The 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs were full of questionable calls, difficult to explain rules, and lackadaisical enforcement by the NHL’s player safety officials. As much as the NHL’s postseason is about incredible hockey, it’s also about understanding the sport’s chaotic, fly by the seat of your pants nature.
On Sunday, in one of the biggest moments of the hockey season, those things collided to swing the Stanley Cup Final. The victim was the Nashville Predators, who had come so close to eternal glory, only to be given a stark reminder that in hockey, anything can happen.
When Colton Sissons got up after poking the puck into a wide open net in the second period, he didn’t even have a chance to raise his arms in celebration before catching a referee with his own arms raised in the corner of his eye.
Then reality set in — the referee had blown his whistle because he couldn’t see the puck. The goal was being waved off not because of a penalty, but because play had been incorrectly blown dead by a referee whose poor positioning prevented him from seeing the puck was still loose.
That was an understandable mistake by referee Kevin Pollack. Quick whistles have happened in the NHL, and they’ll happen again.
The human element exists, which is precisely why the NHL wrote something like Rule 38.4 to give the referees an opportunity to correct their mistakes. But in the case of Game 6, there was no video review, apparently because of how the NHL has defined the word “continuous.”
The NHL could’ve used video review for the quick whistle, but didn’t
Here’s rule 38.4 (viii) in the 2016-17 NHL rulebook, with the important part bolded by us.
“The video review process shall be permitted to assist the Referees in determining the legitimacy of all potential goals (e.g. to ensure they are “good hockey goals”). For example (but not limited to), pucks that enter the net by going through the net meshing, pucks that enter the net from underneath the net frame, pucks that hit the spectator netting prior to being directed immediately into the goal, pucks that enter the net undetected by the Referee, etc. This would also include situations whereby the Referee stops play or is in the process of stopping the play because he has lost sight of the puck and it is subsequently determined by video review that the puck crosses (or has crossed) the goal line and enters the net as the culmination of a continuous play where the result was unaffected by the whistle (i.e., the timing of the whistle was irrelevant to the puck entering the net at the end of a continuous play).”.
So how do you not review this?
We’re talking about a potential game-winning goal in a must-win Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. This was arguably one of the biggest goals of the entire NHL season. The NHL has reviewed quick whistles in the past, in far less meaningful situations.
It appears based on the definition of a “continuous play”
The NHL ran into this exact situation in the past. In the case of the Game 6 goal, it appears that the referees decided to bypass a video review because the puck was not moving into the net prior to the whistle, and therefore it was not a continuous play.
The puck is sitting openly in the crease prior to the unheard whistle, but the referees ruled in their huddle that Sissons did not make contact with it to send it into the net until after the whistle. That means the play was ineligible for video review.
These things can be awfully close, which begs the question of whether the referees could correctly gauge when Sissons got the puck versus when the whistle was blown, and whether a review could help there. In October, the Flames were given a goal that had been waved off, and it’s not abundantly clear Michael Frolik makes contact prior to the whistle. So there’s precedent to at least review something like that if it’s really close.
But if the referees were convinced the whistle came before Sissons’ contact, they followed Rule 38.4 properly.
The referees seem to have done the right thing, but it’s still confusing
As much as the NHL wants to emphasize the “anything can happen” aspects of the game, it needs to do a better job of communicating what the referees are doing, and why they’re doing it. “Anything can happen” can be a great thing when it involves the players, but sometimes it feels like you never know what the referees will do, either.
In this case, it was a little-known detail of the video review rules that proved to cost the Predators. You can score a goal after the whistle, but only if the contact that created the puck’s post-whistle momentum had occurred before the whistle. Otherwise not only is it not a good goal, but for some reason, the referees aren’t even allowed to double check their work.
The idea is to avoid the possibilities opened by allowing post-errant whistle contact with the puck to lead to goals, which makes sense, but why not let the refs make sure the whistle actually came first? Why leave that call on the ice in such a big moment?
The referees appear to have followed the rulebook here, but the NHL not reviewing such a big goal waved off on a close call was surprising. The call seemed close enough that a review would be the best way to ensure the right answer. This is the same league that reviews whether a player’s skate was an inch off the ice to take away goals for offsides.
But based on the present definition of “continuous,” this was a situation the referees weren’t allowed to review. The Penguins are surely happy about it.
Note: This article was updated to clarify why the referees did not initiate a video review.