After Another Controversial Ending It's Time for the NHL to Figure it Out
By Scott Lowe - MYHockeyRankings.com
It happens this time every year, and it’s as predictable as Pavlov’s dogs, the swallows returning to Capistrano and Canada geese heading north after their annual southern winter vacation.
New and casual hockey fans tune into to see this spectacle called the Stanley Cup Playoffs us diehards are always clamoring about. The number of newbies ramps up even more during the Finals, which is where we find ourselves today.
After missing nearly three weeks of action following surgery on his injured thumb, Nazem Kadri returned Wednesday night and scored the overtime game-winning goal as the Colorado Avalanche rallied from an early deficit to skate off with a 3-2 Game 4 victory and take a 3-1 series lead against Tampa Bay in Florida.
It was the type of hockey game that drew so many of us to the sport the first time we watched it.
There was a dramatic comeback, high-speed end-to-end action throughout the evening, amazing goaltending, a healthy dose of physicality and a heart-stopping overtime. And all of that was capped off with an amazing individual effort from a player who likely isn’t playing at 100 percent. Kadri took a feed at full speed crossing the Lightning blue line then sliced through and around the defense before somehow tucking the puck into the top of the net just under the crossbar.
It was such a perfect shot that only one guy on the ice – Avalanche defenseman Bowen Byram – knew it was a goal.
While the players around the goal mouth, a referee and a linesman looked in vain for the puck, probably assuming that best-goalie-on-the-planet Andrei Vasilevskiy had made another jaw-dropping save, Byram sprinted in from 75 feet away pointing at the puck, which was nestled in the top of the cage, stuck between the back crossbar and the twine.
The officials still didn’t seem convinced as Colorado players began celebrating in the corner, but the evidence was there, and it was irrefutable. The puck was stuck in the top of the net and wasn’t moving without human assistance.
The ending was reminiscent of Patrick Kane’s Cup-winning goal in 2010, another moment that left many of us hockey fans explaining what had just happened to friends who may only watch a few hockey games a year. It all too frequently seems like when there is a dramatic NHL postseason ending it comes with some sort of controversy that leaves those on the losing side with something to complain about.
Was Bobby Nystrom onside when the Islanders won their first Cup vs. Philadelphia?
Was Brett Hull’s toe in the crease on the Dallas Stars’ triple-OT game-winner?
Did Kane’s shot really go in?
Did a hand pass help San Jose win a Western Conference Finals game, and what about the bogus crosscheck by Cody Eakin on Joe Pavelksi that contributed to an infamous Vegas playoff meltdown?
Did the Lightning really have seven skaters on the ice when they potted the go-ahead goal in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals?
Wait, what? Seven skaters on the ice?
Is that allowed?
In last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, Tampa Bay Lightning forward Ondrej Palat scored a huge go-ahead goal after which New York Islanders Coach Barry Trotz claimed the video showed they had seven players on the ice. The high endzone replay at link above does show six Lightning players on the ice, with none close enough to the bench to be changing and a seventh player hopping the boards to get to the bench. The puck enters the net before the sixth skater is off the ice.
That brings us back to last night. Once the officials figured out the puck was definitively in the net and the Avs finally realized they could officially celebrate, that was it, right? Good goal.
Not so fast. Our good friend Karma was about to enter the chat.
Everything seemed fine until someone noticed that the official hard-copy scoresheet provided for the media in the press box listed six Colorado players on the ice when the deciding goal was scored. Well, six skaters plus goaltender Darcy Kuemper. The official scoresheet posted on NHL.com later only listed five skaters as defenseman Erik Johnson, who wears No. 6, was removed according to this Tweet by ESPN NHL writer Greg Wyshinski.
The funny thing about this is that Johnson wasn’t the player in question. The player coming off the ice who was replaced by the Kadri, the eventual scorer, was No. 29 Nathan MacKinnon. A clearly exhausted MacKinnon labored to get off the ice as shown by this angle. As he slowly made his way toward the bench, Kadri eagerly jumped onto the ice and joined the rush immediately.
Kadri had both feet firmly on the ice and started moving at the 11-second mark of that video. He curled back toward center ice and then cut hard toward the opposing goal, receiving the puck as he entered the offensive zone at about the 15-second mark. That’s at least a full four seconds after his skates touched the ice, which normally wouldn’t a big deal except that he initially joined the play when the player he eventually replaced literally was standing right next to the goal crease at least 60-feet from the bench by a conservative estimate.
On top of that, Kadri was the next player to receive the puck, and if you compare the view from that angle with what the bench camera shows here, you can see Vasilevkiy clearly positioning himself to play Kadri’s shot as Kadri entered the screen at about the eight-second mark. At that point. MacKinnon’s skates still were on the ice.
But that’s not the real problem. The real issue is that Kadri received the puck at the blue line, skated all the way in and was preparing to take the shot while MacKinnon was still on the ice.
There is no doubt that by the letter of the law this is an infraction that should have been penalized.
From the 2021-22 NHL Rulebook:
When a player is retiring from the ice surface and is within the five foot (5’) limit of his players’ bench, and his substitute is on the ice, then the retiring player shall be considered off the ice for the purpose of Rule 70 – Leaving Bench. If in the course of making a substitution, either the player entering the game or the player retiring plays the puck or who checks or makes any physical contact with an opposing player while both players involved in the substitution are on the ice, then the infraction of “too many men on the ice” will be called.
Kadri clearly jumped onto the ice well before MacKinnon was within five feet of the bench AND he obviously handled the puck while MacKinnon still had both skates on the ice. Again, the evidence appears to be irrefutable. It’s hard to tell exactly, but it looks as though MacKinnon is still on the ice as the goal is scored, too.
Many folks have pointed out that Tampa Bay may have had too many players on the ice, too, as the play was unfolding, but that makes no difference since the play would have been blown dead as soon as the infraction was discovered with Colorado in possession of the puck.
The hardest part about explaining all of this to casual fans is making them understand how this could possibly happen at all, especially in a situation that led to the deciding goal.
After all, you never see 10 players on a baseball field, and it’s the officials’ job in basketball to make sure the ball is not put in play if a team has six players on the floor. Soccer also only allows substitutions at dead-ball situations. In football, occasionally a 12th player may sneak into a huddle or even participate in a play, but officials are designated to count the players on each side of the ball before the snap, and coaches can make a video challenge if a play is completed and the opposing team has too many players on the field.
Because hockey is a free-flowing game that requires line changes every 30-to-45 seconds as a result of the sport’s cardiovascular demands – and in which the possession of the puck turns over ever few seconds even at the highest levels – there is a need for teams to “change on the fly” while play is proceeding. Forcing players to travel all the way to their bench before allowing another player to enter the ice surface would slow the game down and change the strategy completely.
That’s why players are allowed to join the play when the teammate they are replacing is within five feet of the bench as long as they don’t impact the play by touching the puck or physically impeding and opponent before that player is completely off the ice. Quite simply, it makes the game faster, which makes it better and more exciting to watch.
While ardent hockey fans know all of this, helping the novice observer understand the rule can range from frustrating to futile – especially when there may be times in which a team might have eight or nine players on the ice at the same time after a puck is dumped into the offensive zone to allow for a wholesale line change. Making any explanation even more challenging is the selective-enforcement approach so many NHL officials seem to take late in close games and during the playoffs.
For example, a play such as the one that resulted in Kadri’s game-winning goal in which a player jumps into the play well before the player he is replacing is within five feet of the bench might be ignored 99 percent of the time as long as neither player plays the puck or hits someone immediately.
Had Kadri jumped on too soon and the shift continued without him – or someone else – scoring a goal, none of us would be talking about this today. It happens frequently, and frankly in overtime during the regular season or in the playoffs it is going to be ignored 99.5 percent of the time. No official wants to decide a game of that magnitude by calling a too-many-men penalty when it doesn’t lead directly to a scoring opportunity.
“But rules are rules, right?”
That’s what fans of other sports will say. And our reply as hockey fans might be, “Well, yeah. Sometimes.”
Many sports fans recognize that there are times in games when officials in most sports might swallow their whistles or let players get away with more physical play than normal so as not to have too much of an influence on the outcome. There seem to be remedies in other sports when an egregious officiating error leads to a potential game-deciding play, however.
Foul calls and critical possessions awarded on balls that go out of bounds can be reviewed in the NBA. Scoring plays and turnovers automatically are reviewed in the NFL, and coaches can challenge a variety of other rulings that they feel are questionable. Even soccer has instated a Video Assistant Referee (VAR) to help ensure that games are not decided by erroneous calls.
In hockey, video reviews essentially are limited to missed offsides calls that result in goals, whether a puck completely crosses the goal line and should or should not be ruled a goal, whether a goal was the result of a goaltender being interfered with or a puck that was directed into the net with a distinct kicking motion and whether a puck played with a high stick resulted in a goal.
The problem with the NHL’s system is that it still allows the officials’ nebulous criteria for making or not making calls in certain situations to detract from the sport while also making it difficult for casual fans to understand. No system is perfect, and even objective rulings about what should be a goal, a touchdown or offsides can be skewed by less-than-ideal camera angles or not having cameras positioned in places to accurately determine whether a call is right or wrong.
How many times has even a rabid hockey fan walked away from a game with a sour aftertaste because of a goalie-interference ruling made following a long video review that no one seems to understand? The same can be said for reviews of pucks that appear to have been kicked into the net.
Reviewing mainly plays that are more subjective than objective in nature always will lead to a certain percentage of disgruntled fans who will raise all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories about how the league hates their favorite team. (And yes, when it comes to that, I personally am guilty as charged).
But giving officials the leeway – or perhaps even encouraging them – not to make certain calls in specific situations often backfires on the NHL, especially when that approach is intended to ensure that the officials don’t have as much impact on critical plays that influence a game’s outcome.
Letting blatant penalties that occur in overtime even when those plays take away clear and obvious scoring opportunities in no way makes the sport better. Similarly, teams that work hard all season to develop a power play that is dangerous and allows them to capitalize on another team’s unintelligent or lazy play at a higher rate than their opponents shouldn’t be penalized by officials who choose to look the other way when the stakes are highest.
Teams that use the rules to their advantage and play disciplined hockey shouldn’t risk elimination because an officiating crew, the league or both decide in advance that games are going to be called differently based on the time of year they are played or the situation in a particular contest or playoff series.
But if that leeway is provided for officials – and if the league encourages a “let them play” mentality late in games or in the postseason – there should be a mechanism in place to ensure that type of approach doesn’t unfairly decide the outcome of games.
Maybe it’s okay to let that line change happen last night given the circumstances and the stakes, but once it led to a game-winning goal the play should have been reviewed to make sure it should have counted.
Telling a fan who is new to the sport that a team blatantly violated a rule and gained an advantage that led to them winning a game and taking a commanding lead in the league’s championship series – and that there was no way for that play to be reviewed – isn’t likely to make that casual fan want to spend hard-earned money to attend five or 10 games a year anytime soon. It becomes a credibility issue.
And justification from the league such as what it posted on social media doesn’t help either.
Here is what the NHL had to say after the Tampa Bay Coach Jon Cooper spoke cryptically about what happened during his postgame media session and the social media eruption that ensued.
"Following the game, Hockey Operations met with the four officials as is their normal protocol," the NHL said in its statement. "In discussing the winning goal, each of the four officials advised that they did not see a too-many-men-on-the-ice situation on the play. This call is not subject to video review either by Hockey Ops or the on-ice officials."
It’s a judgment call. Well, of course it is. Most of them are, but it is a judgment call until it isn’t.
The NHL has no issue with halting game for several minutes in January to overturn a call that occurs after a player was offside by a mere toenail but can’t take three minutes after a Stanley Cup Finals game is decided in overtime to make sure there were no improprieties that contributed to the game-winning goal?
A quick video review of that play by any reasonable person would have led to the goal being overturned.
NHL hockey is the fastest sport on the planet. Players are jumping on and off the ice all the time. Officials often must have their heads on a swivel in hopes of being able to track what is going on in various areas of the rink at the same time. Considering each official’s specific responsibilities, it’s a given that there are times when they have to prioritize something that is going on in front of them over something else that may be going on elsewhere.
For example, by going back and watching the play from the bench angle again, it’s not hard to understand how the referee might have seen the first Colorado player approaching the bench with Kadri jumping on and assumed that’s the change that was going to happen. At that point it’s understandable that he might have diverted his attention to something else since the puck was traveling back up the ice toward the Tampa Bay defensive zone.
The linesman on the opposite side of the ice likely was preparing for a potential zone entry and checking for offsides instead of focusing on the Colorado bench. The trailing linesman might have been in the same boat as the referee, thinking that Kadri was coming on for the player who was closer to the bench, while the referee on the other side of the ice certainly was focusing on the puck carrier.
So, while it’s entirely possible that one of the officials saw the change and decided it wasn’t something that warranted a penalty call in a critical overtime situation, it’s also possible that there was so much going on in the heat of the moment that all four officials missed it.
No matter the cause, though, one thing is certain. Once the puck was in the net, there was no going back. A late whistle couldn’t salvage the situation, and by rule the play was not reviewable.
Whether the NHL’s “let them play” officiating mentality – something that regularly frustrates the sport’s most serious fans – backfired or the officiating crew blew the call, the situation easily could have been corrected with a common-sense approach.
The fact that another classic game ended in unnecessary controversy not only damages the NHL’s credibility but also adds to the frustration felt by the sport’s most invested fans. Meanwhile, those who are new to the sport are forced to turn to their hockey-fan friends once again to figure out what the heck is going on.
There has to be a better way, and it’s about time the NHL figured that out.