Officiating in NHL Playoffs Leads to Rule Changes

Sharks forward Joe Pavelski (8) lays hurt on the ice in front of referee Dan O’Halloran in game 7 against the Golden Knights. The Sharks would score four unanswered goals on the major penalty assessed, helping them advance in the playoffs. (Photo courtesy: Scott Strazzante, The Chronicle)

For St. Louis hockey, it’s a time of celebration. For Boston hockey, heartbreaking lament.

But for the other 29 NHL teams, what was the real focal point of this season? For the majority of the league (and you could throw Boston in there, too), it’s been the officiating of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. If you weren’t watching every single game of the postseason, you probably didn’t even need to hear about at least one of the egregious calls made or missed from April to June.

The Comeback

Starting in round one, and possibly the most controversial, was San Jose and Vegas, game 7. Vegas holds a 3-0 lead in an elimination game with half a period left from advancing when Cody Eakin and Paul Stastny send Joe Pavelski awkwardly falling to the ground. For Eakin, even replays made it seem like nothing more than a simple body check to his chest – something that only happens about 1,000 times a game.

However, Pavelski’s head hit the ice in the fall, and pretty hard. He was down for over a minute, bleeding from his head, and had to be escorted off the ice by his teammates. After a long period of deliberation, Eakin was charged with a 5-minute major penalty – of which many argued wasn’t close to the right call.

That said, the Sharks made the very most of the power play: 4 goals in less than 5 minutes to catapult to a 4-3 lead. Vegas tied it to force overtime, but eventually San Jose would net the golden goal that ended the Golden Knight’s season. Needless to say, both Vegas fans and players, like one Jon Marchessault, felt a little fleeced:

”You never want to see something bad like that happen, but it’s a f—-in’ joke. You call 5 minutes for that? Why don’t you have a replay or something?… Count it for [a minor penalty], fine, but a five? On something you don’t even see? Just call the outcome. It’s a f—-ing joke and it’s embarrassing, is what it is.”

Wrong Net

Fast forward to round two, Columbus against Boston. With Columbus down 2-0 early, a deflected shot went up into the protective netting behind the goaltender, which should halt play. However, none of the refs noticed the puck go out before it hit the ice and play continued. Seconds later, Columbus would take possession, and Artemi Panarin cut the lead in half.

To the ire of Bruins fans, that particular play is unreviewable, and now the Blue Jackets are on the board. Boston would end up winning anyway, but it showed a loophole in the review system of NHL officials.

A Skate Blade

Another day, another game 7 for the Sharks. This time, their opponent is the Avs. Midway through the elimination game, Colorado tied the game thanks to a line change and a turnover. However, San Jose challenged the play for being offside, claiming that the captain Gabriel Landeskog was not fully off the ice before the Avs re-entered the zone.

It was close and considering Landeskog was exiting the play, it almost seemed trivial. However, the play was ruled offside, and San Jose would hang on to a 2-3 win to advance to the Conference Final. Fans and analysts questioned how a major penalty could be assessed without review but a skate blade could.

Hand Pass

Not to beat San Jose down, but this call involved them as well. Game 3 of the Conference Final against the Blues headed to overtime, with the series tied. The Sharks had possession coming into the zone, and as Timo Meier was wrestled down to the ice, smacked the puck with his hand to his teammate Gustav Nyquist. Nyquist then fed Erik Karlsson who quickly buried a one-timer, sealing the deal for game 3. According to NHL rule 67.1:

“A player shall be permitted to stop or “bat” a puck in the air with his open hand, or push it along the ice with his hand, and the play shall not be stopped unless, in the opinion of the Referee, he has deliberately directed the puck to a teammate in any zone other than the defending zone, in which case the play shall be stopped and a face-off conducted.”

Under these circumstances, play should have been whistled dead, but none of the referees caught it. Like the goal scored in Columbus, that play is also unreviewable, and St. Louis players and fans left the ice fuming.

The Trip

This one was probably the worst. In game 5 of the Finals between the Blues and Bruins. With the series tied 2-2 in game 5, St. Louis hung onto a 1-0 in the third by the skin of their teeth. In the Bruins’ zone, Tyler Bozak tripped Noel Acciari (blatantly) to take possession of the puck.

To the fury of the Bruins fans, players and staff, no penalty was called. Moments later, David Perron banks in a rebound shot off of Tuukka Rask and scores, giving the Blues a 2-0 lead and the eventual game-winner.

So… What’s Next??

The fact that polls were made in the playoffs to have fans decide which call/missed call was the worst states just how broken the NHL rulebook is at this point. There are loopholes, missed calls, double standards, and sometimes just true head-scratchers. The stories reflected in this article only touched the surface of the non-calls, the technicalities, and the misinterpretation of the rules in this postseason.

While the margin of human error on the referee’s part is sometimes a little more disparaged, there are things that can be done to prevent some of these fiascoes. Already, there have been a couple of rules changes following the 2019 playoffs.

1. The “Krug” Rule

In the Cup Finals, Boston Bruins defenseman Torey Krug got into a scrap with David Perron as play continued. He lost his helmet on the play but continued to skate. Heated from the scuffle, Krug turned into a missile up the ice and laid out Robert Thomas moments later (seriously, look up this hit). The only problem with this iconic hit was the fact that Krug lost his helmet, prompting this statement from the NHL:

Subject to further consultation with the NHLPA on precise language, a Player on the ice whose helmet comes off during play must (a) exit the playing surface, or (b) retrieve and replace his helmet properly on his head (with or without his chin strap fastened). A Player who is making a play on the puck or who is in position to make an immediate play on the puck at the time his helmet comes off, shall be given a reasonable opportunity to complete the play before either exiting the ice or retrieving and replacing his helmet.

More of a safety precaution than anything, but all same, wear a helmet.

2. The “Eakin” Rule

The San Jose-Vegas call (I feel I have to clarify which San Jose call we’re talking about) was likely one of the most egregious missed calls, if only because of the momentum shift. Now, because of the erroneous major penalty call, all referees will be “required to perform an on-ice video review for all major (non-fighting) and match penalties.” If the official believes he overreacted to the call, he can reduce it to a minor penalty.

I’m sure Jonathan Marchessault is thrilled to hear.

3. Challenges

Now we get to the nonsense in Colorado. At least in the NHL, challenges are usually brought up as a last desperate act in late, one-goal games. Per Sportsnet’s Mark Spector, “GMs expanded the number of challenges a coach can make, but they will now come with escalating consequences if the challenge is unsuccessful. The first unsuccessful challenge of any type results in a minor penalty against the challenging team (no more losing their timeout). Each successive unsuccessful challenge will result in a double-minor.”

It’s worth mentioning the penalties for these challenges also extend to goalie interference calls. It’s not quite finished there, either: plays of missed stoppages of play in the offensive zone are now reviewable, too. The puck out of play in Columbus? Reviewable. The hand pass against the Blues? That’s up for debate, too. However, missed penalties are not up for review (yet), so sorry, Noel Acciari, you don’t get any closure for that tripping.

Wrap-Up

To conclude, the NHL rulebook is a vast, twisting enigma that they still haven’t sorted out after a century. It’s almost sad to see that so many amazing storylines, plays, and victories in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs will be overshadowed by a missed call here or a bad call there. There are rule changes now, sure, but in this writer’s opinion, it’s a double-edged sword.

While the reviews are indeed beneficial and almost essential, it slows the game down almost to MLB-levels of pacing. Similarly, referees becoming removed altogether is probably not the right direction, as the world of sports sometimes requires that human level of justice, fair or not. Could we see video review getting removed entirely? Will there be more drastic rule changes to come for the 2020 season? Whatever the “best” answer is, it’s been a rough year for that banged-up rulebook of the National Hockey League.

I conclude all this nonsense with a humorous line from Steve Dangle: “And then, it’s going to be [reviews] on minors, but in, maybe, the final 5 minutes of the game. And then, I don’t know, just review every penalty, if we want to get it right! Then it’s going to be “aw, screw it, let’s just go watch Fortnite.”

For more local Blues articles, insights and more, visit bluesrants.com!

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