Nobody could blame Bruins President Cam Neely if he was more than a little salty after the level of officiating in the Stanley Cup playoffs this season. The Hall of Fame player and B’s executive watched some truly bizarre officiating during Boston’s two rounds of the playoffs prior to them getting eliminated in Game 5 of the second round against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It does need to get addressed because the game has gotten faster,” said Neely, of the consistently questionable calls in the playoffs. “There were a lot of great, exciting matchups in the playoffs, and a lot of the talk – not just in our series – was about the officiating.”
Some of it was inexplicable like Patrice Bergeron getting tossed from the face-off circle more than two dozen times in the two playoff rounds against the Maple Leafs and Lightning. Some of it was flat-out incompetent like blowing a delay of game call in Game 3 against the Leafs when a Riley Nash clear attempt clearly hit the glass before hopping over the boards and earning the B’s third line center an undeserved penalty.
Some of it was downright negligent to Boston’s downfall including non-calls in Game 2 and Game 4 against the Lightning in the second round. The referees refused to call a penalty on a clear Anton Stralman slash to Brad Marchand’s hands on a breakaway in the third period of a one-goal game in what could have easily been a penalty shot.
Then in Game 4 they again swallowed the whistles when Nikita Kucherov essentially tackled Charlie McAvoy behind the Boston net in the third period of another one-goal game, and that sequence immediately preceded a game-tying goal from Steve Stamkos in the high slot area. Boston lost that pivotal game in overtime after never really recovering from the horrendous non-call, and it still rankled Bruins officials long after the series had concluded.
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“The thing that disappoints me the most, and not to take anything away from Tampa, is that I felt we should have been going back [to Tampa] for Game 5 tied at 2-2. That’s a whole different mindset than going down there 3-1 [in the series],” said Neely. “You can say all you want that the focus is just on one game, but as a player you do look at the big picture and say, ‘Man, we’ve got to win three in a row against this team.’ It’s a lot different mindset.
“How they don’t make that call when we’re up 3-2 with seven minutes to go? We should be going on the power play, and whether we score or not it’s going to chew up another two minutes of the game and then we’d have a different mindset going down to Tampa. It was the non-calls that really frustrated me the most. I’m not complaining about the calls we had against us. There were three that really bothered me: The Marchand slash non-call in Game 2, Kevan Miller got a boarding call earlier in that game and then [David Pastrnak] gets hit from behind and there’s no call late in the game, and then of course the non-call on [Charlie] McAvoy. For me those were tough to take.”
So what can be done about it all?
Neely proposed extending a video review/challenge options for plays like the faulty delay of game call from the Toronto series or the phantom high-sticking call vs. David Pastrnak in the second round that replays made clear Victor Hedman hit himself in the head with his own stick. The technology is clearly there to get those kinds of calls right, and all of the stops should be pulled out in the playoffs when a call here or there can make all the difference to a hockey club.
“It’s something that the league has to look at. I know they do that after every game, but I think they need to take a hard look at what’s happening with the refereeing. Because the game has gotten so much faster…are the referees able to keep up with the pace of the game?” asked Neely. “It’s fast out there. It’s something they really need to take a look at. With all of the great playoff series, one of the most common themes from reporters across the league was either the refereeing or it was Marchand’s licking. It took away from the great game that we have.
“Replay is [a way to keep up with the speed]. I’ll give you an example: It would take two seconds for somebody to call downstairs and say it was [Victor Hedman] that got hit with his own stick, and it’s a non-call [on David Pastrnak]. Something like that would be easy. The puck off the glass [for delay of game] in the Toronto series would be an easy call. If you get too deep into the weeds you’re going to find yourself with delays as the calls are being debated, but I think there are some really easy ones where you could call down and say ‘that wasn’t a penalty.’ There’s a lot of technology that can help you, but you really don’t want to get bogged down in the weeds slowing the game down [with replays] too much.”
But how about this for a radical idea: Allowing teams to challenge anything and everything up to twice in a game?
If the Bruins think they caught the butt end of a delay of game or high-sticking call they could challenge it to the officials, and let video review make the call just as it does for goalie interference and off-side plays right now. If the team gets the challenge wrong, then it costs them a two-minute minor penalty that should deter any of the frivolous review requests that could happen otherwise.
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More interestingly, it would allow teams to challenge egregious non-calls in certain circumstances like those that either lead to goals like Tampa’s game-tying score in Game 4, or deprive teams of a scoring chance like the obvious slash to Marchand in Game 2. There would be logistics to figure out, of course.
How much longer after a supposedly faulty non-call would a team be able to issue a challenge? How much would the added coach’s challenge options continue to bog down an NHL in-game product that’s supposed to be fast and action-packed rather than beset by delays?
These are all logistical issues that could be easily solved by the NHL, the officials and the NHLPA if it became a reality. But there’s very clearly a problem within the NHL when it comes to the on-ice officials on the ice consistently botching calls during the playoffs, and it seems to be getting worse rather than better over time. There’s a very narrow limit as to how much improvement could be reasonably expected out of the current on-ice officials after a shaky spring, and adding another on-ice referee really wouldn’t seem to be the answer.
Instead it may be time to acknowledge that the speed and frenetic action of the NHL now demands more than two refs and two linesmen are able to provide during a 60-minute hockey game. The NHL has the technology to get all of the controversial calls and non-calls correct if the 31 teams simply want to embrace a wider scope of challenges and video reviews. The guess here is that the Bruins organization would now be one of them after getting victimized by truly subpar officiating in the playoffs when the games matter most.