It’s advisable to steer clear of the yearly playoff officiating discourse whenever possible. The calls typically even out. The NHL’s officiating this postseason has been so inconsistent, so haphazard, that it is an unavoidable topic.
In this third round alone, we had a goal scored with seven Lightning skaters on the ice. We had Islander Scott Mayfield’s pair of cross-checks on Steven Stamkos, which sent him face-first into the dasher, and Nikita Kucherov, which knocked the leading playoff scorer out for Game 6. In Game 3 of the Montreal-Vegas series, referee Chris Lee missed a high stick that left Corey Perry bloody. He was standing a few feet away as Brayden McNabb punched Nick Suzuki in the face.
You may be thinking of several more incidents left unmentioned. Maybe something from the Bruins’ playoff run?
Rage against the referees has been a part of hockey since the puck was a chunk of wood and the sticks were fashioned from saplings. There used to be a few cameras in the building, and now there’s a few hundred, and we can clearly see what the officials a few feet away miss, as the players skate by in a blur. Maybe we should accept that they’re going to miss some bad ones.
Judging by the numbers, nothing should change. On average, officials call more penalties in the playoffs than in the regular season. According to the NHL, playoff games in the last two seasons have averaged 8.33 penalty calls, compared with 7.05 during the regular season.
But that doesn’t sound right, does it? When the prize is greater, players battle harder, empty their tanks completely, finish checks more violently. Why aren’t there more penalties called?
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, through a league spokesperson, told the Globe that players, not officials, determine the calls.
“Officials are directed and encouraged to call the same standard as in the regular season,” Daly said. “That’s always been the case, but it’s been an even greater point of emphasis in recent years. What changes in the playoffs is the way the game is played on the ice, and that changes how officiating is perceived.”
Not everyone buys that.
“It’s different from regular season to playoffs. The refs are letting a little bit more stuff go,” Vegas winger Jonathan Marchessault said, calling it “adversity that teams need to face in the playoffs. Good teams will find a way to go through it. Just have to battle through it. Find a way.”
More bluntly, NBC analyst Brian Boucher tweeted he was “tired of people crying about officiating. Deal with it!”
Sure … but … why? Do we want what amounts to a different rulebook for the postseason?
Does it make sense that Connor McDavid can go eight games over the last two playoffs without drawing a penalty, despite numerous clear-cut infractions against him? Analyst Rachel Doerrie said she watched every McDavid shift from the Oilers-Jets series and counted 30 non-calls. McDavid, as you’d expect from the league’s premier talent, had the most offensive-zone puck possession time of any player during the regular season, according to Sportlogiq. He earned 53 penalty calls in 120 games, ranking sixth in the NHL. Not one penalty call in the postseason?
Longtime NHL official Kerry Fraser, who retired in 2010, said the missed calls this year have been “troublesome,” pointing to a “regression” in the performance of veterans in stripes.
“This is painful to say, and to watch, because I know all these guys, and worked with some of them,” Fraser said on TSN 1050 in Toronto. “They’re good people. They don’t deserve the kind of work that they’re putting forth.
“That’s not fair. That’s not right. As a player, you would look at yourself first. But you would also look at the kind of direction you’re getting … you’ve got to look at the game plan.”
Paul Stewart, the longtime former NHL ref from Dorchester, noted in a phone conversation that officials don’t have regular pregame meetings during the season, but they do in the playoffs. That’s where all kinds of bugs can be put in their ears — like “No. 11 is cheating on faceoffs,” he said, conjuring an example that would perk the ears of Bruce Cassidy.
Though the league has denied it, “letting the players play” is a long-accepted practice. A few seasons ago (2017), the NHL told its men in stripes to focus on slashes to the hands. That’s how we get what happened in Game 4 of Vegas-Montreal: Joel Edmundson retaliated by cross-checking William Carrier into the boards (no call), Suzuki hooked Alec Martinez on the hands (penalty).
“This is an annual event,” Fraser said. “We have one set of rules in the regular season, and then a whole different standard in the playoffs.
“Yes, we like to let them play, but when you let the players decide the outcome of a game, which I never subscribed to, then you’re actually as a referee letting things go that could affect the outcome of the game.
“Draw the line. Players will play within it. They’re smart. But if you let the inmates run the prison, the warden might as well take his skates off and watch it on TV.”
Canadiens an unlikely finalist, or are they?
This is as deep as the Canadiens have been in a generation. They have not been to the Stanley Cup Final since 1993, when they won the most recent Cup in their (and Canada’s) history.
And they got there on an overtime goal. The last time they went to the Final on an OT winner was … for the sake of anyone who remembers 1979, let’s not go there. Already too much discussion of penalties here.
But give the Habs their props. They took it to a Vegas team that rolled over the West Division, and now we have to question whether the West, not the North, was the weakest division in hockey. The Knights went a combined 33-6-1 against the Ducks, Coyotes, Kings, Sharks and Blues, two of which (Arizona and St. Louis) made the playoffs last year. They split with Colorado (4-4-0) and went 3-4-1 against surprising Minnesota.
Entering the postseason, the commonly held belief was that Colorado, Vegas and Tampa were the three best teams, and that an eventual Avalanche-Knights series would be a de-facto Cup Final. But the Avs flunked out, and the Habs shut down that raucous party in the scorching desert summer.
This, from a team that fired Claude Julien and finished 18th in the regular-season standings. Montreal was supposed to be blown out by Toronto in the first round. But after offing the Maple Leafs in seven (coming back from a 3-1 deficit) and sweeping the Jets, here they are.
Not enough offense? Young talent too unreliable? Carey Price is washed up? Oublie ça. Forget it.
A major key, to this eye: after Julien was fired in February, interim coach Dominique Ducharme — who last week gave way to assistant Luke Richardson because of a positive COVID-19 test — asked his team to play more passively in the neutral zone. Similar to the Islanders, the Canadiens play patient and reliable defense, work as a unit, and strike off turnovers. They don’t dominate the puck or own the offensive zone. It doesn’t matter. They had 14 different goal scorers, a dozen among the forwards.
Nick Suzuki is making plays all over the ice, showing why Julien liked to compare him with a Patrice Bergeron-in-training. Shutdown center Phillip Danault neutralized Mark Stone (0-0—0, seven shots) to a degree rarely seen, after having a similar effect on the Maple Leafs’ Auston Matthews. Brendan Gallagher, after missing the last six weeks of the regular season with a broken thumb, is back in his heart-and-soul role, irritating Vegas stalwart Alex Pietrangelo enough to draw consistent attention away from the play. Corey Perry is still an on-ice jerk, albeit one with some gas left in his tank.
Montreal leans heavily on four big defenders (Ben Chiarot, Shea Weber, Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson), all of whom play 23-25 minutes a night. Jon Merrill (13) and Erik Gustafsson (sub-10) don’t see much action, the latter used mostly for power plays. Montreal is 11-0 this postseason when scoring twice. While Price has been stellar, he isn’t making a slew of spectacular stops. He’s seeing pucks.
It’s a team that blends age (Perry and Eric Staal, both 36; Weber, 35; Price, 33) with youth (Suzuki, 21; Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield, 20) and had enough grit to withstand whatever Vegas threw its way.
Caufield, the Habs’ version of Alex DeBrincat, scored four times in the series, including a Game 6 goal that showed his touch, acceleration, shot and verve. After Vegas netminder Robin Lehner shut him down on a Game 4 breakaway and cracked how five-hole or high glove were Caufield’s two moves, the rookie roasted him upstairs.
After sitting Caufield for the first two games against the Leafs (and Kotkaniemi for Game 1), Ducharme found one of the breakout stars of the playoffs. Game 6 was the ex-Wisconsinite’s 24th career game, his 14th in the playoffs. Caufield won the Hobey Baker some 10 weeks ago. He can still win the Calder Trophy next year.
If Tampa is next, Montreal won’t shrink. They enter the final having killed 30 consecutive power plays — a league-record 13 straight games without a PPG allowed — so why would the Lightning’s man-advantage scare them?
Ex-Blackhawks video coach accused of sexual assault
Think of the Chicago Blackhawks of the 2010s and what comes to mind? Probably the names of star players — Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith — and the three Cups they won.
The legacy of that team might be shifting.
TSN recently uncovered stunning claims of sexual assault on the watch of the Blackhawks’ management. The Canadian outlet reported that two former Blackhawks reported to then-skills coach Paul Vincent in May 2010 that they had been abused by video coach Brad Aldrich, who went on to abuse others at subsequent career stops.
Vincent, of Beverly, told TSN recently his plea to Hawks management to take the allegations to Chicago police was rejected. He says he is willing to testify on behalf of the plaintiffs in court.
In May, two unnamed players filed lawsuits against the franchise, alleging the team covered up alleged abuses by Aldrich.
According to multiple reports, Aldrich was convicted of abusing a 17-year-old player in Houghton, Mich., in 2013. He resigned from his position as Miami University hockey operations director months before, under suspicion of “unwanted touching of a male adult,” according to police records obtained by TSN.
A former Blackhawks marketing official told TSN that Aldrich would “routinely befriend young interns” and invite them to hang out at his Chicago apartment. The official said he was told to “steer clear” of Aldrich because he had “tried something” with a few players, and that “the entire training staff, a lot of people knew” about Aldrich’s behavior — it was “open secret,” the official said.
It is a situation the Blackhawks and the NHL must address. Neither entity has commented.
Ex-Stars defenseman roller-blading for mental health
Got big summer plans? Stephen Johns didn’t, until a couple weeks ago.
The former Dallas defenseman, who did not play last season because of post-concussion syndrome, retired June 13 and announced a new adventure: he’s roller-blading and road-tripping across the US to raise awareness for mental health.
Johns, from Wampum, Pa., reports he traveled from Pittsburgh to Wisconsin in his first week, logging roughly 40 miles a day. He’s on three wheels, with a helmet, elbow pads and wrist guards, and has a friend, Jeff Toates, driving alongside him, documenting the trip and carrying necessities. There has been lace bite and leg burn. In Chicago, the former Notre Dame standout skated to Lake Michigan and did a front flip into the water.
The genesis of the trip was Johns’s battle with depression, which sank him during a 2018-19 season in which he suffered a head injury during training camp in Boise, Idaho. He did not play the entire season. After 22 months away from the game, he returned to play 17 games in 2020, earning a finalist nod for the Masterton Trophy.
Johns recently wrote on Instagram that he was “tired of letting depression destroy my life,” and wanted to provide the same kind of inspiration to those facing their own battles.
“What I miss most about the game of hockey is providing inspiration,” he wrote. “If I can inspire one person to climb out of their hole, then that’s a successful trip.”
Swerve in Seattle: Dave Hakstol, who coached the Flyers (and made a pair of first-round exits) from 2015-19 and was a Maple Leafs assistant the last two years, is the expansion Kraken’s first head coach. Hakstol did good work with Toronto’s defense (in two years, 26th to seventh in goals against). Bruce Cassidy and Mike Sullivan, among many others, would tell you that all you need is a second chance … Gerard Gallant, the Rangers’ replacement for David Quinn, wants to coach the “hardest-working team in the league,” which is a thing often said during introductory press conferences. Will GM Chris Drury add a few gritty types to fill out the roster? Are the Rangers a playoff team next season? We say yes, and no … Expecting some team to overpay for Vegas’ Alec Martinez, the defense-first, top-four defender with two Stanley Cup rings from Los Angeles. Same feeling about Tampa’s David Savard and Blake Coleman, and whichever UFAs the Islanders don’t re-sign on their fourth line … The Sedin twins are back in Vancouver, Canucks GM Jim Benning hiring them as special advisers to learn the management side. “We care about this team,” Henrik said, noting that he and brother Daniel have a lot to learn. Any fresh ideas on how to sign RFAs Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes, with $15 million in cap space and a roster that currently includes 15 skaters? ... The NWHL’s Toronto Six made a splashy move, hiring Hockey Hall of Famer Angela James as an assistant coach … Who’s going to be a more interesting TV analyst: Wayne Gretzky on Turner or Mark Messier on ESPN? Not expecting spicy takes from either ... RIP to René Robert, a member of the Sabres’ famed French Connection line, who died at 72. Robert gave Buffalo its first win in a Stanley Cup Final game by finishing Game 3 against the Flyers in 1975 with an OT strike in a foggy Buffalo Auditorium … Podcast recommendation: Bernie Corbett’s “Games People Play,” featuring lengthy interviews with a range of sports figures (including the Globe’s Bob Ryan and John Powers). Hockey subjects include Keith Tkachuk, Theo Fleury, Bryan Trottier and Eddie Johnston ... Draft trivia: forward Cole Sillinger, a first-round prospect, is the son of well-traveled Mike Sillinger, who made an NHL-record 12 stops during his 18-year career. Cole was born during his father’s two-year stay in Columbus … The aluminum bottles and cans were likely empty — why would anyone waste a drop? — when Islanders fans celebrated a Game 6 win by giving the Nassau Coliseum sheet a silver shower. Throwing objects is normally a protest, not a celebration, but that’s life at the old barn in Uniondale. “That building coming into overtime was smelling like cigarettes,” mused winning goal-scorer Anthony Beauvillier. “Now it smells like beers.”