The St. Louis Blues and San Jose Sharks played a very tight Game 3 in the Western Conference Final last night, with two-goal games by Joe Thornton, Erik Karlsson, and David Perron, and strong performances from a variety of different players.
All of that was forgotten in a moment, though, when the final goal was allowed despite a clear and undeniable hand pass by Timo Meier. Amidst a chorus of boos, the referees skated off the ice and allowed the goal, leaving a trail of garbage, controversy, and unanswered questions in their wake.
Meier’s Hand Pass Clouds Result
The Sharks forced overtime late in the third period when Logan Couture, the Conn Smythe frontrunner for San Jose, knocked a puck past Jordan Binnington after consecutive icing calls, tying the game. It was another in a long string of clutch goals by a player who has consistently turned his game to another level in postseason play (he has 101 points in 113 career playoff games).
Overtime started, and both teams got several good chances to ice the game away. With just over five minutes elapsed, the Sharks entered the zone with a three-on-two advantage, and shortly thereafter, Karlsson shot a puck through Binnington’s five hole into the back of the net. But there was an immediate protest from the goalie and other Blues players.
The Blues were arguing a hand pass, an illegal play in the NHL rulebook, which should have stopped play and disallowed the goal. Though the officials conferenced and seemingly talked to Toronto (where NHL headquarters are located), they ultimately signaled the goal and skated off the ice.
NHL’s Hand Pass Rule
The rule in question for this play is Rule 79.1, which reads: “a player shall be permitted to stop or ‘bat’a puck in the air with his open hand, or push it along the ice with his hand, and the play shall not be stopped unless, in the opinion of the on-ice officials, he has directed the puck to a teammate, or has allowed his team to gain an advantage, and subsequently possession and control of the puck is obtained by a player of the offending team, either directly or deflected off any player or official.”
On its face, the Blues seem to have an undeniable case for a stoppage in play. Meier clearly plays the puck with his hand, and the puck clearly goes to his teammate, Gustav Nyquist. Though it appears on several camera angles like the puck bounced off of Blues defenseman Jay Bouwmeester’s shin pad en route to Nyquist, that should not affect the outcome, as the rule states that play may still be stopped if the puck is “deflected off any player or official.”
When the referees left the ice, Blues players were furious. Brayden Schenn smashed his stick against the glass, and Binnington, who is usually almost unbelievably calm on the ice, slammed his stick as well. After the game, the media’s pool reporter spoke to series supervisor Kay Whitmore. Below is the transcript of that conversation:
Per Whitmore, the issue was not whether or not a hand pass occurred on the play, but rather that the play was not reviewable. Even if Toronto or the on-ice officials believed there was a hand pass, they were unable to overturn the call unless the officials on the ice saw the play as it happened and corrected it.
Right Call, Wrong Rule
By the letter of the law, there’s no question that the referees made the right decision after the game, just as there is no question that Meier made an illegal hand pass that went unnoticed. The officials were not at liberty to overturn the call once it had been officially made on the ice.
The only question now is whether that call is just. This outcome will doubtlessly spark a wave of discussions about whether NHL official review should be expanded, and it may well result in increased capabilities for the referees to reexamine a play and get their decision right. That would be an important step forward for a league that has seen too many controversial plays decide games in these playoffs.
Of course, that won’t help the Blues, who are now down 2-1 in the series whether the call was right or not. They seem committed to looking forward, with interim head coach Craig Berube telling the media on Thursday, “we’ve moved on already.” Game 4 takes place Friday night in St. Louis, and it will become clear very quickly whether the Blues are telling the truth, or whether their minds are still with Game 3 and the hand pass that wasn’t.