It is the National Hockey League’s nightmare scenario.
In the Stanley Cup Final, the high time of this multibillion-dollar sport, ardent supporters and casual hockey fans aren’t raving about the feats of Brad Marchand and Ryan O’Reilly, of Zdeno Chara and Alex Pietrangelo, of Tuukka Rask and Jordan Binnington.
They’re rehashing the failures of the men in stripes.
Those unfamiliar with the sport are asking about Kelly Sutherland, the latest referee to fall flat on the biggest stage. The NHL’s officiating crisis, renewed Thursday night at TD Garden, has created a critical point.
Sutherland, considered one of the league’s best referees, did not see — or see fit to call — a penalty when St. Louis Blues forward Tyler Bozak upended Bruins forward Noel Acciari with a leg sweep in the third period of Game 5. Acciari, who fell backward and hit his head on the ice, was taken out of the play and the game. With Acciari on his knees after the hit, the Blues scored what would be the winning goal — hockey’s ultimate insult to injury. The Blues can clinch the Stanley Cup in Game 6 on Sunday night in St. Louis.
The Bruins, trying to win their first Cup since 2011, are ensnared in the NHL’s latest officiating snafu.
They have plenty of miserable company.
In the first round of the playoffs, the Vegas Golden Knights lost Game 7 after a referee mistakenly penalized Cody Eakin for a five-minute major and a game misconduct for cross-checking, instead of the two-minute minor it deserved. The San Jose Sharks scored four times on the artificially inflated power play and won in overtime. Referees Dan O’Halloran and Eric Furlatt were suspended for the remainder of the playoffs. Vegas’s president, Bill Foley, said the league apologized to his club.
In the second round of the playoffs, the Colorado Avalanche believed they had tied Game 7 against the Sharks, but a video review showed captain Gabriel Landeskog was offside. The goal was called back, even though Landeskog was well out of the play — essentially, a critical goal was wiped out on a call that didn’t matter. Also in the second round, the Columbus Blue Jackets scored against the Bruins after officials missed a puck hitting the protective netting above the glass, which should have caused a stop in play — had any of the four officials noticed. Boston won the game, and the series.
In the Western Conference final, the Blues had to overcome a Game 3 overtime loss that came when officials did not see Sharks forward Timo Meier illegally bat the puck with his glove to teammate Erik Karlsson, who scored the winning goal.
The NHL cannot address its non-calls, other than issues that fall to its Department of Player Safety. Commissioner Gary Bettman, on the job since 1992, acknowledged ahead of the Stanley Cup Final that the league would assess its use of video replay, officiating standards, and rulebook after the playoffs. Some penalties are reviewable, some are not. Like most pro sports rulebooks, the NHL’s is byzantine.
“What I thought was it would be good if I kept my head from exploding,” Bettman said of the hand pass in the Blues-Sharks series. “I was unhappy. We all were.”
That is no comfort to any of the unfortunate teams. For the Bruins, as baseball great Yogi Berra once said, it is deja vu all over again.
In Game 3 of a first-round series with Ottawa in 2017, referee Tim Peel missed a blatant elbow by Senators forward Bobby Ryan and called only a retaliatory punch by Boston’s Riley Nash. Ryan scored the OT winner on the ensuing power play. The Bruins lost the series two games later.
In Game 4 of last year’s second round between the Bruins and the Lightning, Tampa Bay tied Game 4 in the third period after Nikita Kucherov mugged Charlie McAvoy behind the net, with no call from now-retired referee Brad Watson, and Steven Stamkos hammered home the turnover for a goal. The Lightning won in overtime, and ended the series in Game 5.
In Game 5 of this Cup Final, Sutherland and Co. missed two illegal hits to the heads of Bruins — one of which resulted in Blues forward Ivan Barbashev being suspended one game after a review by the league — a hold against Bruins defenseman Torey Krug that nearly led to a St. Louis goal, and the Acciari trip that Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy called “egregious” in heated postgame comments.
From umpire Don Denkinger calling a runner safe in the 1985 World Series to the “Colorado fifth down,” to the Soviets getting extra time in the 1972 Olympic gold-medal basketball game to Maradona’s “Hand of God,” botched officiating has long been part of the fabric of sports. Missed calls can be comical or even charming . . . unless they go against your favorite team.
The Patriots’ opponent in Super Bowl LIII in February, the Los Angeles Rams, arrived there via a missed a pass interference penalty in the fourth quarter of their NFC Championship win over the New Orleans Saints. The Saints will never forget that one.
Hockey, with the quickest pace of the major sports, is rife with human error. But it hasn’t seen a rash of controversial calls like this. The NHL knows fans, its teams, and the press are agitated over officiating, a senior official acknowledged privately.
When the NHL’s general managers meet in Vancouver on June 20, in advance of the league’s annual amateur draft, they will grapple with this: How can a league with more than $4.5 billion in revenue remain in this quagmire?
Longtime commentator Mike “Doc” Emrick, who is calling the Cup Final for NBC, is one of the game’s great ambassadors. Even he is looking for the prescription.
“It is a game governed by judgment calls,” he said, “and when you see what we see on replay, it’s mystifying.”