By Steve Silverman-

(CBS) Shortly after Patrick Kane did his two-step in the shootout to beat Jimmy Howard and give the Blackhawks another win and their 22nd straight game in the 2013 season without a regulation loss, the NHL nearly had a disaster on its hands in New York.

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The Rangers were hosting the Buffalo Sabres and they were trying to string a couple of wins together following a disastrous run in the Eastern Conference.

Early in the third period, Rangers star Brad Richards was chasing down the puck near the boards while New York was on a power play. Buffalo goon Patrick Kaleta, somehow on the ice while the Sabres were trying to kill a penalty, slammed Richards from behind into the boards.

Richards was left writhing on the ice with his neck at an awkward angle.

Richards was in pain and looked like he was damaged severely, but he did not suffer a serious injury.

But that’s just happenstance. Kaleta’s hit on Richards was very similar to Raffi Torres’ hit on Marian Hossa last spring.

Torres’ hit was much more vicious and done at a higher rate of speed than Kaleta’s, but Kaleta’s was done much closer to the boards.

Torres earned a 25-game suspension that was reduced to 21 games, while Kaleta was suspended five games by NHL dean of discipline Brendan Shanahan.

Kaleta has been suspended three times in his career for dirty and vicious play on the ice.

Here’s the problem for the NHL:

Hossa suffered a major injury and was out the remainder of the playoffs following the Hossa hit. Richards did not suffer a serious injury, but that’s more the result of happenstance. By the look of the hit, he could have suffered a broken neck.

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When that happens, the NHL will only have itself to blame. A 25-game suspension may have seemed like a lot, but if Hossa had lost his ability to walk or Richards suffered permanent damage, the NHL would have an even bigger problem than it has now.

When Paul Kariya was knocked unconscious by Scott Stevens in the 2003 Stanley Cup Finals, it was obvious that these vicious hits had to come out of the game. Kariya could have been killed by the blindside hit.

Ten years later, it seems the NHL is still playing chicken with this possibility.

Richards will play shortly. Hossa missed significant time. Sidney Crosby missed the better part of two seasons after he got hit with a blindside head shot. Marc Savard’s career is almost certainly over following the brutal shot he took at the hands of Pittsburgh’s Matt Cooke.

The penalties for blindside head shots have to be much stronger. Players are going to continue to try to injure each other until the cost is prohibitive.

How about a full-season suspension for Kaleta, and not a truncated 48-game season either? How about an 82-game suspension for Kaleta, Torres and others who plow full speed into other players when their backs are turned?

It’s not about turning the NHL into the ballet, as some critics may argue. A few decades ago, goalies played without masks and players did not wear helmets. Hockey has evolved and more changes need to be made.

It’s about allowing players to continue their careers without fear of permanent paralysis or death.

Throw the bums out and let the real players compete at the highest level.

Steve Silverman

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Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.