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Fresh Start: NHL Playoffs 2011 Allow Officials To Wipe Slate, Call Games According To Rule

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As usual, the NHL's standard of officiating has slipped during the stretch drive. Will they continue to let obstruction and interference mar the Stanley Cup playoffs or will the league start fresh on Wednesday night?

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If you caught an NHL broadcast over, say, the past month or so, you've likely heard broadcasters say something like this:

Play-by-play: "And (player name) is hooked, no call."
Color: "(player name) is getting impeded, how is that not interference?"
Play-by-play: "Seems like the standard of officiating has slipped."

Alright, so some team broadcasters are known to be a little more, um, vocal about officiating than others, but sometimes it feels like we're in the pre-lockout era, when interference and obstruction were free game following the All-Star Break. Here's how the League Rule 56.1, better known as interference, states thing.

A player is allowed the ice he is standing on (body position) and is not required to move in order to let an opponent proceed. A player may "block" the path of an opponent provided he is in front of his opponent and moving in the same direction. Moving laterally and without establishing body position, then making contact with the non-puck carrier is not permitted and will be penalized as interference. A player is always entitled to use his body position to lengthen an opponent’s path to the puck, provided his stick is not utilized (to make himself "bigger" and therefore considerably lengthening the distance his opponent must travel to get where he is going); his free hand is not used and he does not take advantage of his body position to deliver an otherwise illegal check.

There's actually more legalese than that, but that's the big part of it. It's essentially setting a pick to prevent puck pursuit, many times relating to the forecheck.

And yet, plenty of games down the stretch saw players get involved with this on both sides of the line. It's difficult to blame the players, as it's well-known that pro athletes will push the boundaries of the rules to get an advantage. It's in their competitive nature, and it's to be expected.

No, the onus comes down to the officials. The strict standard of hooking, holding, and interference held up for about two and a half seasons following the lockout; after that, it started to take an annual slippery slope come February.

I suppose there's a fairness in this as long as the allowed levels of interference and obstruction are equal on both sides. But that's not the point; you can create that even playing field even while the rules are called.

The league has an opportunity to make a statement right out of the gate as the 2011 playoffs begin. They could brief all GMs on standards of officiating, sending a message that the games will be called tight. Then it's up to the coaching staff to flow the message down to the players, and it's the players' responsibility to heed the warning.

If Game 1 of every series is called tight -- and the officials ignore the post-game complaints from the losing coach (a common practice to try and sway the balance of power in a series) -- then the standard is set and those who don't adhere to it will hurt their team. This will allow skill, strategy and commitment to determine the winner without the game getting muddied up by officiating.

Some fans will see this as "letting the boys play." I'll never understand that; by allowing interference into the game, you're NOT letting them play -- or, more exactly, you're not letting the skilled or fast players play because you're letting the slower players bring the game down to their level.

Why should cheating be rewarded? There's a very simple line to draw, but it can only come from the very top of the league. Anything less sends a mixed message, and then things get even worse.