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When NHL game management goes awry

A seemingly harmless penalty call early in the third period nearly turned the game on its head.

St. Louis Blues v Montreal Canadiens Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

Two minutes into the third period, the Montreal Canadiens were starting to engage cruise control. A 4-3 intermission lead had quickly expanded to 6-3, and the visitors were the proud owners of the last five tallies — and all the momentum in the world. A frustrated Torey Krug took Nick Suzuki into the boards, cross-checking and face-washing the Canadiens’ captain well after the puck was gone.

Referees Jon McIsaac (a 10-year veteran at the NHL level) and Brandon Schrader (who made his debut in 2019) whistled Krug for cross-checking. Stunningly, they also hauled Suzuki to the penalty box, for the grievious offence of taking Krug’s abuse with a smile and making the St. Louis defender shed one of his gloves.

Welcome to game management.

The officials’ logic was transparent for experienced NHL fans. Simply put: handing a team with a three-goal lead another power play would be “affecting the outcome.” The spectre of a blowout could lead to physical retaliation and even fisticuffs. The “best” decision was therefore to take one player from each team, and play at even strength. That would “make it fair.”

Clearly neither of our officials from Saturday night remembers the Edmonton Oilers of the 1980s. The Oilers’ offence was so potent that the team would intentionally take coincidental minors in order to give Wayne Gretzky and company more room to operate. The “Gretzky Rule” was established in the summer of 1985 to stop the Oilers from exploiting this loophole, and would not be reversed until the 1992-93 season.

Where am I going with this?

Well, the officials, in their zeal to do nothing, had just created an offence-geared situation (which favours trailing teams) while simultaneously removing Montreal’s best offensive player from the ice. The St. Louis Blues, naturally, took advantage, as Vladimir Tarasenko cut the lead to two goals a mere 13 seconds after play resumed. That goal further set off a cascade of Blues pressure for the remainder of the period, with Nathan Walker and Robert Thomas both visibly looking skyward after missing golden chances. A 6-3 game could have easily become a 6-6 barnburner, and it would have all started from the decision to not make a decision by Messrs. McIsaac and Schrader.

‘Hang on,’ many will say, pointing at Kaiden Guhle’s turnover as proof that the Habs were the instruments of their own troubles. But that should not invalidate the fact that Guhle should have never been in that situation to begin with. As a hyperbolic example, three mistaken penalty shot calls should not be excused just because the goalie stopped them all. Indeed, shrugging off the officials as just another obstacle, an attitude held by hockey purists and players alike, simply enables a culture where officials can dodge any responsibility — and consequence — for their decision making.

Look, when Grady Jarrett gets flagged for tackling Tom Brady, the narrative isn’t “Jarrett should have tackled him softer” or “the game didn’t end with that play.” The narrative is rightfully centred around officiating subjectivity when it comes to roughing the passer. When officials in other sports make mistakes, they are penalized, often in a manner that can be noticed by the public, which creates a meritocracy that, while not without fault, ostensibly ensures that the best officials helm the most important games.

This system does not publicly exist in hockey. Instead, officiating mediocrity is propagated by a culture that insists that it is up to the players and the coaches to push through every obstacle imaginable. A culture where even considering “outside” reasons for defeats is an admission of weakness. Ironically enough, excuses are all we hear when anyone does attempt to put officiating standards in the spotlight.

“The game is too fast.”

“I didn’t see it.”

“It’s just human nature to make mistakes.”

True, but think of the reaction if a player had said the same things when confronted with a game-costing turnover or a multi-game slump? That player would be laughed out of the league, told to shape up (quickly) or head down to the minors. Maybe its about time that the same standard should apply to the officials as well — for the calls that they make, and for the calls that they don’t make.

There’s an adage that ends with “...or get off the pot.” Sage advice, lest one reveals what they happen to be full of.