The maddeningly inconsistent world of playoff officiating

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How did you like the officiating in that Stanley Cup playoff game, coach?

“I’m not sure if that should have been a no-hitter on us tonight, but it was,” said Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, whose power play — the best in the NHL since 1988-89 — didn’t receive a single man advantage in their Game 3 loss, and only six of them in total during the stunning four-game sweep by the Columbus Blue Jackets (who had 10 of them).

“I think we just let them play. That’s what I’d like to see,” said Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour on the officiating during Game 2 of his team’s series against the Washington Capitals.

“My discussion was I felt that it deemed a different penalty than was called. And he disagreed. At the end of the day, he has the final say and he decided it was a two-minute penalty,” said Capitals coach Todd Reirden, who lost T.J. Oshie “for a while” on a Warren Foegele cross-check.


Also in this week’s Wysh List: The Week in Gritty | Jersey Fouls
Top fan moments | Thoughts on Tampa Bay’s demise | Puck Headlines


“It was a physical game. The referees, the way they reffed the game, they let lots of stuff go, obviously. But in the end, you can’t let that get in the way of what you’re doing. Playing in the Stanley Cup playoffs isn’t supposed to be easy, and it’s worth it. You’ve just got to find another level to dig in,” said Toronto Maple Leafs coach Mike Babcock, after perhaps the single worst officiated game of the regular or postseason in Game 2 of Toronto’s series against the Boston Bruins.

Aw, I miss the old Babcock. The one who, during a penalty-filled playoff game against the Nashville Predators in 2012, indicated that referees Chris Rooney and Brad Meier were only calling infractions on the two least penalized teams in the regular season because Gary Bettman was in the building. “The referees are trying to get to Stanley Cup Final like the rest of us,” he said, savagely.

Maybe hosting Bettman for a game is the key to fair officiating in the playoffs. He and deputy commissioner Bill Daly were in the house for Game 3 of the Hurricanes vs. Capitals series. Really, really awkwardly in the house.

The result? There were 22 minutes in minor penalties called by Dan O’Halloran and Eric Furlatt, when there had been only 30 combined in the previous two games. What a coincidence!

All of this is to say that the only thing that’s more arbitrary and haphazard than Stanley Cup playoff officiating are the wants and desires for what we want out of playoff officiating. This usually falls into camps:

  • Call it as you see it. Yes, it’s a seven-game battle with small margins of victory and any disparity in power-play time could swing the series in one team’s direction. But that’s no excuse to ignore infractions that would have been called in the regular season, or to put away the whistle in critical situations.

  • Nah, it’s Thunderdome. Anything goes and don’t look for the referees to bail you out. The “let’em play” approach that leads to intense even-strength games but can be a catalyst for injurious violence if the officials aren’t properly policing the players.

Here’s what we’re getting so far this postseason: In the regular season, there were 1,271 regular-season games and 7,408 power-play opportunities, an average of 5.8 per game. Through Wednesday’s games, there have been 30 playoff games and 220 power-play opportunities, an average of 7.3 per game, but it’s early. Last season, there was an average of 6.08 power plays per game in the regular season and just 5.62 in the postseason.

But ask the fans watching these games, and most of the coaches participating in them, and they’ll tell you it feels like Thunderdome. Would-be penalties are getting ignored with regularity. Former referee Kerry Fraser had another name for it:

“It’s called ‘playoff hockey refereeing.’ It’s not acceptable,” he said in a 2017 interview. “There’s always a debate, what’s the difference between regular season and playoffs? Well, I think a rule is a rule and should be called from the start of the season to the very last game of the Stanley Cup Final. But that’s not the way it’s been. We’ve seen an awful lot of stuff that’s been let go.”

Frankly, I find it maddening.

I am a card-carrying member of the “call it as you see it” society. (Our motto: ‘C’mon, Ref!’) Selective situational officiating is cowardice at best — the officials’ refusal to influence play, when unchecked illegalities do the same thing — and, at worst, the game officials calling things according to some unspoken narrative.

That narrative can be handed down from the NHL as “game management,” especially in games or series that can intensely contentious. The NHL asks its officials to manage the game a certain way, and they have to do it. But it’s also rather obvious that, in some games, referees are selectively calling infractions based on the situation. Who among us hasn’t seen a late third period power play for a team trailing in the game and thought “uh-huh?” Or, conversely, seen a team ahead in the game receive a cheap penalty?

Maybe there’s some middle ground between the extremes. Maybe sometimes they just lose the thread. Bryan Lewis, former NHL director of officiating, had an interesting take via the Toronto Sun:

“You get to a point in a referee’s mind where you don’t know what looks bad anymore. If you let something go at one end, then you’re saying to yourself, ‘well, I have to let it go at the other end.’ And you get mentally to the point where you have a hard time drawing a line in the sand. You get yourself stuck in quicksand on an ice surface that you really don’t like.”

Whatever the reason, here’s what I want out of NHL officiating no matter when it occurs in the season: Consistency. That means calling the same penalty in the third period as you would in the first, and calling the same penalty in Game 7 that you would Game 1.

And maybe not calling all the penalties simply because Gary Bettman’s in the same arena. That too.


The Week in Gritty

Alain Vigneault is the new head coach of the Philadelphia Flyers. More importantly, he’s the first head coach hired in the Gritty Era, which means that along with all the perfunctory pomp and circumstance inherent to a coach’s introduction, a former Jack Adams winner who is 12th on the NHL all-time wins list had to do a skit with a furry orange idiot:

Vigneault immediately resigned from the Flyers and agreed to be the new head coach of the Buffalo Sabres. THAT’S HOW UNCOMFORTABLE HE FELT.


Three final thoughts on the Tampa Bay Lightning flop

1. The enormity of the Columbus Blue Jackets‘ upset sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning can be measured in a variety of ways, but this is perhaps my favorite one: So many brackets were busted in the official NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs Bracket Challenge — as 48.62 percent of them had the Lightning winning the Cup — the league created a first-time-ever “second chance bracket” that fans could fill out after the first round to win a trip of their choosing. A welcome move for those of us who’ve had to fill out a similar second chance bracket for March Madness.

2. Nikita Kucherov is going to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP for his regular season performance. He earned it. What he’s also earned, I think, is reasonable suspicion about whether he understands that being MVP means not pulling a petulant act in a blowout loss that costs you a one-game suspension in the playoffs. Kucherov has never once communicated to the fans that he has a modicum of regret that he took himself out of a critical Game 3 through that act — a game, let’s face it, where the Lightning were pressing all third period, down a goal, and could have used their 128-point guy on the ice. When asked if he learned anything after the suspension, he sneered, “no.” He also punted on a similar question during the series. I hate to be the “character matters” guy, but if I’m a Lightning fan I’m a little sickened by this.

3. Despite all the intense autopsies and psycho-analysis of the Lightning, perhaps in the end it boils down to this: Victor Hedman was hurt, playing two games of ineffective defense before sitting for Games 3 and 4; and Anton Stralman didn’t play a minute in the series. Considering how special teams played such a critical role in this series, the loss of these two defensemen was devastating and further evidence that the Lightning should stay the course and just hope for better circumstances next season, which appears to be the plan.


Jersey Fouls

From the St. Louis Blues fandom:

We literally have no idea what this is referencing or what inspired it or how it relates to No. 86 Nikita Soshnikov, but secretly we hope it’s a reference to Bob Saget working blue.

Meanwhile, in Washington:

The legend of T.J. Oshie chugging through his shirt may one day eclipse the Sochi goal.


The top three awesome fan things from the playoffs (so far)

1. “Kale” Makar

Rookie defenseman Cale Makar debuted for the Colorado Avalanche in their series against the Flames and became an instant sensation, to the point where one fan [checks notes] brought a head of kale to the game and shook it like a pom-pom.

2. Duck, Duck, Goose

The “Storm Surge” celebrations created an indelible bond between the Carolina Hurricanes and their fans. It was our hope the fans would recreate some of these celebrations while tailgating before playoff games. We were not disappointed.

3. “You look nervous”

Rookie goalie Jordan Binnington has proven unflappable, but Jets fans tried their best to flap him with this chant that referenced his “Do I look nervous?” line from earlier in the season. Without question, the funniest arena fans in sports.


Listen to ESPN On Ice

Emily Kaplan and I did a full rundown of all the playoff series, including the Islanders and Blue Jackets getting their sweep on. Diana Nearhos of the Tampa Times joined us to dissect the Lightning, and Brett Connolly of the Capitals talked about their series and the Alex Ovechkin fight. Grab it on iTunes here.


Puck headlines

Steve Yzerman returns to the Detroit Red Wings on 4/19/19 to be named the next general manager. I mean, the 19s are easy to figure out, but is the “four” a reference to seeking his fourth Stanley Cup ring? In any case, Sidney Crosby bows to your Arithmomania, sir.

I’ve been writing online since around 2006 and every single year someone else “discovers” underwater hockey.

Retta played a hockey trivia game on “Ask Me Another,” which is awesome.

There’s a Derek Sanderson bio pic on the way, and that is going to rule.

Hilary Knight on the future of women’s hockey: “We’re trying to build what our male counterparts have in the NHL. So to be in a constant working relationship with the NHL is something that all of us are greatly interested in. The NHL has obviously valued women’s hockey for so long and has been generous with their support so far. I think that’s only going to continue to grow.”

Ryan Lambert claims he is “not owned” by New York Islanders fans who are salty about his predictions.

Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)

Craig Custance on the pending unrestricted free agents in the playoffs ($).

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

Tremendous story by Emily on the growth of the Carolina Hurricanes during this wild year of success.

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