NHL Playoff Officiating has Been Awful

In front of some amazing goaltending, the Boston Bruins won their Eastern Conference Final series against the Carolina Hurricanes and are awaiting the winner of the St. Louis Blues vs. San Jose Sharks battle in the Western Conference Final to see who they will play for the Stanley Cup. The fans, however, have been subjected to an additional battle which features NHL referees versus almost everybody. In a word, NHL officiating during the playoffs has been awful.

Are Hand Passes Legal?

By now, everyone has seen or read about the end of the Sharks vs. Blues game on Wednesday night. The Sharks won 5-4 in overtime, giving them an all-important road win. Blues fans and even some Sharks fans would have preferred for the win to have come at the end of a remarkable shot or set of passes across the ice, or even from a crowded scrum in the Blues’ crease. Sadly, that is not what happened.

Ultimately most Sharks fans don’t really care how they got the win. If their team ends up in the Stanley Cup Final they will be ecstatic. But, Blues fans will forever be stuck with the sour taste from the hand pass that the highly skilled NHL referees missed, and which led to the Sharks’ OT-winning goal.

Four officials were on the ice. The play took long enough to develop that one of them should have had their attention on the general area of the Blues’ goal. But, there was no whistle and no call.

A day later, Michael Hurley of CBS-Boston described the play perfectly: “Yet despite the stakes, not a single one of the four on-ice officials managed to see the most obvious of obvious hand passes, when Timo Meier swatted a puck out of mid-air in the St. Louis end of the ice. His clear and obvious hand pass sent the puck to Gustav Nyquist, who then passed over to Erik Karlsson, who scored the game-winning goal.” Game over. Sharks exit the ice with a win and the Blues are dumbfounded.

Is Wrapping Your Stick Around Your Opponent’s Head Allowed?

Another instance of how bad the officiating has been is from the Eastern Conference Final. In Game 3 between the Bruins and Hurricanes, Brad Marchand wrapped his stick around the neck/head of ‘Canes captain Justin Williams and threw him to the ice. Again, top-notch NHL officials were all over the ice and yet all they saw was Williams bounce up off the ice and grab Marchand by the chinstrap.

Marchand slid around the ice afterward making the letter “C” with his finger, taunting Williams as the captain went to the penalty box. On May 16, David Alter at nbcnews.com wrote about Marchand’s antics and how he gets a free pass from NHL officials which taints the Bruins’ success. Alter wrote: “…In the series against the Hurricanes, [Marchand] took a swipe at a player’s head with his stick, leading to an altercation that saw only the Hurricanes penalized. In neither case did he receive so much as a penalty.”

NHL Officiating, Answers Hard to Come By

There is a tension that exists in every sport between the significance of the game, the rules, and the officials. This is not a new issue but one that has been a part of not only the NHL playoffs but playoffs in every sport. “Follow the rules” vs “Let’em play” is the essence of that tension. Also, there is the adage that folks don’t want the officials affecting the outcome of a game.

The answers are hard to come by for the simple reason that every situation is different and every fan base is going to be impacted either positively or negatively. For example, had the hand pass been called and the Sharks’ OT-winning goal waved off, Blues fans would have agreed with that call. But, if the Blues then went down and scored and won, then Sharks fans would be crying foul about “calling ticky-tack” penalties that influence a game’s outcome.

Erik Karlsson, Joakim Ryan, Martin Jones
San Jose Sharks celebrate. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

If Marchand had been penalized – as he should have been – for trying to attach his stick to Williams’ upper-body, perhaps there would not have been a power-play goal scored by the Bruins in the next sequence when only Williams was in the penalty box. Perhaps momentum might have favored the Hurricanes. Perhaps. Perhaps. Perhaps.

The bottom line is that it will take consistency in applying the rules that butt up against the “let ’em play” mentality. It will take an agreement as to how the NHL wants to be seen regarding its officiating. Video review is an option that is increasingly talked about, but is it worth the game delays? Where do they draw the line for what is review-able? And, fans are quick to point out, the idiocy that says an offside can be reviewed but not a questionable hand pass.

For now, the league is considered horrible where its officiating is concerned, and that is not good in the midst of its grandest stage, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.