Kudos to the NHL, but officiating oddities still problematic
Updated: Aug 29, 2020
In my previous blog post, I opened with a comment about how well the National Hockey League’s return to play in the Edmonton and Toronto hub cities has been going. That’s definitely still true, considering there haven’t been any positive COVID tests and the on-ice product has been as compelling as we could hope for without fans in attendance. Bubble life has been hard on those within it, being away from their families for a long time, but for the most part the players seem to be handling it well and are putting on quite a show for everyone watching on television.
As the playoffs roll on though, we continue to see what we hope not to: the NHL getting in its own way with crucial rulings in tight games. More on that later, but first some random thoughts from the last couple of weeks…
Canucks reach the final eight
For fans of the Vancouver Canucks, what a time to be alive – and what a ride this has been so far. I was commenting before the players even arrived in the hub cities that Minnesota has never been a good matchup for Vancouver, that we shouldn’t expect much, this is about getting some experience, etc. Well, they got past the Wild and reached the “real” playoffs for the first time since 2015. Fantastic… until Dallas won the final round robin game to set up a Canucks-Blues series in the Western Conference quarterfinals. Reality check: The Canucks were going to be in tough against the defending Stanley Cup champions. Never mind. The Canucks go up 2-0 in the series, run their postseason win streak to five games and take game 3 against the Blues to overtime. We see great goaltending, the star players scoring big goals (hello Bo Horvat) and all of a sudden the imagination is running wild! Ah, but it’s never THAT easy. A loss in game 4 evened the series at two games apiece and it felt like the sky was falling. Let’s be honest, when St. Louis was up 3-1 in the second period of game 5, it felt like the Canucks had run out of gas and had little chance of winning the series. Their comeback in that game and subsequent dismantling of St. Louis in game 6 are another reminder of how an NHL playoff series can turn on a dime.
So here we are with the Canucks in the Western Conference semifinals, meaning they have a 12.5 per cent chance at winning their first Stanley Cup. (Imagine being one of those “fans” who was dreaming about a 12.5 per cent chance at winning the first pick in the draft had the Canucks failed to beat Minnesota!) Yes, the Vegas Golden Knights are a tough opponent as we saw so clearly in their 5-0 win to open the series, but with the Canucks showing again they can bounce back from a poor performance, this could very well go a full seven games.
Flames and Habs bow out
It’s a shame Matthew Tkachuk went down to injury because playoff hockey isn’t the same without guys who play on the edge like he does. It was also a clear blow for the Calgary Flames in their bid to knock off the Dallas Stars. I’m not sure what general manager Brad Treliving should do in the offseason to help the Flames get over the hump, but their inability to close out games was striking. Big pieces may need to be moved.
As for the Montreal Canadiens, they exceeded the expectations of almost everyone in taking the Philadelphia Flyers to six games in their Eastern Conference series. The future looks bright for the Habs – the question is whether or not they can contend again before Carey Price is no longer Carey Price.
With the Canucks the last Canadian team still going, of course we get the media narratives about whether or not Vancouver is “Canada’s Team” and whether or not other Canadian hockey fans should get behind them. We discussed this on the podcast and came to a simple conclusion: cheer for whoever or whatever the hell you want. It doesn’t matter. The label is silly. Frankly, most Canuck supporters probably don’t even want the extra support. (2011 wasn’t THAT long ago.) For me, it would be nice if a Canadian team won the Stanley Cup to bring the trophy “home” so to speak, but if my team isn’t involved I’m watching as a neutral party. So far though it seems like a lot of the eastern-based hockey media find this version of the Canucks a lot more “likeable” than in the past. That’s good, I guess…
Officiating oddities persist
Inconsistent judgment is one thing (that will probably exist forever) but we must ask: how is it possible four zebras can screw up a non-discretionary call? That’s exactly what occurred in game 2 of the Canucks-Golden Knights series as Brock Boeser was called for delay of game for shooting a puck off the glass and out from his own zone. To be fair, the puck didn’t hit the glass very hard and it didn’t re-direct all that dramatically, so this wasn’t as easy a call as some might think. But when you have four officials out there tasked with looking for this stuff, they should be able to get this right 100 times out of 100. Luckily for the Canucks, this was merely a footnote in the game as they killed the penalty and went on to a 5-2 victory. If I were in charge of the officiating in these playoffs, that to me is enough for those officials to be cut after this round is over. If advancement through the tournament is a meritocracy, an error like that shouldn’t be overlooked. There is an obvious failsafe that could be implemented: make this type of call subject to video review. (What’s one more category to add to the mix?)
Meantime, the Colorado Avalanche are right to be pissed off about the 4-2 goal in game 2 of their series with the Stars. I can say quite confidently, from experience, there’s no way referee Dan O’Rourke clearly saw the puck over the goal line, from where he was positioned, as Esa Lindell was jamming away under the pad of goaltender Pavel Francouz. Avs captain Gabriel Landeskog alleged after the game that O’Rourke’s ruling was influenced by Lindell’s celebration and I have to agree. To me that ruling seemed like guesswork and because the ruling on the ice was a goal, there had to be conclusive video evidence to overturn the call. No, it wasn’t the go-ahead goal but that’s hard to accept if you’re a fan of the Avalanche. How this should have went: 1) no signal from the referee; 2) the officials gather to see if anyone clearly saw the puck across the line; 3) go to video review. Had it unfolded like this, the goal would not have counted. We can debate all day as to whether or not the puck was probably across the goal line but the precedent over the history of video review in hockey has been to only count goals that are clear and convincing with video evidence. (Ask a Calgary Flames fan who was watching in 2004.) For me that wasn’t the case and a breakdown in process is to blame.
NBC’s influence on the schedule
Lastly, I’m getting really sick and tired of all the complaining about the schedule. Many of these gripes are coming from people who frankly should know the answer already: this is a made for TV event and the U.S. rightsholder always takes precedence. Some Toronto media were fuming about game 1 of the Canucks-Golden Knights series being on at 10:30 Eastern Time on a Sunday night without giving any attention to the fact the NBC Sports Network was committed to showing NASCAR on Sunday afternoon. (After all, who expected NHL games in August?) It is what it is, folks. The games will be shown when it works for the broadcasters. They need all the eyeballs they can get after being forced to show re-runs of classic games and other filler during the four-month pause. Showing two games at the same time doesn’t serve anyone: not the league, not the networks and definitely not viewers. In this particular case, the start time works just fine for the fans of the teams involved as well. It’s funny how there isn’t noise made about fans of western teams having to take time off work to catch weekday afternoon games. Move on already.
Go Canucks Go!