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NHL’s delivery of justice on hit is a day late

Anyone looking to Mike Murphy to save the NHL’s integrity while punishing Vancouver defenseman Aaron Rome for his late hit on Boston winger Nathan Horton in Game 3 of the Stanley Cup finals got a mixed message, nothing new from the league and whoever is wearing its Lord of Discipline cape on any given day.

Murphy, charged with reviewing the crushing blow because the son of chief knuckle-whacker Colin Campbell plays for the Bruins, said he suspended Rome four games because the hit was late and the injury was serious. Horton, a top-line winger who had eight goals and 17 points in 20 playoff games, suffered a severe concussion and spent Monday night in Massachusetts General Hospital. He was released Tuesday morning, around the time Rome was pleading his case with Murphy, but won’t return to the finals.

Rome, a useful but interchangeable bottom-six defenseman, won’t return either. If the finals end before his sentence does the suspension will carry over to next season. The Canucks, whose series lead was cut to 2-1 after the inspired Bruins administered an 8-1 thrashing, probably will bring Keith Ballard into Game 4 Wednesday at TD Garden. Horton’s place is likely to go to rookie Tyler Seguin.

“Nathan’s been huge for us. He’s been a big part of the reason we’re here,” teammate Chris Kelly said. “He’s a tough guy to replace.

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“You never want to see anyone on the ice like that, regardless if it’s your team or the other team. I don’t think it’s part of the game. It’s a part of the game the league wants to take out.”

It might have been avoided had Murphy established control by suspending Vancouver’s Alex Burrows for biting the fingers of Boston’s Patrice Bergeron in Game 1 or punished Vancouver’s Maxim Lapierre for putting his fingers near Bergeron’s mouth in a taunting fashion in Game 2. When Game 3 disintegrated, Bruins forwards Mark Recchi and Milan Lucic joined the juvenile pranks, taunting and wagging fingers at the Canucks.

“I will be speaking with both general managers and coaches before the day’s over about what we are seeing, the garbage that is going on, some of the issues,” Murphy said Tuesday during a news conference.

Just like Rome’s hit, Murphy’s lecture came a little too late.

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Before imposing the longest suspension levied during the Cup finals, Murphy said he consulted colleagues, including Brendan Shanahan, who will inherit the job next season, and Brian Burke, a former NHL disciplinarian and now general manager of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Murphy asked if they had a formula to weigh the seriousness of missing a finals game versus regular-season games, a factor Campbell mentioned in suspending then-Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger one finals game for elbowing Ottawa’s Dean McAmmond in the head in 2007.

“Guys play all their lives to get to this series, and you might never get back. So I take it very seriously,” Murphy said. “I wish I wasn’t sitting here. I wish Aaron was playing, and I wish Nathan was playing.”

Murphy acted on his gut feelings and tied the sentence to Horton’s injury rather than ruling on the act alone. “This is mine, no one else’s,” Murphy said of the decision.

He emphasized he didn’t consider Rome’s blow illegal under Rule 48, which punishes blindside hits or blows that target the head. A rising Rome used his left shoulder to hit an unsuspecting Horton after the Boston winger had released a pass, dropping Horton backward to the ice.

“If it was immediate after he released the puck, it would be a legal hit. We have them all the time,” Murphy said. “We have our own formula at NHL Hockey Operations for determining late hits, and it was late. … We tried to compare it with some of the other ones in the past. But it stands alone.”

The teams’ reactions were predictable. Rome said through the NHL he wished Horton a full recovery as “someone who has experienced this type of injury.” Canucks Coach Alain Vigneault, citing the lack of punishment on transgressions against his players, called the hit “a tad late” but not suspension-worthy. “I don’t know how the league could come up with that decision, really,” he said.

Boston defenseman Andrew Ference acknowledged the decision to hit is made quickly. “But they’re split-second decisions that can affect lives, as we’ve seen,” he said. “I think players have to understand the responsibility that you have of staying on the right side of the line.”

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It’s a line the NHL has done little to clarify.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen


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