn’t occur. Either way, a statement needs to be made from the league as to what exactly transpired. Silence is compliance and wouldn’t the NHL want to clear the name of one of its biggest stars? Or punish Stamkos and make sure we’re not going to have a spitting epidemic for the home stretch of the season?
Playoff suspensions are rare, as there has only been three this postseason, each lasting one game. There’s no way the NHL will hesitate if an investigation leads to clear evidence. And if this is all somehow misunderstood, Stamkos will play in Game 6. It should be crystal clear soon, unlike the best angles of Tampa’s captain allegedly spitting.
There aren’t too many instances of NHL players spitting on an opponent. Capitals forward Garnet Hathaway was suspended for three games when he spat on then-Anaheim defenseman Erik Gudbranson in Nov, 2019. Roberto Alomar spitting in an umpire’s face in 1996 changed the trajectory of his baseball career and he never outran that stigma. In March, UCLA basketball player Mac Etienne pled not guilty to a misdemeanor assault charge after he was caught on video spitting at fans following a game in Arizona.
The last player to be suspended in a conference final or later was a member of the Lightning in Alex Killorn, getting a one-game suspension in 2020 for an illegal hit against the Islanders. Blues forward Ivan Barbashev was suspended for one game of the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals for a hit to the head of then-Bruin Marcus Johansson.
Having Stamkos on the chopping block is unprecedented territory for the NHL, as one of the game’s elite players could be suspended for a pivotal game, deep into the postseason. In nearly every sense, it benefits the NHL to have the Rangers in the Stanley Cup Final over Tampa, or at least get to a crucial Game 7 back in New York.
The team representing the league’s biggest market moves the financial and television needle way more than a third straight appearance for the Lightning. It’s possible a suspension without indisputable evidence would be seen as the NHL trying to hand New York the series as best it can on a silver platter. That wouldn’t be close to a sure thing as a Stamkos-less Lightning squad still has the talent to beat the Rangers.
If Stamkos is found to have spat at Lafrenière, he needs to be suspended for three games, just like Hathaway. That would cost him the rest of the series and one game next season, or at least one Stanley Cup Final game against the Avalanche. His star power shouldn’t be able to save him here.