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NHL’s questionable playoff officiating looms over Stanley Cup Final

NHL referees could play a big role in the Predators-Penguins series, whether you like it or not.

Washington Capitals v Pittsburgh Penguins - Game Three Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

There’s a clear worst-case scenario for the Stanley Cup Final. It’s Game 7 in Pittsburgh, and both teams are battling in a heated, sudden death overtime. One team manages to get a big rush off a turnover, and crashes toward the net trying to end the game. They do, with the puck sliding through a sea of bodies ... but not before a forward made contact with the goalie.

Then would come the situation that literally nobody in hockey, from the players to the owners to the fans, wants to see come to fruition: Referees would have to huddle around an iPad to make a judgment call over whether a team just won the Stanley Cup. Based on the precedent set over the past couple months, it would be almost impossible to guess which way they’d decide.

“Playoff hockey,” as those around the sport call it because the rules literally change based on the stakes, is different in several ways. The intensity gets ratcheted up, and big names are often nursing injuries. More than any other kind of hockey, it’s a war of attrition fostered by the league’s willingness to bend the rulebook in favor of physicality that goes beyond pushing the envelope.

The postseason also means putting the game’s referees under the limelight constantly, and entering Game 1 between the Penguins and Predators on Monday (8 p.m. ET, NBC), there’s reason to wonder about what kind of impact they’ll have on who wins.

That’s because, over and over these playoffs, referees have shown that they either don’t know the NHL rulebook, or prefer not to enforce it. Other times, the rules seem like judgment calls with a degree of subjectivity that undermines why they exist in the first place. And when the referees don’t do their jobs, and it’s up to NHL Player Safety to send a message, they’ve too often responded with a shrug.

Calvert suspension sets a bad precedent

The NHL had opportunities early in the playoffs to show its players that certain rule-breaking would not be tolerated. The biggest example came in the first-round series between the Penguins and Blue Jackets, when Columbus forward Matt Calvert attacked an opposing player standing at center ice for no apparent reason.

This was not a hockey play in any sense. There was no hockey being played at center ice, yet Calvert took it as an opportunity to go break his stick over Tom Kuhnhackl, then double up with a cheap shot to the Penguins forward’s upper body as he reacted to being hit in the first place.

The NHL’s response to this shameful non-hockey play: a one-game suspension. One. Game. So basically, in order to be suspended in these playoffs, you needed to do something so egregious that it would look more appropriate in Street Fighter V than the NHL.

The precedent had been set that brutal hits, even ones deemed illegal by the NHL rulebook, would not lead to suspensions. How could they, if Calvert can do what he did and only get a game?

The Crosby trials

The weak punishment on Calvert set the stage for what would happen to Sidney Crosby in the first three rounds of the playoffs. The NHL basically gave carte blanch to its players to make brutal hits as long as they could be vaguely described as “hockey plays.” Slamming a guy in the head? Hockey play! Riding someone with a history of concussions head-first into the boards? Hockey play!

And then the NHL basically got it what deserved for its lack of action when Crosby suffered a concussion in the second round against Washington. The injury was the result of a hit to the head from Matt Niskanen in Game 4 that yielded a five-minute major penalty and a game misconduct, but no supplemental discipline from the league.

This isn’t egregious in the same way the Calvert hit was, but this shows the risks of letting players push the envelope when you treat things like the Calvert situation lightly. Why not try to take some cheap shots on the best player in the game during an intense playoff series if the worst-case scenario is a major penalty with no subsequent repercussions? Yes, going on the penalty kill hurts a team, but it’s not surprising that some opponents decide it’s worth taking those risks rather than let Crosby have free space to do his thing.

It’s not particularly fun to watch, though, especially when those superstars end up getting injured and thinning the overall talent level in the playoffs. This is why you need to enforce the dang rules as written down.

What is goalie interference? A judgment call, that’s what.

Every sport demands its officials make subjective decisions at times. What’s a shooting foul in the NBA? What’s a catch in the NFL? There are definitions provided in the rulebooks, but it’s still ultimately on the referees to use their judgment to determine whether what happened meets that definition.

In the NHL, we have goalie interference (and to a smaller degree, offside calls). These are the calls that, when they happen, you basically sit back and just let them tell you what the ruling is. There’s almost no point in trying to break them down in too much detail because doing so just reminds everyone that these are total judgment calls. Referees are trying to determine not just action, but intent, of a high-speed game using slowed-down replays on a 9.7-inch screen.

And over and over again this postseason, this issue came up.

There was the Predators’ game-tying goal against the Blackhawks in the first round where Viktor Arvidsson made contact with Corey Crawford. But the goalie was outside his crease at the time of contact, so the rules state that it’s only interference if the contact is “intentional or deliberate.” That’s not exactly an easy thing to determine, and the referees decided it was a good goal. You could make sense of the decision, but it also felt like a call that easily could’ve gone the other way with similarly strong logic.

A similar ruling came in Game 4 of the Ducks-Oilers series when Corey Perry made contact with Cam Talbot just outside the crease, which meant it was not goalie interference and therefore a good goal. Nicklas Backstrom got busted for one in the first round against the Maple Leafs. The Predators, at one point against Anaheim, had two goals waved off in a matter of seconds for goalie interference.

The penalty keeps coming up in crucial scoring moments of the playoffs, and referees are left to make challenging judgment calls that can leave fans frustrated or outright confused. Several of the calls were obvious, but too many felt like borderline plays, even though the stakes are extremely high with a goal on the line. It just feels like a matter of time before one of these calls comes in a situation like the one described at the start of this post — a make-or-break Game 7 goal.

What will it mean for the Stanley Cup Final?

This is one of the big question marks for the championship series. Yes, we still need to see whether the Predators can hang onto their 5-on-5 advantage even without Ryan Johansen. We need to see if P.K. Subban, Pekka Rinne, and company can stop a Penguins’ power play that’s easily been the postseason’s best. We need to see whether Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are too good to be stopped by the best defensive top-four in hockey.

But we also need to see how the referees will call the Stanley Cup Final, and what kind of impact they’ll have on the series. We already know who the referees are — it’s an experienced group led by Wes McCauley, Brad Meier, Dan O’Halloran, and Kevin Pollock — but we don’t really know how they’ll ultimately enforce rules in a postseason that’s felt chaotic in that department.

The Penguins seem ready to handle a series that could get a little out of control, if their GM’s comments are any indication, but that won’t stop the chaos if this series ends up hinging on a controversial goal like the many we’ve already seen this postseason. Even if the referees take a harder line in this series than we’ve seen in the first three rounds, there’s always the potential that the Stanley Cup will be decided based on whether the refs think a winger intentionally touched a goalie, or got pushed into him. That would be unfortunate for a lot of reasons.

Now, being a referee in the NHL is an incredibly difficult gig, especially in the era of HD cameras allowing fans to second-guess every call you’re making at full speed on the ice. But fans have access to that information, and it’s made the referees’ constant mistakes less excusable. More knowledgeable fans demands more accountability, which is something we don’t seem to see enough for the NHL’s officials.

And while nobody wants a Stanley Cup Final decided by a 5-on-3 power play because it’s not “real hockey,” it’s also not “real hockey” to have the referees ignore chunks of the regular season rulebook.

This is going to be one of the key things to watch for fans in the series. “Playoff hockey” is winding toward its annual conclusion, and more than anything, I hope we remember it for the great hockey, not the bad officiating.