A surprisingly high number of controversial hits have overshadowed the otherwise stellar play of the 2012 Conference Quarterfinals.

The sports world is abuzz over the opening round of the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs, but it’s not the kind of focus the league wants.

A rash of dangerous hits and reckless play has to date overshadowed the compelling storylines of each series.

Most observers point to Nashville Predators defenseman Shea Weber receiving a $2500.00 fine for seizing Detroit Red Wings center Henrik Zetterberg by the head and smashing his face into the glass at the end of Game One of the Predators-Red Wings series as the catalyst for the violence which followed.

Following the incident, most fans, bloggers and pundits believed Weber would receive at least a one-game suspension for his WWE-style assault. His subsequent slap on the wrist was met with widespread condemnation of the NHL’s Department of Player Safety and its boss, former star player Brendan Shanahan.

Many believed the fine not only suggested a disciplinary double standard for stars and regular players, but also sent the wrong message to players that such violent behaviour would either go unpunished, or wouldn’t receive the same level of punishment as it would in the regular season.

Since that incident, there’s been a distinctively nasty edge to the quality of play in most of the opening round series, which wasn’t just limited to so-called “goons” or lesser talented players. Here’s a sampling:

– Game Three of the Philadelphia Flyers-Pittsburgh Penguins series was a fight-filled affiar harkening back to the brawling days of the 1970s. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby sullied his reputation by picking fights with Flyers forward Claude Giroux and Giroux’s teammate Scott Hartnell.

Crosby’s teammate, Aaron Asham, would earn a four-game suspension for crosschecking Flyers forward Brayden Schenn in the face, then punching the defenseless Schenn. Penguins sniper James Neal, meanwhile, earned a one-game suspension for a high, blindside hit on Flyers forward Sean Couturier and a high hit on Giroux. Finally, Penguins checking forward Craig Adams earned an automatic match penalty for starting a fight toward the end of the game.

-Game Two of the NY Rangers-Ottawa Senators series began with Senators enforcer Matt Carkner jumping Rangers center Brian Boyle to extract a measure of revenge for Boyle’s manhandling of Senators star defenseman Erik Karlsson in Game One.

Carkner began punching Boyle (who refused to fight), knocking him to the ice, where he continued to pummel the Rangers center. The Senators defenseman would be ejected from the game and earned an additional one-game suspension for his actions. Rangers forward Brandon Dubinsky, who jumped in to save his teammate from further punishment, was ejected from the game as the “third man in”.

In the second period, Rangers forward Carl Hagelin knocked Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson out of the game with an elbow to the head. Alfredsson was forced to leave the game with a concussion and missed Game Three. Hagelin earned a three-game suspension.

– At the end of Game Three of the Boston Bruins-Washington Capitals series, Capitals star center Nicklas Backstrom, frustrated at Bruins forward Rich Peverley, cross-checked him in the face, earning a match penalty. As a result, Backstrom will miss Game Four, a crucial one for the Capitals, who are down 2-1 in the series, and could use their skilled center for this important game.

-A brawl broke out near the end of Game Two of the St. Louis Blues-San Jose Sharks series, sparked by a high hit delivered earlier in the period by Sharks forward T.J. Galiardi on Blues forward Andy McDonald, cracking the latter’s helmet. Galiardi received a minor charging penalty. McDonald, who has a history of concussions, was understandably upset. Sharks defenseman Brent Burns also leveled a blatant elbow to the head of Blues forward Scott Nichol, resulting in only a two-minute penalty, and also played a part in the scraps which followed.

– Prior to Torres’ hit on Hossa, rookie Blackhawks center Andrew Shaw drew a three-game suspension for running over Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith behind the latter’s net, a collision which appeared to be more accident than intent on Shaw’s part.

-On the same night Weber “turnbuckled” Zetterberg, Vancouver Canucks forward Byron Bitz earned a match penalty, plus a two-game suspension, for boarding Kings forward Kyle Clifford in the opening game of the Canucks-Kings series, sidelining Clifford with an “upper body” injury.

The only series not touched by the taint of ugliness was the one between the New Jersey Devils vs Florida Panthers, which became a more exciting series than anticipated, but nevertheless was overshadowed by the rough stuff going on elsewhere.

The high number of incidents and suspensions so early in the post-season has drawn considerable mounting criticism over the league’s handling of these situations, but as Greg Wyshynski notes, NHL Commssioner Gary Bettman is right in claiming most of the disciplinary rulings so far in the playoffs have been consistent with those made during the regular season.

That’s as may be, but it also indicates the players – from superstar to marginally talented goon – are for whatever reasons heedless of the consequences of their actions, and the current methods of discipline weren’t effective deterrents.

Unfortunately, there’s nothing the league can do at the present time to implement tougher new measures. That will have to wait until the next round of CBA talks, requiring the blessing of not just league officials, but also the team owners, general managers coaches and the NHLPA.

The latter, by the way, have been conspicuous by their silence in this matter. One would think the players union, which is supposed to look out for the best interests of its membership, would be at the forefront of pushing for improved player safety. So far, not a peep from the PA leadership on the matter.

Those who claim that all the nasty play is no big deal, that’s it’s always been part of playoff hockey and not worth getting upset over miss the point. Just because it’s been a part of the game in the past doesn’t make it right.

It’s not about making the game less physical. Nobody wants to be good, clean bodychecks and physical play taken out of the game. What they want to see is exciting, well-played, physical hockey without the head-hunting, spearing, blindsiding, needless brawling, cheapshots and other reckless play.

The league may be unable at the present time to implement significant changes to how they dish out discipline, but it has the opportunity to forewarn all the playoff teams that further incidents won’t be tolerated, that the games will be called more closely, and any further incidents of dirty play could not only result in ejection from the game, but also come under further review for supplemental discipline.

Indeed, the department of player safety are believed to have already gone this route, if Games Three and Four of the Senators-Rangers series were anything to go by.

Those were the best-played games so far, not just of that series, but arguably of the playoffs to date. Both were well-contested, fast-paced, thrilling tilts featuring superb goaltending, end-to-end action and numerous quality scoring chances. Those games were fine examples of what exciting playoff hockey should be.

The argument can be made that the reason those two games were so well played was the intensity raised by the rough stuff in Game Two.

If the two clubs were warned not to engage in any further reckless play, one would assume the intensity level, and thus the quality of play, would’ve declined for Games Three and Four, as the two teams would have been forced to maintain a tighter grip on their emotions, but that didn’t happen. If anything, the Rangers and Senators channelled those emotions into playing a spirited, skilled, exciting game, without the need of a physical sideshow.

It could be considered, therefore, that the violence of Game Two of that series had little, if any, impact over the subsequent games in that series, and that the improvement in the quality of play was the inevitable result of two determined and well-matched teams giving their all to establish an edge in a series where a lead becomes more important as the series progresses.

Ultimately, it’s up to the on-ice officials to call the game as per the rulebook, establishing and maintaining control from the outset. The players aren’t stupid. They know what they’ll be able to get away with, based on how the referees and linesman call the games. If they sense the officials are going to let things go, or are losing control of the game, cheapshots, brawls, and undisciplined tactics follow.

Here’s hoping the league and its on-ice officials can get a grip before things degenerate further, lest we end up seeing more players stretchered out of games.