Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Snow Job

The game of hockey is both played and officiated at lightning speed. At any given point in time a referee will be charged with tracking the actions of 10 or more mutant humans on ice skates chasing a 3 inch disk of rubber all over the rink. Now factor in pressure from the home crowd, constant chatter from players and coaches, plus the very real possibility of looking like a rube on national television. Finally of course if it's a playoff game the expectations and emotions (typically anger) of two entire cities come into the picture as well. A referee will be forgiven for a missed call in a meaningless February grind-fest but once the lights go up on the NHL's second season there is no margin for error. This is not an easy job and as such I typically try to be understanding when NHL referees miss calls during a game; particularly away from the play. They say you shouldn't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes and having reffed a few high school hockey games I can say with some certainty that mistakes are going to happen at the best of times. The NHL playoffs are definitely not the best of times for a referee.

In light of the above I watched games 4 and 5 of the Wings-Hawks series this year in relative silence. The officiating for both games could at best be described as uneven. It was clear early on that the Hawks had been instructed to get more physical with the Wings by the coaching staff and that included a stunning array of shoves, holds, gloves to the face and general stick-work at every opportunity. Particularly noticeable were the number of times a Hawks player grabbed the stick or shoulder pads of a Wing as both were bearing down for the puck. It didn't take long for me to realize that the refs were going to call virtually none of these penalties in either game and by midway through the second period the Wings had seemingly noticed too. One of the most memorable images of the series came in game 4 when Toews and Zetterberg got tangled up right next to an official who was trying to separate them. As the two players parted, Toews took a wicked two-handed hack at Hank DIRECTLY in front of the referee; no penalty. The look of confusion and frustration of Zetterberg's face mirrored my own but I quickly dismissed it as "just another bad no-call." Naturally with this kind of officiating both games became chippy and while it seemed to me Chicago was getting away with more than the Wings I conceded that it was probably because they were trying to commit more penalties than Detroit was. There was even a point in game 4 when I believed Chicago had been robbed of a goal on a questionable interference call simply to make up for an atrocious penalty against the Wings moments before. In other words; both games were officiated poorly and in Chicago's favor but no more so than I expected from your typical NHL referee.

Last night was different. Last night was the kind of game that makes you crazy, that makes you start to ask disturbing questions about the role of the officials in a playoff hockey game. Last night's officiating was a crime against hockey and the only question in my mind now is: was it intentional?  On it's face the idea that an NHL referee would purposely manipulate the game to favor one team over another is ludicrous. The competitive integrity of professional sports leagues is pretty much all that separates them from bush league "sports entertainment" acts like "professional" wrestling. Logic dictates that there would simply be too much at stake for even a megalomaniac like Gary Bettman to "fix" a playoff game. You could of course always have a rogue referee who's manipulating the game for his own purposes but the presence of 4 on ice officials in every game makes even that scenario implausible. No folks, the truth is that the officiating in last night's game was likely a function of pure incompetence; it only looked like the fix was in because all of the key calls happened to go against the Red Wings.

As those of you who watched the game are no doubt aware, Game 6 didn't open very well for the Red Wings or their fans. At the 3:44 mark of the 1st period Jakub Kindl was assessed a 2 minute minor penalty for interference along the boards while finishing a legal-enough looking check. The call was questionable at best for a playoff game but it seemed to indicate that the game would be tightly officiated after games 4 and 5 had gotten out of hand. As we all know Chicago took all of 9 seconds to score on the ensuing power play and put the Red Wings behind almost immediately. While the call itself was bad enough the rest of the period was by far more frustrating. On back to back Detroit rushes almost immediately after Chicago's goal, Detroit skaters were impeded on similar if not worse plays by Blackhawk defenders. First a Chicago defender kept Zetterberg from going outside on him by throwing Hank into the boards and pinning him there with his glove, stick and knee. No penalty was called despite the referee standing no more than 8 yards away. Then, not 40 seconds later Pavel broke in down the other side and had his stick held while a Chicago defender shoved his skate in between Datsyuk's to ensure the Detroit forward couldn't move towards the goal. Once again there was no call despite the official having a clear view of the play as he trailed the puck. To be fair these kinds of calls are missed all of the time in playoff hockey but that only serves to make the Kindl penalty all the more infuriating in the final analysis.

Things improved somewhat in the 2nd period; the officiating was still pretty questionable but most of the non-calls at this point were consistent with how the rest of the series had been refereed. Naturally, this favored Chicago but that's primarily because Detroit isn't as physical as the Hawks are and the Wings never really bothered to take advantage of lax officiating. There *was* a questionable roughing call against Johan Franzen early in the period that bears mentioning. Franzen threw a check towards a Chicago puck carrier with his arms too high and in the process of finishing his check made contact with his elbow on the player's helmet. Naturally the Chicago defender (Niklas Hjalmarsson) goes down like a ton of bricks holding his head as though he'd been shot. On replay however, the contact was neither severe or intentional and in my experience its not the kind of penalty most referees will call in a Stanley Cup playoff game; particularly in light the fouls the officials were allowing at other points in the contest. Detroit killed off the ensuing power play so the call ended up being largely irrelevant, except that it helped establish more confusion about what was and wasn't going to be called a penalty in the game.

The 3rd period however was a complete disaster; in part because of the Red Wings overall play and in part because of the sorry excuse for officiating that transpired. Detroit entered the frame up 2-1 but gave up the equalizing goal to Michal Handzus a mere 51 seconds into the 3rd. It was a pretty goal by the Chicago forward and one certainly has to question why he was completely uncovered on the play by Wings d-man Brendan Smith. It also should never have happened. Roughly 15 seconds before the goal on the rush into the Wing's zone Hawks forward Bryan Bickell clearly strikes Smith in the face with a high stick while a linesman is skating 5 feet away and staring directly at the play. The high stick doesn't excuse Smith completely forgetting how to play defense a few moments later but the puck wouldn't have even been in Detroit's zone if the linesman had simply called the clear penalty in front of him. Things didn't improve as the period wore on. The next Blachawks goal was registered less than 5 minutes later while play was allowed to continue after Chicago was clearly offside. Now before you jump down my throat and scream that Franzen played the puck into the zone a second time I'm going to ask you to watch the video of the play. Did you see it? At roughly 0:05 of the video Marian Hossa touches the puck outside of the zone while both he and Toews are still inside the zone. That's offside folks and it doesn't matter at all what happens afterwards when Franzen and Bickell battle for the puck. Once again the fault for the actual goal lies with Brendan Smith; he doesn't work hard enough to make Bickell uncomfortable in front of the net and makes the mistake of trying to play the puck instead. Smith had by all measurements a brutal night in game 6 but there's absolutely no question that referees Dan O'Halloran and Chris Rooney did him no favors on either of these goals.

In what felt like the blink of an eye the Wings were suddenly down 3-2 on home ice after back to back terrible calls by the officials lead to defensive breakdowns later in the play. If you had asked me to rate the officiating in this game at that point the only word I could possibly have come up with is "atrocious". In the immortal words of Bachman Turnver Overdrive, "baby you ain't seen nothing yet." At 9:43 of the third period referee Chris Rooney took it upon himself to decide an NHL playoff hockey game and potentially the entire series. Needless to say I'm with Jimmy Howard and former Blackhawk Eddie Olczyk in thinking that there is basically no way on God's green earth that a penalty shot should have been awarded in this situation. If you watch the video you will see that Colaiacovo taps Frolik's stick (not his hand) with his stick as he's attempting to close the distance between himself and the cruising forward.  This is the type of play you will see dozens of times without a penalty call in an NHL match and in fact this very game itself was chock full of similar examples. What Carlo does here is what he's been taught to do his entire life by defensive coaches who are specifically trying not to give up the breakaway. Frankly I'm not sure this would have been a penalty shot in peewee hockey so the fact that Rooney would call it here, during the crucial moments of an NHL playoff game completely boggles my mind. Naturally Frolik scored easily on the ensuing penalty shot and after a too little, too late Brunner goal it eventually stood as the game winner. Late in the game while Detroit was struggling to generate offense there was also a phantom penalty against Pavel Datsyuk and an at least questionable call against Zetterberg. At the time neither call made me particularly angry because the damage had already been done but in retrospect they were also pretty relevant in light of Brunner's goal.

Of course not everyone disagreed with Rooney's decision to award a penalty shot. Frolik didn't seem to have much of a problem with the call and neither did most Blackhawks fans I've talked to. NBC analyst, former player, coach and general manager Mike Milbury said "this is a penalty shot" while bemoaning modern NHL rules. Of course this is the same Mike Milbury who as a player once went into the stands to beat a fan with a shoe. He's also the same Mike Milbury who ran the Islanders into the ground and who's major claim to fame is trading Zdeno Chara plus a first round draft pick that would eventually become Jason Spezza for Alexei Yashin. In other words; I think we have more than enough evidence to suggest that Mike Milbury may not be possessed of the wisdom of Solomon and he definitely isn't a paragon of good judgement. Finally, while I can't confirm it I hear somewhere out there Franz Baader and Josef Kompalla thought it was an excellent call and would have given Jimmy Howard a 10 minute misconduct for threatening gestures for good measure.

In the final analysis it's fair to say that the Wings didn't play well enough to win Game 6 and close out the series against Chicago. There were a number of defensive breakdowns that lead to Hawks goals and the team failed to display enough offensive urgency as the 3rd period wore on. If the Wings had played the entire game like they played the last minute and a half they would surely be preparing for the Western Conference finals right now. These facts however don't excuse the absolutely pathetic display of officiating that also contributed to the Wing's downfall. Well, at least the television networks are happy right? Who doesn't love a game 7?

- The Sportsball Chic

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