Coach’s Challenge Becoming an Unfortunate Story Line in the Playoffs

The coach’s challenge has become a major story line less than a week into the 2016 NHL Playoffs by altering the potential outcomes of games. The rule was instituted last summer to “get it right”, but at what cost? Hockey has existed for a long time without coach’s challenges for offside or goalie interference.  Now, the NHL has plays that are an inch offside that result in excellent scoring plays being overturned and goalie interference is entering “what is a catch” in the NFL territory.

The Cost

It’s no secret that the NHL has a scoring problem.  Scoring has continued to decline to another league low of 5.42 goals per game this season according to hockey-reference.com. Instead of trying to improve upon that, the NHL implemented a rule to take away more goals. A rule that was never pushed for by the fans of the sport. The coach’s challenge has only managed to frustrate fans and slow the game down.

I’ll get it out-of-the-way now, I know it gets the call right.  However, why risk the controversy that would come from overturned goals? This topic has removed focus from the game itself during the most important part of the NHL’s season. The main reason why this rule was put into place was because of a play that happened in last season’s playoffs. The Tampa Bay Lightning won a game against the Montreal Canadiens on a play that was offside.

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Unfortunately for Montreal that was some bad puck luck for them and we move on right? Well, not when it happens to the Montreal Canadiens. Fast forward a year and here we are.

Linesmen have always made the call on the ice if a play is offside or onside in hockey. It’s assumed that they don’t get the call correct all the time, but that’s just part of the game. Video review has removed the human element of sports that wasn’t an issue for hundreds of years. Especially in hockey, where the game is based on capitalizing on your opponents mistakes. If the league continues down this path, it could be only a matter of time until penalties become review-able. Taking the judgement of on ice officials out their hands completely changes the game.

This season in the playoffs at least two goals have been overturned that altered the outcomes of games and potentially the entire series thus far.  The first close call that was overturned was in game 2 of the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks game.  Vladamir Tarasenko appeared to score the go ahead goal late in the third period for the Blues. Not so fast. When you rewind the video back eight seconds when the Blues enter the zone, Jori Lehtera was offside by the slimmest of margins. Goal is overturned and the score remains tied. The Blackhawks would score a few minutes later on a goal that would be reviewed twice.  Once to make sure the puck went in the net and the second time a coach’s challenge for goalie interference. The goal stands and the Blackhawks win. The Blues lead the series 2-1 right now, but could have had a strangle hold on the series potentially being up 3-0 in the series.

For exhibit two we head to Brooklyn for game 3 of the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers series. The Panthers are up 2-0 in the middle of the second period and Aaron Ekblad appears to put Florida in a commanding 3-0 lead. Again, not so fast. Play the tape back 11 seconds this time and you’ll find Jonathan Huberdeau is again offside by the slightest of margins to negate the goal. The Islanders would pick up a ton of momentum from the overturned goal and eventually go on to win the game 4-3 in overtime to take a 2-1 series lead.

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Two plays that were perhaps less than inch offside that have been good goals forever in the NHL were overturned and altered the outcome of a playoff game.

Where Does it Stop?

How many times throughout the game do you think a play was offside by the same margin or worse than Lehtera or Huberdeau, but wasn’t reviewed because it wasn’t a scoring play? If we’re going to review offside and goalie interference on scoring plays, then it should be able to be reviewed in all situations. We want to get it right, don’t we? The focus is on only scoring plays, but we shouldn’t forget about the offside calls that may be onside that take away scoring plays. Getting those calls correct should be just as important.

Here’s another scenario for you. A player comes into the zone takes a shot that goes wide and goes around the boards. The opposing team picks up the puck and go on an odd man rush the other way and score. What if the player who took the original shot that missed the net was offside? Why can’t the coach challenge that his player was offside? Thus resulting in the opposing team not having a scoring opportunity at the other end.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this rule has too many holes in it. The league rushed a rule into place without thinking it all the way through. Unfortunately the NHL now has a scenario where they’ll have to retract the rule completely or make big changes to the rule. This has overshadowed what has been a great few days to kick off the playoffs. If not for the coach’s challenge, the two plays I mentioned would likely have gone unnoticed in terms of them being slightly offside. The biggest fear could be a scenario of a team scoring a Stanley Cup winning goal on a offside play. Imagine the on ice celebration has begun with equipment all over the ice, but a review deems the play to be offside. Do the officials and the league stop the celebration or quickly exit the ice as we saw in 1999 between the Buffalo Sabres and Dallas Stars?

This rule has done more harm than good. It brings the mistakes of the officials into the spotlight, it decreases the amount of goals, and causes long delays to the game for reviews. The rule cannot be changed in season, but the league should seriously consider doing away with the rule after the season.  The difficult part may be going back on the review system. The idea of a scoring play being offside has been brought to the forefront now. If the league retracts the rule someone will spend the time to review the goals and point out all of the offside goals that are being allowed. The NHL is in a difficult spot, but one they themselves created.