Another night. Another screwed up penalty call. Another cry for competent officiating in the National Hockey League.
Two things are certain after the St. Louis Blues defeated the Boston Bruins 2-1 in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Finals in Boston on Thursday.
We now know the Blues can win their first league championship by closing things out at home on Sunday. And now we are certain this postseason will be the most scrutinized in terms of poor officiating of any in the league’s history.
The latest misadventure came shortly after Boston’s Noel Acciari was dumped to the ice by Blues’ forward Tyler Bozak midway through the third period with the score tied 1-1.
You immediately sensed this was a penalty because of the way Bozak reacted. He instinctively struck a “not me” pose to contest what he thought was going to be a tripping call by referee Kelly Sutherland.
He didn’t need to waste his time. Sutherland didn’t see a penalty, either. And play continued.
Acciari struggled to his feet. We would later learn his head struck the ice with such force he was pulled out of the game and into concussion protocol.
Meanwhile, the vindicated Bozak was off and gliding on a two-on-break with teammate David Perron which resulted in Perron’s goal at 10:32 that provided the margin of victory.
Forget that there were still 10 minutes left to make things good. Stanley Cup games are often decided by the smallest flick of a wrist; dye is cast, momentum is shifted. This one play was enough to kill the Bruins and it did.
As you might suspect, the Bruins fixated on the missed call after the game, essentially blaming it for their loss.
“It’s a missed call,” Acciari said. “It has a big outcome in the game. They score a goal off it. That ends up being the game-winner. It’s just kind of embarrassing.”
What happened next was also too predictable. After the game, a pool reporter was dispatched to ask Stephen Walkom, the league’s senior vice president and director of officiating, if he agreed the officials missed the call. Good luck with that.
“We don’t make comments on judgment calls within games,” Walkom said. “There are hundreds of judgment calls in every game. The official on the play, he viewed it and he didn’t view it as a penalty at the time.”
Poor officiating is now the NHL’s open wound. It has happened too many times during the Stanley Cups, has resulted in too many controversial outcomes, to simply dismiss it. The officiating in this league sucks. The players are bigger and faster and the officials are slower and less capable of compensating.
A few weeks ago, when the Blues were victimized when a hand pass was missed that led to St. Jose’s game-winning overtime goal, their GM, Doug Carpenter, went out of his mind. This time it was Bruins president Cam Neely and his fans slinging water bottles and trash like petulant children.
Given his chance to gripe after the game, Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy took a healthy swing.
“The non-call on Acciari, their player’s on his way to the box,” Bruce Cassidy said. “It’s right in front of the official. It’s a slew-foot. Our guy’s gone. The spotter took him out of the game for a possible concussion. It’s blatant. Big effect on the game.”
The problem is these missed calls have too often resulted in big plays. If nothing had happened in the aftermath of Acciari’s tumble, the discontent would have been temporary. But in this case, it contributed to putting the Bruins on the cusp of elimination.
“The National Hockey League’s getting a black eye with their officiating this playoffs,” Cassidy said. “Here’s another that’s going to be talked about. I thought it was a great hockey game. That call … I mean, there’s time, but it really made it difficult for us to get back in the hockey game to get the win tonight. So I’m disappointed. To answer the original question (about the officiating), it was egregious. But we’re moving on. We’re getting ready for Game 6.”
As Walkom said – and he is 100 percent correct – the Sutherland non-penalty call was a judgment and there is no way video review can be modified to oversee spontaneous decisions. You grin and bear it.
The problem now appears to be an institutional one. Even with two referees and two linesmen, too many calls, too many clearly obvious calls, are being missed. And it’s not second-guessing to say it.
This is not a problem that can be rectified by video review or placing a third referee in an off-ice position at the rink. The league needs to lean on their officials to be better or find others who are capable of being so.
Cassidy was asked what the reaction to the consequential play was on his bench.
“The reaction was ‘You missed an F’ing call,’ that was what was being said on the bench, for obvious reasons,” Cassidy said.
Adding to the discontent is the perception the officials might have been influenced by the lobbying of Blues coach Craig Berube. After Boston was awarded 14 power plays in the first three games of the series, he bitched and moaned.
“We were the least penalized team in the league in the first three rounds, now all of a sudden we’ve taken 14 penalties in one series. So, I don’t know. I don’t buy into all of that, to be honest with you,” Berube said. “I think that we could definitely be more composed after the whistle. I think we’ve let some frustration get in there where we maybe do too much after the whistle. So we’ll clean that up, for sure. But like I said, we were the least penalized team in the league coming into this series. I don’t agree with all of the calls.”
What impact did it have? In Game 4 in St. Louis, the Bruins had only two power plays. In Game 5, the Bruins received three power plays.
“I sat here two days ago, or whatever it was, and said I believe these officials are at this level because they’ve earned the right to be here,” Cassidy said. “You should be getting the best. But, I mean, the narrative changed after Game 3. There’s a complaint or whatever put forth by the opposition. It just seems to have changed everything.”
This debate can go on forever, and who knows, maybe the pendulum will slide back Boston’s way in Game 6 in an unconscious effort to make good for Thursday’s horrific call. And then it will be the Blues turn again to complain.
But what can’t be denied is officiating has become a major factor in the outcomes of games and series this season. And that’s something the NHL can’t wave off any longer.
“This has happened. I’m a fan of the game. It’s the National Hockey League’s getting a black-eye with their officiating in these playoffs, and there’s another one that’s going to be talked about,” Cassidy said.