Years ago, a fellow hockey enthusiast suggested that in a symbolic gesture, NHL referees ought to halt play with two minutes left in a playoff game and ceremonially skate off the ice because they weren’t going to do anything from then on anyway.
That was the perception: No official would call a penalty in crunch time or overtime. To its credit, the league has made mature strides since then. In Game 5 of the Islanders-Panthers series, the Islanders had a penalty shot called against them in overtime, and received two power plays. Still, there is a trace in hockey’s bloodstream that says almost nothing should be called in overtime, that “the players should decide it.” That trace should not be there.
There is no such thing as a non-call, as we saw in Game 3 at Barclays Center Tuesday night. A non-call on the Lightning’s Brian Boyle was a call in itself. With Thomas Hickey dazed and unable to get back in position, Tampa Bay effectively had a 10-second power play, which was enough to win the game on Boyle’s goal and possibly turn the series.
Whether it should have been a penalty is up for grabs. Basically, if you were pulling for the Islanders, you thought the hit was illegal. Jack Capuano on Wednesday stuck by his postgame feeling that it was too high. If you were rooting against the Islanders, you thought there was nothing wrong with it. Neutral observers were split. Martin Biron, TV analyst and former goalie, went on Twitter and declared it “clean.” Ken Campbell of The Hockey News, who is in Brooklyn for the series, wrote that the non-call was “a damn shame.”
Having watched the clip over and over, I’m still not sure. But I will add this: In an era when player safety is foremost in everyone’s mind, the benefit of the doubt should go to the guy who gets hit. Old-fashioned frontier justice can get dangerous. And if something really is a penalty, it is a penalty in the first minute of the game, the third period of a blowout or at 2:48 of overtime.
We all know that playoffs are just different. Hits are harder, higher and a little later. Feelings run hotter. Officials are second-guessed more. “It blows your mind sometimes,” John Tavares said about not hearing a whistle on the Boyle play. Then again, Dallas Stars coach Lindy Ruff made a reference to penalty calls in his postgame news conference Tuesday, despite the likelihood that it was not a whistle that gave his team a 6-1 trouncing from the Blues.
The Lightning was originally unhappy about the “thunderous” (as coach Jon Cooper put it) check that Hickey put on Jonathan Drouin Tuesday. Drouin, having recovered and returned healthy enough to set up the tying goal with 38.4 seconds left, later said he had no problem with it. Capuano indicated that Hickey was in no condition to tell the media his opinion of Boyle’s hit, which led to Boyle’s goal.
“Just seeing Thomas after the game, bleeding out of his mouth and his teeth . . . I mean, he got hit in the head,” Capuano said on a conference call Wednesday morning, hours after having criticized the non-call during his postgame news conference and just before the league announced it is not leveling any discipline on Boyle. “I’m not going to change anything. I’m not going to change my opinion on that.”
No question, Capuano’s team could have avoided the whole messy situation had it held onto the game it should have won. None of us would be talking about a controversial overtime play if the Islanders had: a) finished their dominant first period with a lead rather than a 1-1 tie, or b) been more vigilant in their own end during the final minute of regulation.
But even though the Islanders have themselves to blame, they still might have a point about non-calls in general. If hockey people want to “let the players decide it,” the biggest guys with the sharpest elbows are going to win every time.