NHL Playoffs: When a Penalty Isn’t a Penalty

The NHL playoffs are here, the time of year when the entire rule book will be altered again and again as each round progresses. By the time they reach the finals, anything short of outright attempted murder will be ignored. Pundits used to say that NHL referees “left their whistles in their pockets” during the playoffs. These days, it’s more likely they leave them back in their dressing room to avoid any temptation to do what they would normally do during regular season action.

It’s not often we agree with anything that the Toronto Star’s Damien Cox writes, but his comments in the excerpts below are on the money:

NHL officiating, it’s worth noting, has been sketchy all season, and particularly of late. Sidney Crosby mashed Marc Methot’s finger with his stick and wasn’t penalized, let alone suspended. Mark Giordano took out Cam Fowler’s knee with similar results.

Early in Tuesday’s Leafs-Caps game, Alex Ovechkin went after Russian countryman Nikita Zaitsev in the corner. All Ovechkin could see were the numbers on Zaitsev’s back, but he drove his shoulder into those numbers and Zaitsev went into the glass, hard. No call, of course. Ovechkin delivered a similar physical message last weekend when he landed a thunderous hit on Zach Werenski of the Blue Jackets, knocking him head-first into the glass.

 On Thursday night, Tampa defenceman Jake Dotchin executed a classic, Bryan Marchment-like knee-on-knee hit on Leaf super-rookie Auston Matthews, leaving Matthews in a heap on the ice. No call. Play on. In the third, Matt Hunwick and Tampa forward Nikita Kucherov got into it, and Hunwick eventually decked Kucherov at the Leaf blue line with the puck nowhere nearby. No call.

 Maybe the retirement of too many veteran officials in recent years is having an impact and there just aren’t enough good zebras to go around these days. Or perhaps the league approves of this approach to the rulebook, which is rarely interpreted in a black-and-white manner but more of a dynamic, “what it means this week” fashion. We know the league despises offence, and will avoid legislating anything that detracts from having defence and goaltending dominate.

 This is not the National Football League where every season the league searches for ways to produce more scoring. In Gary Bettman’s NHL circa 2017, skill is viewed as the icing on the cake, but not the guts of the cake.

 And so, we proceed with NHL playoff hockey, where today’s hooking penalty is tomorrow’s non-call. Look for it. It’s a true NHL tradition. One that won’t change anytime soon, because today’s referees are mentored by retired referees who did the exact same thing, year after year.

As a result, it would take a lot of willpower for the NHL to end this laughable charade. But it’s much easier to just lie, deny it’s happening and carry on.


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