Brandon Prust Tests Perception vs. Reality

It didn’t take long to find our first “controversy” in the Stanley Cup Playoffs between officials and on-ice personnel. Aside from the usual moans and groans from conspiracy theorists, the Quarterfinal round came and went with no apparent friction. That can no longer be said, however, after Brandon Prust met Brad Watson in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals.

Red Flags

Never mind the fact that the Montreal Canadiens were on the verge of heading to Tampa Bay down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. That’s not important.

Totally disregard the fact that Brandon Prust served 31 of Montreal’s 53 penalty minutes in Game 2. It probably wasn’t his fault, or so the spin goes.

And those five unanswered goals, including Steven Stamkos’ first of the post-season? Completely irrelevant.

Or is it?

These are just a few of the components that factored into Brandon Prust’s confrontation with veteran referee Brad Watson in Sunday’s game between the Canadiens and Lightning, which began with a roughing penalty assessed in the first period.

While disagreements with the officials are certainly nothing new in the NHL, what happened in the third period was anything but common.

After Brandon Prust took his third and fourth penalties of the game at the same time – a fighting major and a tripping minor – Watson’s emotions were caught by television cameras, as he spoke sternly to Prust while skating with the nine-year veteran to the penalty box – a practice referees are not known to do.

Watson was also seen pointing at Prust, as if he were lecturing him, before serving up a 10 minute game misconduct.

While we’ll most likely never know what was really said in the exchange between the two, Prust took the opportunity to get a leg up on Watson when he spoke to the media.

“I thought the original call was kind of soft and I let him know it on the way to the penalty box,” said Prust after Sunday’s 6-2 contest.

“He kept provoking me. He came to the box and called me every name in the book. He called me a piece of you know what, a mother-f’er, coward, said he’d drive me right out of this building. I kept going, ‘Yeah OK, yeah OK, yeah OK.’ He kept on me, he kept on me. I kept saying ‘Yeah OK.’ I wasn’t looking at him and he [gave Prust the unsportsmanlike]. That’s the ref he is. He tried to play God. He tries to control the game and he did that tonight.”

This is clearly one side of the story, told in a very editorializing fashion.

Did Watson use profanity? It’s plausible, but who cares?

Did Watson have harsh words for Prust? It wouldn’t be surprising to find out he did.

Prust’s storytelling, however, omits his part in the ordeal. Are we supposed to believe he’s never used an expletive? Sure, if the Tooth Fairy owes you money under your pillow. Unfortunately, Prust’s account of the events is the only explanation fans will likely hear. Brad Watson is a narcissistic egomaniac who gets high on flaunting his power.

While nothing could be further from the truth, that’s the perception that Prust has passed along to all of us. He’s just a blue-collared hockey player trying to win a game for his team – a victim to the league’s evil authoritarian figures.

That’s not to say Watson helped his own cause. After all, he was clearly seen giving Prust “the business.”

But what about the initial call that brought the two together for a skate to the penalty box? The two minute tripping penalty for upending Lightning goalie Ben Bishop, that is.

“You have to kind of think (Prust) is going in there for one reason, right?,” said Bolts coach Jon Cooper. “He wasn’t going to get the puck from him. He had one thing on his mind and it was probably to make sure he injured him. Whether that’s the case or not, I don’t know.”

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Although Prust denied intending to even trip Bishop, adding an accusation that the Tampa Bay netminder “flopped like he normally does,” it’s not the first time the fourth liner has been thought to have intended to injure the opposing goaltender.

Montreal Canadiens winger Brandon Prust isn’t apologizing for his pitchfork of goalie Craig Anderson in Game 5 of their series against the Ottawa Senators. — Tim Baines, Ottawa Sun

In Prust’s defense (on this one), there was jostling in front of the net, with Anderson seen taking some healthy cuts at the Montreal forward with his stick. So in this instance, Prust may actually have a valid point in saying the Ottawa goalie “started it.”

However, the 6’0” winger has taken his shots at Bishop before, in the regular season, including a hard check against the boards on Mar. 16.

Regardless, the complexion of the two instances couldn’t be further apart. The Habs were up 3-1 in the series over the Senators when Prust’s “spear” on Craig Anderson took place. On Sunday, they were down 6-2 to the league’s top scoring team, while staring down a road trip to Tampa’s barn down 0-2 in the series.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out what Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust was trying to accomplish with his antics during and after Game Two of his team’s Eastern Conference Semifinal series with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He was trying to distract attention away from the way his team (and Prust himself) came unglued and got dismantled in falling behind two games to none in the series.

Prust locked in on a convenient target: referee Brad Watson. Sensitive soul that he is, Prust claims that Watson was verbally abusive to him in the first period without provocation. In the third period, Prust’s equipment-throwing tirade earned him an early shower. — Former NHL Official Paul Stewart, Hockey Buzz

In other words, Prust wasn’t being bullied by a megalomaniac in stripes. He knew exactly what he was doing, and stooped even further by giving what common sense and logic calls an embellished account of what happened to the media afterwards.

If that’s not enough to satisfy the pursuit for truth, a look at their reputations should settle the score.

Comparing Reputations

While most fans (on average) will tend to side with Prust in this instance, that speaks more to the overall perception of officials in the league, not Brad Watson. And although Watson’s name is now in the public eye, his reputation and body of work speaks for itself.

Watson is a 19-year veteran NHL official.  He’s worked over 1,000 career games and more than 150 playoff matches. — Scouting the Refs

The 19-year veteran called his first NHL game in 1996, and his first playoff game in 2000. Watson has since hit the 1,000 game threshold earlier this season, and was assigned to work this year’s Stadium Series matchup between the Kings and Sharks – hardly the resumé of an “out-of-control” official.

In his piece on Hockey Buzz, Paul Stewart (cited above) calls Watson “highly intelligent” and a “solid referee.”

“To me, assigning Brad to referee a game is the officiating equivalent of slipping on a comfortable pair of shoes,” added Stewart. “You can trust the fit and know the quality is pretty good. He is one of the current NHL referees that I consider to be among the better and more consistently solid ones in the game.”

If Stewart’s praises are deemed “protecting their own,” though, perhaps the fact that Watson has avoided significant trouble for 19 years should bring validity to his established reputation.

Brandon Prust, on the other hand, has made a career out of agitating opponents, scoring more than six goals in a season one time in nine seasons.

In 451 NHL regular season games, Prust has notched 108 points, while racking up 977 penalty minutes – almost as many games as Watson has officiated since 1996.

Prust’s role in the playoffs hasn’t changed either, whether it be his marks in New York, or Montreal. In 49 playoff games, the agitator’s career high in points is three, tallied this year. His time in the sin bin, however, stands at 116 minutes.

With television exposure increasing by the year, though, Watson has to know what his encounter with Prust looked like. In the guise of perception, the experienced referee gave official bashers more ammunition to run with in making absurd narratives about the men in stripes.

Officials are expected to hold themselves to a higher standard than the players, staying “above the fray.”

Whatever motivated Watson in this case, whatever actually was said, we know this much: he won’t be skating any more games in this series, and certainly no more Canadiens games if they advance. But if the tone of their discussion was as far over the line as Prust suggests, he won’t be working anymore playoff games, period. That’ll hit him in the wallet and damage his reputation more than Prust’s words ever could.

Clearly there are no winners here. — Allan Muir, Sports Illustrated

Again, we’ll more than likely never know what was really said between Watson and Prust. And while it’s unlikely Watson will skate on in the playoffs past the Semifinal round, it’s a punishment based on perception, and possibly not the truth.

There’s an awful lot of officials sitting anywhere but on the ice come playoff time. If Brad Watson is to be vilified in lieu of a fourth line agitator, it’s time to reassess our own perception.