I’d put off discussing the atrocious NHL officiating during these Stanley Cup Playoffs because, frankly, fans complaining about referees or umpires conspiring against their favorite teams is annoying.
It was something I’d endured during 16 seasons covering two mediocre baseball teams here in Seattle and in Toronto, then two more years writing about a championship-level Sounders squad. So, I’m always reluctant to add to the noise.
But what we’ve seen from NHL officials this season and particularly this postseason trumps questionable calls I’ve witnessed over 45 years watching professional hockey. Yes, NHL referees have pocketed whistles for decades come playoff time, ignoring obvious infractions under the guise of managing a game’s pace.
But the inconsistency on calls this post-season has been a field day for conspiracy buffs and should force the league to act.
Two emails received Monday prompted me to finally address the issue. One was from a newbie hockey fan asking me to explain “cross-checking’’ to him. Then, an online sportsbook emailed its latest odds still heavily favoring the Vegas Golden Knights and Tampa Bay Lightning to advance to the Cup final despite both their semifinal series at the time being deadlocked at two games apiece.
First, how to explain to a new fan that cross-checking – where the shaft of a stick is slammed forward against an opponent — is supposed to be a penalty when we witness something akin to assault-with-a-weapon nearly every playoff shift with nothing called?
On the gambling thing, it’s not that I’m mind-boggled the Golden Knights could still be an overwhelming odds favorite Monday morning — even though the Canadiens were merely a missed third period Cole Caufield breakaway chance away from grabbing a 3-1 series stranglehold Sunday night.
Believe me, I know odds are set as the midway point to attract equal betting action on both teams.
But for a brief second, after witnessing the abhorrent officiating in Game 4 of the Vegas-Montreal series, I found myself joining the legion of fans wondering whether a conspiracy was afoot. Whether bookmakers were posting those Monday odds confident the series fix was already in. And whether the NHL truly wants to avoid a Canadian-based team making the finals to keep U.S. television ratings higher.
That’s all nonsense, of course. There’s no conspiracy. At least, I don’t think there is.
But there’s an expression in the legal community that it’s not good enough for justice to be done. It must also be seen to be done so people have confidence in the system itself.
And if NHL fans perceive there’s a problem with the integrity of NHL outcomes because of inexplicably bad officiating, that’s indeed problematic.
The fact is, referees aren’t paid as well as players and can unduly influence a game’s outcome. And match-fixing soccer scandals overseas and the prosecution of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy some 15 years ago showed gambling interests can get to officiating crews.
So, when NHL fans, coaches, players and pundits are increasingly united in believing the officiating is the worst it’s ever been, it leaves the league open to unflattering questions.
The NHL is still somewhat reeling from veteran referee Tim Peel getting caught on a hot mic in March admitting he invented a penalty out of thin air in a game. Then came the opening playoff round, when mild-mannered Edmonton Oilers coach Dave Tippett wondered aloud how scoring star Connor McDavid failed to draw a single penalty during a four-game sweep at the hands of the Winnipeg Jets.
McDavid is routinely hacked and slashed to slow him down and had drawn penalties all season. But in the playoffs, those penalties aren’t being called. Or, when they are, they’re being called unevenly.
In the same opening round, Carolina Hurricanes coach Rod Brind’Amour ripped the officiating after calls lopsidedly went against his team.
“You can’t tell me two games in a row, they get seven or eight (power plays) and (we) get three?” he said. “When the game is this even? It’s not right.”
Not enough penalties were called on the New York Islanders in Round 2 to suit the liking of Boston Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy. He derisively referred to the Islanders as the “New York Saints” in insinuating their squeaky-clean image was influencing referees.
In its semifinal round, New York was furious by Game 2 when a go-ahead Tampa Bay goal was scored with seven players – two too many – on the ice. But that paled next to the unchecked mayhem of the Vegas-Montreal semifinal.
In overtime of Game 3 last Friday, referees Chris Lee and Dan O’Rourke somehow missed Vegas forward Jonathan Marchessault swinging his stick at a puck and cutting Corey Perry’s face for nine stitches.
The entire night was filled with similarly egregious non-calls, sprinkled in with equally puzzling penalties for harmless-looking infractions. Former NHL general manager Craig Button, now a TSN hockey analyst, called it “the worst officiated game of the playoffs. It was awful.”
Then came Game 4, when Brayden McNabb of the Golden Knights punched Nick Suzuki in the face directly in front of referee Lee, who again allowed it. Montreal was up 1-0 late in the second period and would have had a 5-on-3 powerplay had it been called, but went on to lose 2-1 in overtime.
Former player and TSN analyst Ray Ferraro — husband of Kraken pro scout Cammi Granato — called the game “a debacle” and “embarrassing” for the league. Ferraro noted that earlier on, Vegas forward Tomas Nosek dangerously slammed defenseman Shea Weber into the boards from behind, then struck him a second time before a furious Weber twice retaliated.
Only then, after four glaring infractions between them, were both finally sent off with roughing minors.
Not to be outdone, Montreal defenseman Joel Edmundson was fortunate to avoid a suspension, let alone a penalty, when he sent William Carrier careening headfirst into the boards from behind.
Adding to the tumult and conspiracy theories, Vegas wasn’t penalized at all in Game 2 and only three times the ensuing two contests. Montreal over the same three games was penalized seven times, a disparity that will get coaches like Brind’Amour and Cassidy and conspiracy buffs chirping every time.
Back in the 1980s and 1990s, when referees also routinely ignored playoff penalties, it worked both ways. Rarely was one team penalized twice as much.
So, it behooves the NHL to restore confidence in its product by having officials apply the rulebook, especially for obvious stuff. This isn’t close to “game management” — it’s anarchy.
As a result, the NHL is no longer known for being the lone pro sports league where punching a guy in the face won’t get you tossed from the game. Nowadays, it won’t even earn you a penalty.